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excerpted from: Mark Kittrell, Love on Trial: an American Scandal in Black and White, 4 Journal of Law and Family Studies 331 (2002)(54 Footnotes)
"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line."-W.E.B. DuBois
Alice Jones and Leonard Rhinelander married in October 1924. They married after a trying, three-year courtship, which survived attempts by Leonard's father to break the courtship and Leonard's frequent and lengthy trips out-of-state. Their marriage made national headlines because marriage into the Rhinelander family allowed Alice to be the first black woman to be listed in the Social Register.
In the 1920s, the Rhinelander name connoted power and wealth."[The Rhinelanders] had been rich and powerful when the Vanderbilts were still farming on Staten Island." Leonard Rhinelander stood poised to inherit a vast family fortune and real estate business. In contrast, Alice Jones came from a family of modest means: both her mother and father emigrated from England where they worked as servants. In the United States, her father operated a taxicab. However, what would become more important for the fate of the marriage between Alice and Leonard was that Alice's father was not wholly white. When the local newspapers discovered the marriage, the headlines read, "Rhinelander's Son Marries Daughter of Colored Man." Soon, the crush of media fell upon the Jones household where the young married couple were staying and the marriage made headlines across the country. Two weeks later, Leonard disappeared with his family and he filed an annulment suit claiming that Alice misrepresented her race to him.
The annulment trial proved to be a spectacle. Both sides employed successful and well-known counsel who each utilized fiery rhetoric. Rhinelander used a former New York Supreme Court justice, Isaac Mills, as trial counsel; Jones retained a former prot�g� of Mills, Lee Parsons Davis. Mills delved into the nature of the personal relationship between Leonard and Alice. He used her race and her lower class upbringing against her; he wanted to illustrate that Alice used sex to trick Leonard into marrying her. Simultaneously, he portrayed Leonard as a "dupe," a boy who did not possess the faculties to make rational, good decisions to avoid the temptations of a woman of color. Mills sought to prove that Alice duped Leonard about her non-white ancestry and lured him into marriage through sexual wiles. He introduced "tawdry" love letters that required the judge to clear women from the courtroom. In addition, he launched character assaults upon Alice and her family during his questioning, casting aspersions upon the choices of Alice's sister to marry a black man, and upon Alice's mother who bore a child out of wedlock before marrying George Jones.
Alice's counsel, Lee Parsons Davis, sought to turn the tables upon Leonard and corrected the notion that Leonard was a dupe tricked by Alice. He elicited verbal testimony from Leonard and physical testimony from Alice, which demonstrated Leonard knew he married a woman of color and that his father pressured him into ending the marriage. When the case was given to the jury, the jury found (1) that Alice was "colored," (2) that she did not hide this fact with silence, (3) she did not conceal her race to get Leonard to marry her, (4) Leonard knew that she was not white, and (5) that Leonard married Alice knowing that she was colored. The court refused to annul the marriage.
It took a few years after the trial for the controversy to fade away. After the annulment suit, Leonard sued Alice for divorce while Alice sued Leonard for abandonment and Leonard's father for alienation-of-affection. Eventually, Alice and the Rhinelanders settled in 1930. In exchange for accepting the terms of the divorce, Alice agreed to drop her lawsuits and to receive a $31,500 settlement and $3,600 annuity for life.
III. Context of Race Relations in Early-Twentieth Century America
To understand the significance of the Rhinelander annulment trial, it helps to know about the state of race relations in early-twentieth century America. People of color faced laws and attitudes that routinely discriminated against them due to their race. Until the Supreme Court's 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia, Forty-one states and colonies had banned interracial marriages. Researchers through the 1920s often used the banner of eugenics to scientifically explain the inferiority of non-white races. Society forced blacks, and presumably other people of color, to abide by the "one-drop rule." This "rule" stated that an individual with any trace of non-white blood rendered that individual non-white.
The negative consequences of the one-drop rule led many non-whites to "pass" as whites in society. "Passing" entailed living within the culture of white America while evading the societal radar that sought to detect threads of color. White America worried enough about passing to produce literature aimed at exposing those who would pass as white. "The phenomenon of racial 'passing' was at its height in the 1920s . . . . 'Are you Positively Sure that You are Not Part Negro?' read the provocative blurb for a 1929 publication, From Negro to Caucasian, or How the Ethiopian is Changing His Skin."' Additionally, the realities behind "passing" tore apart non-white communities because non-whites believed that individuals who passed as white had abandoned their own race which reinforced the notion that non-whites were inferior. Alice Jones' non-white neighbors scorned her family because they felt the Joneses were passing as white by attending a predominantly white church and allowing their daughters to date white men.
