In June, many Americans marked Loving Day—an annual gathering to fight racial prejudice through a celebration of multiracial community. The event takes its name from the 1967 Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia. The case established marriage as a fundamental right for interracial couples, but 72 percent of the public opposed the court’s decision at the time. Many decried it as judicial overreach and resisted its implementation for decades.

The case that brought down interracial marriage bans in 16 states centered on the aptly named Richard and Mildred Loving. In 1958, the pair were arrested in the middle of the night in their Virginia home after marrying the month before in Washington, D.C. Pleading guilty to “cohabiting as man and wife, against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth,” they were offered one year imprisonment or a suspended sentence if they left their native state.

A 2013 Loving Day celebration in New York City (photo by Willie Davis).

The Lovings chose exile over prison and moved to D.C. but they missed their hometown. After being arrested again in 1963 while visiting relatives in Virginia, Mildred Loving wrote Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who in turn referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU appealed the Lovings’ conviction, arguing interracial marriage bans contradicted the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. Despite this line of argument, lower courts upheld the verdict because, as one jurist wrote, “the fact that [Almighty God] separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

After multiple appeals, the case reached the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Earl Warren’s opinion for the unanimous court declared marriage to be “one of the ‘basic civil rights of man’…To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications…is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty.” Warren further ruled that interracial marriage bans were designed expressly “to maintain White Supremacy.” The court’s decision not only struck down an 80-year precedent set in the case Pace v. Alabama (1883), but 300 years of legal code.  

A chart depicting American approval and disapproval of interracial marriage from 1958 to 2007.

In the decades that followed, the nation’s views on interracial marriage have undergone a slow sea change. In 1967, only 3 percent of newlyweds were interracial couples. Today, 17 percent of newlyweds and 10 percent of all married couples differ from one another in race or ethnicity. Even though legal in most states by 1959, the overwhelming majority of white Americans then believed rejecting interracial marriage to be fundamental to the nation’s well-being. In 2017, in contrast, 91 percent of Americans believe interracial marriage to be a good or at least benign thing.

Today, few would publicly admit to opposing interracial marriage. In fact, most Americans now claim to celebrate the precepts behind Loving and the case has become an icon of equality and of prejudice transcended. Accordingly, individuals across the political spectrum, from gay rights activists to opponents of Affirmative Action who call for colorblindness, cite it to support their political agendas.

For 300 years, interracial marriage bans defined racial boundaries and served as justification for America’s apartheid system. And 50 years on, many of their effects remain.

Founding Myth, Foundational Rejection

The first recorded interracial marriage in American history was the celebrated marriage of the daughter of a Powhatan chief and an English tobacco planter in 1614. Matoaka, better known as Pocahontas, did not wed Captain John Smith as the Disney version of her life implies. Instead, she married John Rolfe as a condition of release after being held captive by English settlers for more than a year.

Rolfe presented her, duly baptized, in England as a symbol of peace, an example of England’s “civilizing” potential in the New World, and a means to raise funds for the Virginia Company’s colony. She died in England soon thereafter and the peace brokered with the marriage collapsed.

John Gadsby Chapman’s 1840 painting depicts Pocahontas’s baptism and rechristening as Rebecca before her 1614 marriage.

This first marriage obtained mythic portions long before Disney remade the story and even shaped Virginia’s laws on interracial marriage. Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 codified individuals as white only if they had “no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian,” except for those who had one-sixteenth or less blood from American Indians—the so-called “Pocahontas exception”—a concession to some elite families who claimed lineage from Rolfe and Pocahontas’s only child. 

A 1924 Health Bulletin issued by the state of Virginia to warn white residents of the estimated tens of thousands of “near white people” who should be avoided as “their children are likely to revert to the distinctly negro type even when all apparent evidence of mixture has disappeared.” The state seal featuring an American Indian heads the bulletin, even though someone with more than one-sixteenth American Indian ancestry would not be permitted to marry a white person in that state.

While Rolfe—and his alleged future descendants—won esteem for association with an “Indian princess,” relatively little racial mixing occurred between English settlers and Native Americans. English prejudice against a “savage” people, religious injunctions against marrying non-Christians, and a smaller imbalance in gender ratios among English colonists than in French and Spanish colonies contributed to this outcome—not to mention Indian women’s disinclination to select Englishmen, who were much less adept than Native men at hunting, fishing, and other valued skills. 

