Famous Examples of Early Interracial Marriage

Boxer Jack Johnson
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The U.S. Supreme Court did not lift the nationwide ban on interracial marriage until June 12, 1967. But years before the high court’s pivotal decision, dozens of celebrities in and out of Hollywood partnered with couples of different racial backgrounds. This list includes 12 actors, athletes, authors, singers and socialites collectively who crossed the color line for love long before interracial marriage became widely accepted.

Jack Johnson’s White Wives

During a time in which black men could be lynched for even looking at a white woman the “wrong way,” boxer Jack Jackson started romantic relationships with several white women. After romancing a series of prostitutes who were black and white alike, Johnson married New York socialite Etta Terry Duryea  in Pittsburgh in January 1911. The couple tried to keep their marriage a secret, but a year after the interracial couple tied the knot word of their union spread back to Brooklyn. The abusive nature of her relationship with Johnson, the death of her father, disapproval of her interracial marriage and a history of depression all likely contributed to Duryea’s decision to kill herself in September 1912.

Just weeks after Duryea’s suicide, Johnson started a romance with 18-year-old white prostitute Lucille Cameron. Due to outrage over his relationship, Johnson was arrested for breaking the Mann Act, which made it illegal to travel across state lines “for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose,” according to PBS.

When broadly applied, the Mann Act could be used to outlaw all premarital and extramarital sexual relationships that involved interstate travel, PBS reported. On Dec. 4, 1912, Johnson married Cameron. The following year he was convicted of violating the Mann Act for his relationship with Cameron. The couple lived abroad for several years, with the boxer spending nine days in jail related to his Mann Act conviction.

Cameron filed for divorce from Johnson four years later because the known womanizer had been unfaithful to her.

In August 1925, Johnson married Irene Pineau, who was also white. Johnson and Pineau lived much of their marriage in Europe. They remained a couple until the boxer’s death in a car accident in 1946.

In 1964, another man known for his fighting skills would marry interracially. That year Bruce Lee married Linda Emery, a white woman. The biopic “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” touches on some of the difficulties the interracial couple faced, including the disapproval of her parents.

Kip Rhinelander Marries Mixed-Race Maid

The New York social world was scandalized in Fall 1924 when Leonard Kip Rhinelander, heir to $100 million family fortune, married Alice Jones, a domestic and daughter of a black man and a white woman. Rhinelander, 21 at the time of his marriage, had suffered from anxiety and met Jones during a hospital stay. “Initially he was just dallying with a servant, as was an aristocrat’s long-established privilege, but then affection had bloomed, and then everlasting true love,” the New York Daily News reported in a recap of the scandal in 1999. “The father had sent the boy out west for two years to get over his foolheaded infatuation.

But ardor did not subside. Now Kip had returned east, and he and Alice had eloped.”

At first Rhinelander did not seem to care what society thought of his marriage. After six weeks of matrimony, however, Rhinelander did not come home to the small apartment he shared with Jones and filed to have his marriage to her annulled. Rhinelander’s lawyers accused Jones of concealing her Caribbean heritage and passing for white to lure him into a romantic relationship. The jurors ultimately sided with Jones but not before she was subjected to the humiliating task of disrobing before them to prove that Rhinelander must have known that she was a woman of color all along. In 1929, Rhinelander and Jones finalized their divorce, with the latter receiving a small monthly pension for her trouble. Rhinelander died of pneumonia seven years later at the age of 33.

Jones lived until 1989. Neither remarried.

Richard Wright’s Interracial Marriages

Richard Wright, the author of literary classics Black Boy and Native son, married twice—both to white women of Russian Jewish ancestry. On Aug. 12, 1939, Wright married Dhimah Meidman, a ballet dancer. At first, he kept the marriage under wraps, reluctant to let the public know about his nuptials to a white woman. The marriage disintegrated after just a year in part because Wright felt that his wife expected to him provide a lavish lifestyle her. Moreover, his relationship with Meidman overlapped with his relationship with Ellen Poplar (also known as Polpowitz), an organizer for the Communist Party. Wright had been involved with Poplar prior to proposing to Meidman. When Wright separated from Meidman, he and Poplar resumed their romance, living together before they wed on March 12, 1941, in Coytesville, N.J. None of his family members were present nor was his close friend Richard Ellison, the author of “invisible Man” fame who’d served as best man at Wright’s first wedding. According to the book Richard Wright: The Life and Times, Wright feared that his marriage to yet another white woman would make headlines. That book also revealed that Poplar’s family largely disowned her for deciding to marry a black man. Her father never met Wright and her sister cutoff contact with Poplar because of the interracial union, according to the biography. Poplar’s brother did support the relationship, however.

Wright and his bride would spend most of their lives in France. They had two children, Julia and Rachel.

Wright was far from the only African writer to marry interracially before blacks fully realized their civil rights in the U.S. African American. Maya Angelou married Enistasious Tosh Angelos in 1951, Lorraine Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff in 1953, and in March 1967, just months before the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the ban on interracial marriage, Alice Walker married Melvyn Lowenthal.

Lena Horne Keeps Marriage Secret

Actress and singer Lena Horne married Lennie Hayton, a white man and her manager, in 1947, but kept the marriage a secret for three years.

When the public found out about their interracial marriage three years later, the couple not only received criticism but threats and obscene mail as well, according to the New York Times. “Mr. Hayton built a wall around their California house and bought a shotgun,” the Times reported

Horne said that she and her husband had some rocky times because of racism. She told the Times she sometimes viewed her husband as “foreign white creature.” Other times she took out the rage she had against white racists on her husband. She also admitted to marrying Hayton for opportunistic reasons.

“At first, I became involved because I thought Lennie would be useful to my career,” she said. “He could get me into places no black manager could. It was wrong of me, but as a black woman, I knew what I had against me. He was a nice man who wasn't thinking all these things, and because he was a nice man and because he was in my corner, I began to love him.”

Several actors and singers married across the color line during this period, including Diahann Carroll, who married Monte Kay in 1956; Sammy Davis Jr., who married May Britt in 1960, Eartha Kitt, who married John William McDonald in 1960; Tyne Daly, a white actress who married Georg Stanford Brown, an Afro-Cuban, in 1966.