When is it libelous to misidentify someone’s race?

“Although there are many decisions to the effect that it is actionable per se to call a white person a Negro, not one can be found deciding whether it would be so to call a Negro a white person. [But] one event looks, in a measure, in this direction.

“The city of Asheville, North Carolina, in 1906, contracted with a printer to have a new city directory issued. The custom of the place was to distinguish white and Negro citizens by an asterisk placed before the names of all Negroes. After the directory had been distributed, it was found that asterisks had been placed before the names of two highly respected white citizens….

“The [Raleigh News & Observer] report says: ‘On the heels of this suit brought by [the white] Mr. Lancaster, it is said that [the black] Henry Pearson is considering bringing suit against the same people because an asterisk was not placed before his name. Henry, proprietor of the Royal Victoria, a Negro hotel, complains that he has been the object of unpleasant jests since publication of the directory, and likewise inquiries as to just ‘when he turned white.’ Pearson fears that if the report goes abroad that he is a white man it will damage his hotel…’

“This case is unique; whether it has been brought to court is as yet unknown….”

— From “Race Distinctions in American Law” by Gilbert Thomas Stephenson (1910) 

If Henry Pearson did in fact take his grievance to court, I haven’t found evidence thereof.

 

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