The first laws proscribing interracial relationships, however, did not pertain to Native-English unions but to ones colonial leaders feared would upend the social order because they could promote alliances between indentured servants and slaves.

In 1664, Maryland sought to stanch potential interracial marriages by threatening enslavement for white women who married black men. Two years earlier, Virginia had enacted legislation to profit from white men’s sexual relationships with black women. Children would inherit the social status of their mother, not their father, meaning the children of slave women would be born slaves regardless of the father’s status. Virginia then outlawed interracial marriage entirely in 1691. Virginia’s original penalty for those who wed interracially—banishment—was the same punishment the Lovings received nearly three centuries later.

These laws had clear aims: to control women’s sexuality, to establish categories of slave and free, and to develop racist ideologies justifying discrimination. White men had sexual access to all women and exclusive access to white women. Interracial sex, so long as it remained out-of-wedlock and occurred between white men and black women, merited little legal or social consequence. These laws also set into motion America’s peculiar system of racial classification: hypodescent. Americans would be classified not according to the degree of mixture they contained but by the total absence or presence of blackness.

An 1804 political cartoon referencing the widely rumored relationship between President Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings. DNA evidence has demonstrated the rumor’s veracity.

The first laws prohibiting interracial marriages occurred when wealthy planters were transitioning from using European indentured servants as their primary labor to African slaves. As these two labor pools worked alongside one another and even married one another, planters feared that poor whites and African slaves would overthrow the far smaller planter class.

Interracial marriage bans, therefore, arose to build racial barriers that would supplant alliances among the laborers by creating binary categories of black and white, slave and free. Indeed, Maryland’s assembly passed the statute discouraging marriage between white women and black men within an act authorizing lifelong slavery.

Most other American colonies followed Maryland and Virginia’s lead and banned interracial marriage between 1661 and 1725. Forty-one states in all eventually enacted bans.

This abolitionist drawing from the 1850s suggests the plight of the enslaved children of white masters, depicting a nearly-white slave and her mother pleading not to be sold.

“The Battering Ram”: Interracial Marriage and the Age of Abolition

Northern colonies and later states also enacted bans on interracial marriage, although some repealed these as they gradually abolished slavery. Nevertheless, white fears of mixed marriages remained a potent political force, particularly in the North.

Most white northerners showed themselves firmly opposed to any suggestion of black equality through their rejection of interracial marriage or even the mere hint of its occurrence. Not coincidently, public hysteria against interracial marriage grew louder in the 1830s when the rights of black people were being contentiously debated and a more vocal and inclusive abolitionist movement emerged. Defenders of slavery accused abolitionists of coveting interracial marriages, despite the undeniable evidence of interracial offspring on Southern plantations resulting from slave owners forcing themselves on slave women.

A double-sided painting from New England c1825, Virginia Luxuries features a bust-length portrait on one side and the above image on the reverse. The double-side nature of the painting serves two purposes: as a commentary that behind the respectable exterior of white Virginia gentlemen lies perverse desires and as a means for the owner of the painting to hide its controversial side from unreceptive viewers.

After rumors spread in 1834 that abolitionist ministers had married an interracial couple (they hadn’t), 11 days of racial terror erupted in New York City. A mob attacked a mixed-race gathering of the American Anti-Slavery Society and continued to menace, burn, and destroy the homes and churches of leading abolitionists. The mob’s wrath seemed targeted at black churches, homes, schools, and businesses. A similar riot, with similar instigation and targets of violence, occurred in Philadelphia in 1838.

As the targeted violence against abolitionists and black institutions illustrates, by the 1830s, interracial marriage had become a proxy for white anxieties that the social order they had built upon racial distinction might be endangered. Abolition threatened the social order and thus supporters of slavery raised fears of interracial marriage to torpedo abolitionists’ efforts and to hurt the free black population.

Just days after its grand opening in 1838, a mob burned Pennsylvania Hall—a building constructed as a forum to discuss abolition and other social movements—after rumors spread that an interracial marriage had been performed there.