Professors Lewis and Ardizzone argue that Alice Jones symbolized a threat to the prevailing attitudes regarding racial identity in America. She was essentially placed on trial for "passing" as a white, even though she contended throughout the trial that Leonard knew she was not white. She threatened these attitudes of race by defying racial categorization and highlighting that race was more a social construction than a scientific category; Alice's race depended upon the reactions of society for definition. The authors ask, "What is race, anyway? Was it possible for a woman with some African or Indian heritage to be white?" Alice certainly played the role of an individual who belonged to white society: she attended white churches, she dated white men, and she generally did not associate with her town's black community. However, people were quick to question her status as a white due to her "dusky" skin and darker complexion. Essentially, Alice existed in a space between black and white societies. If Alice could "pass" as white, then her existence affirms that the concept of race depends less upon biology, and more upon social constructs. If race is a social construct, then the prejudiced reasoning that fueled racist Jim Crow laws could be subverted and discounted.
IV. Racial Rhetoric at the Annulment Trial
However, Alice's trial counsel, Lee Parsons Davis, willingly ignored this space that Alice occupied in society. Her attorney stated during opening statements, "[Alice] for the purpose of this trial . . . admits that she has colored blood." Due to the one-drop rule, this admission made her black in the eyes of society. The admission stunned Rhinelander's counsel because they anticipated that Alice would attempt to prove she was white. Davis's trial strategy seemed to place the notion that it was wrong to marry across racial lines upon trial. Unfortunately, both attorneys relied upon familiar racial stereotypes to advance their case.
Rhinelander's counsel, Judge Isaac Mills, was the worst offender. In his opening statement, he characterized Alice as a predatory, oversexualized vamp who sought to marry a rich, white man in order to become a white member of the social elite. During his direct examination of Leonard Rhinelander, Mills introduced the "tawdry" love letters Alice wrote to Leonard. These letters contained passages which supposedly revealed the predatory, sexual nature of Alice, "[h]ow I could carress you dear. Because you no [sic] you love me to carress you dear." Mills used Alice's poor spelling and grammar to illustrate her low level of literacy and lack of upper class education. Additionally, as further evidence of Alice's oversexualized nature, Mills elicited testimony from Leonard about Alice's prior sexual encounters with another man.
Lee Parsons Davis countered Mills' characterization of Alice as an oversexed creature by flipping the racial argument into an argument about gender roles. Davis managed to trip-up Leonard during his cross-examination and forced Leonard to admit that he pursued Alice, he convinced her to spend pre-marital weekends in hotel rooms, and that he betrayed her trust by allowing intimate love letters to be read in court. These were acts unbecoming of the ideal gentleman and Davis shrewdly shifted the focus of the trial from Mills' vampy Alice to a broken down, disgraced Leonard. By defusing the negative racial and class characterizations of Alice and focusing on the proper gender roles of Leonard and Alice, Davis created a more sympathetic Alice for the jury.
However, Davis' strategy merely reinforced stereotypical notions of race and gender. Davis pulled the most outrageous stunt of the trial when he had Alice "testify" by disrobing for the judge, jury and attorneys. The purpose of this event was to see the color of Alice's skin and to determine if Leonard knew that Alice had colored blood. However, this stunt and the rhetoric used during his presentation of the case dangerously played with traditional stereotypes of young, black, single women. By failing to question the assumption that Leonard should have known that interracial romance meant trouble, Davis implicitly condoned the prevailing stereotype that interracial marriage should not occur. By ordering Alice to disrobe in front of the jury box, Alice's own counsel dehumanized his client and unintentionally recalled the era when blacks were routinely paraded in front of crowds before they were auctioned as slaves. Additionally, Davis insinuated that Alice was an emotionally weak individual who became easy prey for Leonard's aggressive advances.
The national black media criticized both attorneys for playing up prejudices. Judge Mills received the brunt of the criticism regarding his use of racial stereotyping to win a case. Mills made direct appeals to the all-white jury's prejudices, "[t]here isn't a father among you who would not rather see his own son in his casket than to see him wedded to a mulatto woman . . . ." However, Davis also received criticism for suggesting that it would be difficult for individuals to set aside their prejudices when it was time to decide the case, almost admitting that it was difficult to vote for a poor black woman who married a wealthy scion to one of New York's most powerful families. However, Davis' rhetoric and strategy saved the case for Alice and allowed Alice to prevail by settling with the Rhinelander family.
Professors Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone tell a very compelling story that deals with many of the issues confronting racial identity in America. What does it mean to be black, white, or multiracial? Do the new questions regarding racial identity on the U.S. Census signify a new paradigm in race relations? The answers to these questions have importance for the United States in the 21st century because they will allow us to deal better with issues of race. If anything, Love on Trial illustrates that concepts of race are fluid and that any answers given to these questions will evolve and grow as the concepts of race evolve and grow.
[a1]. Junior Staff Member, Journal of Law & Family Studies.