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Kent State University Professor’s Book Combines Race, Law and History (07/15/2009)

Kent State University assistant professor of history Elizabeth Smith-Pryor recently saw her book, Property Rites: The Rhinelander Trial, Passing, and the Protection of Whiteness, published by the University of North Carolina Press.  The book combines Smith-Pryor’s knowledge of law and history by examining the annulment trial of wealthy New Yorker Leonard “Kip” Rhinelander and his wife, former housemaid Alice Jones Rhinelander, and the controversy of defining race in early twentieth century New York.

A graduate of Stanford Law School, Smith-Pryor practiced law in New York for six years before pursuing her Ph.D. in history.  While working on her graduate degree at Rutgers University, she came across the Rhinelander case. 

The case centered on the question of Alice’s racial identity – whether she was black or white.  Leonard had filed for annulment on the grounds that his wife had committed fraud, claiming she lied to him about her racial background.  Playing on the notion that race can be visually established, the defense attorney had Alice strip off her clothes in the jury room to prove his claim that Alice was unmistakably “colored,” arguing that she could not have deceived Leonard.

Smith-Pryor used trial transcripts, newspapers and archival sources to tell the story of the trial and analyze its significance. In particular, she examined why race mattered for marriage in a state that had never outlawed interracial marriage.

She says the trial was a good case study for exploring how Americans understand the concept of race – particularly in northern parts of the country. 

“When people think about the dimensions of inequality and race in the 20th century, they think about things like the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s or they think of things that just involved the south,” she says. “Places in the north were pretty segregated as well, starting in the early 20th century as northern whites in urban areas like Cleveland, New York and Chicago defended their claims to the advantages of being white. When Leonard argued that Alice committed fraud by passing as white to marry him, his claim suggested that she was trying to take something with a property-like value—the status of being identified as white.”

Smith-Pryor had personal motivation in writing the book.  Her father is African American, while her mother is Irish American. 

“One of the things I question in my book is whether the categories of race that we normally think about really exist,” she said. “Obviously people have different ancestries, but why did Americans in the past categorize people using concepts of race that denied some people access to society’s opportunities?  Do we still use ideas of race in the same way today?”

More information about Property Rites: The Rhinelander Trial, Passing, and the Protection of Whiteness is available at the University of North Carolina Press Web site: http://uncpress.unc.edu/.

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Media Contacts:

Elizabeth Smith-Pryor, esmith1@kent.edu, 330-672-8920

Lindsay Kuntzman, lkuntzm1@kent.edu, 330-672-9776

 
 

This page was last modified on September 8, 2009