Blogs > HNN > Renee Romano. Review of Elizabeth M. Smith-Pryor's Property Rites: The Rhinelander Trial, Passing, and the Protection of Whiteness (University of North Carolina Press, 2009)

Dec 17, 2009 10:19 am

Renee Romano. Review of Elizabeth M. Smith-Pryor's Property Rites: The Rhinelander Trial, Passing, and the Protection of Whiteness (University of North Carolina Press, 2009)

[Renee Romano is Associate Professor of History at Oberlin College]

On a fall evening in 1921, eighteen-year old Leonard “Kip” Rhinelander, the son of one of New York’s oldest and wealthiest families, met Alice Jones, a 22-year old maid. After a complicated romance, the two married in 1924. But only one month after their wedding, news reports began to circulate that Rhinelander’s new bride was “colored,” the daughter of a white British mother and a father of “colored” West Indian origins. Under intense pressure from his family, Leonard deserted his new wife and appealed to the New York courts to annul his marriage on the grounds that Alice had deceived him about her race. The 1925 Rhinelander annulment trial became a media spectacle, and as historian Elizabeth Smith-Pryor asserts in her fine new book, a “social drama” that revealed the anxieties of white northerners about racial instability in response to sweeping cultural and demographic changes during the Jazz Age.

Closely analyzing the Rhinelander trial in the historical context of the 1920s, Smith-Pryor explores why the public became obsessed with the tale of Kip Rhinelander and Alice Jones and what that obsession reveals about the expansion and strengthening of racial hierarchies in the North in the period after the Great Migration. Two migrations—that of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe to the United States, and that of southern blacks to northern cities—intensified anxieties in the North about how to determine race and how to uphold and maintain racial boundaries in the 1920s. Whites sought to find new ways to shore up the boundaries of race, and as Smith-Pryor ably demonstrates, although Alice ultimately won the case, the Rhinelander trial became an important site for reasserting notions of race that served to uphold and maintain privilege.

Drawing on the trial transcript, archival and media sources, Smith - Pryor offers chapters that alternate between a detailed narrative of the trial and an analysis of the different historical contexts that relate to the case. She highlights the many ways in which this trial revealed and strengthened racial hierarchies. No one at the time seemed to question the very basic assumption of Leonard’s case that the marriage should be annulled if Alice had lied about her race. Drawing on her legal expertise as a former lawyer, Smith-Pryor deftly explains annulment law to show that attorneys for both sides agreed that race was a “material fact,” something that if known, would have prevented the marriage. If Alice had deceived Rhinelander about her race, in other words, all sides agreed that the marriage deserved to be annulled. The question this case raised was not whether race should matter in marriage, but whether Kip knew that Alice had “colored blood” before they married.

The trial also made clear that whiteness was something very valuable that was worth going to great lengths to defend. Smith-Pryor argues that the intense opposition of Leonard’s family to the marriage, as well as the public opprobrium about interracial marriage even in a state where it was legal, demonstrates the immense value of whiteness. Borrowing from the well-known analysis by legal scholar Cheryl Harris, Smith-Pryor demonstrates that the trial revealed whiteness as a form of property which whites worked hard to protect. White racial identity conferred both societal and financial privileges, making it crucial to draw clear lines between whites and nonwhites.

Yet even as the Rhinelander trial revealed the importance of whiteness as a form of property, it also highlighted the intense difficulty of demarcating clear racial boundaries at a time of great social and cultural change. In what is perhaps the most interesting argument of the book, Smith-Pryor explores the competing ideologies about race that were revealed in this trial. She points in particular to two different notions of how best to define race: race as blood, and race as vision.

Kip Rhinelander’s attorney, Isaac Mills, embraced the traditional view that race was a carried in the blood and did not need to be visible to the naked eye. Mills insisted that Alice was passing as white and that Kip Rhinelander had no way of knowing that she had “colored blood.” Yet Alice definitely was “colored,” Mills insisted, evident from her ancestry and from her supposedly aggressive sexual behavior. Much of Mills’ legal strategy tapped into stereotypes of mixed-race colored women as lascivious Jezebels with the power to seduce and trick white men.

Lee Davis, Alice Rhinelander’s attorney, offered a very different definition of race as something that was visible to the naked eye. Davis put forth a common sense definition of race: white people knew a colored person when they saw one, and he exhibited Alice and her family as evidence that proved that Kip Rhinelander must have known Alice was “colored” when he married her. Smith-Pryor offers a compelling analysis of how this emphasis on the visibility of race was a response to white fears that modern life made other means of determining race less effective. In polyglot and anonymous New York, it was nearly impossible to be certain of someone’s ancestry or their “blood.” Moreover, as whites embraced practices like tanning, and explored black cultural forms by going to jazz clubs or speaking in “slang,” it was becoming more difficult to determine race simply by examining an individual’s behavior. Davis’s legal strategy, therefore, reassured whites who feared racial mixing that they could in fact trust their own eyes to help them draw racial boundaries. In this context, Davis’s famous decision to have Alice partially disrobe in front of the jury in order to prove that Leonard could not have been deceived about her race, makes a great deal of sense.

Smith-Pryor’s account offers other fascinating discussions of the ways in which shifting notions of middle-class manhood, courtship practices, and acceptable sexual behavior, affected the course of the trial. While her account covers much of the same ground as Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone’s 2001 book about the Rhinelander case, Love on Trial, Property Rites is an illuminating and engaging read that is particularly suitable for an undergraduate classroom.

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