Many of the 165 anti-abolitionist riots that took place in the 1830s were provoked by rumors of interracial marriages. Little else could more effectively raise a mob or garner as much wrath; anti-abolitionists used this to great effect. In 1838, the black-authored newspaper Colored American astutely labeled the tactic “the battering ram of the pro-slavery party.”

Despite allegations that abolitionists were amalgamationists (supporters of interracial marriage), most in fact opposed interracial marriage and readily crumbled before the oft-repeated question: “Would you let your daughter marry a Negro?”

Part of E.W. Clay’s 1839 series of lithographs on the topic, “Practical Amalgamation (The Wedding)” caricatures people of African descent as buffoonish but depicts whites as having delicate and refined features. The black clergyman at center was meant to show a reversal of the racial hierarchy and the man on the far right’s resemblance to William Lloyd Garrison suggests a connection between abolitionists and amalgamation. Clay’s series as a whole encouraged the belief that blacks were physically and socially inferior to whites, yet sought interracial marriages to improve their standing.

Even William Lloyd Garrison, one of the most radical abolitionists, never advocated actual interracial marriages even as he fought for the repeal of marriage bans. Garrison explained that abolitionists’ support for repealing interracial marriage bans “has not been to promote ‘amalgamation,’ but to establish justice.”

Such marriages among abolitionists were also exceedingly rare. One of the few known interracial marriages between abolitionists—William King and Marry Allen (1853)—resulted in their fleeing the country in fear for their lives.

Abolitionist and publisher William Lloyd Garrison spoke out about the injustice of interracial marriage bans (left). Abolitionist and writer David Walker called for black unity against racial injustice in 1829 (second from left). Abolitionist, writer, and women’s rights advocate Lydia Maria Child argued for the right to interracial marriage in principle, not in practice as she maintained “no abolitionist considers such a thing desirable” (third from left). Orator and abolitionist Charles Lenox Remond considered the legality of interracial marriage the epitome of rights necessary for a free and open society and fought for the repeal of Massachusetts’s ban in 1843 (right).

Most African Americans too were ambivalent toward marrying interracially. They saw the importance of obtaining the legal right to it in principle, but took pains to deny allegations that they coveted such unions and vehemently decried slave owners’ rape of enslaved women. Perhaps the era’s most famous black pronouncement on the matter came from David Walker’s revolutionary Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829) when he declared: “I would not give a pinch of snuff to be married to any white person I ever saw.” Nevertheless, he argued that marriage bans were a hallmark of inequality and he sought their removal on principle.

Even where interracial relationships were legal, derogatory depictions—like E.W. Clay’s popular series of lithographs—linked it in the white public’s imagination with bastardy, debauchery, and immorality. In rare cases though, interracial couples inside and outside of legal wedlock existed and sometimes even thrived in pockets of the North where local communities paid far less concern than one might expect. Even if community tolerance existed, however, the children of interracial couples unable to legally wed were defined as bastards—a branding that carried real consequences in the 18th and 19th centuries as it foreclosed the possibility of inheritance—meaning white property remained in white hands.

The final image of E.W. Clay’s 1839 series of lithographs on the topic, “Practical Amalgamation (The Fruits of Amalgamation)” implies a direct line between interracial interaction and the upending of social norms and racial hierarchies.

For the enslaved population, however, no such consensual interracial relationship could exist. Even the rare and seemingly loving unions that functioned like marriages between masters and slaves could not—by definition—be consensual. Most interracial sex under slavery, however, did not even have a veneer of loving attachments and was instead the blatant rape of black women by white men. This history’s effect on African Americans’ views of interracial relationships cannot be overstated.

Nor can interracial marriage’s role in politics and legal history be exaggerated.

As part of the justification for the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) case, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney used the existence of interracial marriage bans as evidence that the Founding Fathers never intended black Americans to be citizens. These laws, Taney insisted, were evidence of a “perpetual and impassable barrier erected between the white race and [those]…which they looked upon as so far below them in the scale of created beings that intermarriages between white persons and negroes and mulattoes were regarded as unnatural and immoral, and punished as crimes.”

An 1864 political cartoon depicting a ludicrous version of the results of racial equality as allegedly proposed by the Republican Party.

The issue even arose in the legendary debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas accused Lincoln of condoning amalgamation, to which Lincoln vehemently protested “that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife.” Accusations, however, continued to plague Lincoln and took on a life of their own in the 1864 election.