Amherst College Prof Martha Sandweiss Publishes Passing Strange, the Tale of a 19th-Century Man Who Crossed the Color Line
February 2, 2009
AMHERST, Mass.—Martha Sandweiss, professor of American studies and history at Amherst College, has just published Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line ($27.95, The Penguin Press, 2009), the extraordinary story of Clarence King, a 19th-century white explorer, geologist and writer who, for 13 years, lived a double life as a black Pullman porter and steel worker named James Todd. As Sandweiss details in Passing Strange, King, the fair, blue-eyed son of a wealthy China trader, kept the fact that he was white from his beloved African-American wife, Ada, throughout their relationship and revealed his secret to her only on his deathbed. “Sandweiss serves a delicious brew of public accomplishment and domestic intrigue in [the book],” reads a starred Publishers Weekly review of Passing Strange. (The publication also recently spoke with Sandweiss about her work.) “A remarkable feat of research and reporting that covers the long century from Civil War to Civil Rights, [the book] tells a uniquely American story of self-invention, love, deception and race.”
Considered a hero of 19th-century Western history, King was a brilliant scientist, witty conversationalist, bestselling author and architect of the great surveys that mapped the American West after the Civil War, and was even named “the best and brightest of his generation” by a prominent statesman of the time. But marrying Ada Copeland, a former slave, publicly as the white man known as Clarence King would have created a scandal and destroyed his career. So King falsely presented himself as a black man in order to be with the woman he loved. Even more remarkable was that he did so in an era when many mixed-race Americans concealed their African heritage to seize the privileges of white America.
In Passing Strange, which was featured by Reader’s Digest as a “great new book,” Sandweiss uncovers the life King was simultaneously leading as James Todd, a life that he tried so hard to conceal from the public eye. She also reveals the complexity of a man who—while publicly espousing a personal dream of a uniquely American “race,” an amalgam of white and black—hid his love for his common-law wife and their five biracial children. Her book tells the dramatic tale of King’s family from the wedding of the “Todds” in 1888 to the 1964 death of Ada, one of the last surviving Americans born into slavery, andfinally to the legacy inherited by King’s granddaughter, who married a white man and adopted a white child in order to spare her family the legacies of racism.
As Sandweiss writes in Passing Strange, other Americans have passed over the color line from white to black—to join a family, to evade antimiscegenation laws, or to claim some other sort of political or economic advantage. But King stands out because of his prominence as a public figure. He was a white man who dined at the White House, belonged to Manhattan’s most elite clubs and parlayed his privileged upbringing and Ivy League education into a career as an eminent scientist, writer and government official. American history, she says, holds no comparable tale of such a high-profile white man crossing the color line. That King could pass as black—despite his appearance—highlights the extraordinary arbitrariness of racial categorization at the end of the 19th century.
Sandweiss has taught at Amherst for 20 years. She began her career as a museum curator and has since authored numerous works on Western American history and the history of photography, including Print the Legend: Photography and the American West, winner of the Organization of American Historians’ Ray Allen Billington Award, and Laura Gilpin: An Enduring Grace. She is the co-editor of the Oxford History of the American West.