The One-Drop Rule in American History

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  • 0:03 One Drop of Blood
  • 1:28 History of the One-Drop Rule
  • 3:35 The One-Drop Rule Today
  • 5:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

In this lesson, you'll learn the definition of the one-drop rule and its specifications, and you'll be given its historical background in American history and the significance of the one-drop rule today.

One Drop of Blood

In November 2013, white supremacist and neo-Nazi Craig Cobb appeared on The Trisha Show with black host Trisha Goddard. Cobb was infamous for his attempt to convert Leith, North Dakota, into a purely white town. Cobb was asked to appear on the show under the condition that he allow Trisha to reveal his DNA test results on television. To his shock, Cobb learned that he was not purely white, and that he was actually 14% sub-Saharan African. According to the one-drop rule, this would make him black.

The one-drop rule, also known as hypo-descent by anthropologists, states that any person who has even a drop of black blood would be considered black according to American law. This one-drop rule was rooted in the Virginia General Assembly's Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which mandated that every person be clearly defined in terms of their race upon birth.

Back then, they didn't have the various race classifications that the US Census has today; instead there were only two options: white and black. There had to be a system to classify who was white and who was black. The solution was that the US Census would classify anyone that had an ounce of black ancestry as colored. This was to prevent any black person with light skin to pass as a white person.

History of the One-Drop Rule

When the white Europeans came to the Americas after Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, there was no question as to who was white and who was Native American. The brown skin color and distinct facial features of the Native Americans clearly differentiated them from the white new settlers on their land.

When Africans were brought to America to be slaves, there was also no problem in distinguishing them from white people or Native Americans. In the era of American slavery from 1619 to 1865, freedom and social status were often affirmed by skin color alone, and black people were often enslaved.

Determining race by skin color became complicated when miscegenation, or intermixing of races, started to occur. One example of miscegenation involves the famous Booker T. Washington, who was an influential educator and adviser to the president of the United States. He was born in 1856 of an unknown white father and black mother. Miscegenation often made it difficult to determine if someone was black, white, or Native American. The more generations of families with miscegenation, the more blurry the distinction became. This was frightening to those whites who were afraid that miscegenation was a threat to the purity of the white race.

This was why Dr. Walter Plecker, a registrar of Virginia's Bureau of Vital Statistics, created the one-drop rule in 1924. But this one-drop rule made an exception for Native American ancestry - mostly because it was discovered that a distinguished white family had ancestral roots stretching as far back the sons of Pocahontas. Because of this, the one-drop rule specified that even if a person was 1/16th or less Native American, they would still be considered white. But someone would be considered black if he or she had one drop of Negro blood. The term 'negro' was used at the time, until it was replaced by 'black' in the late 1960s.

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