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Jason A. Gillmer

Excerpted from: Jason A. Gillmer, Crimes of Passion: The Regulation of Interracial Sex in Washington, 1855-1950, 47 Gonzaga Law Review 393-427 (2011-2012) (256 Footnotes)


Race had not mattered to Harvey Creasman and Caroline Paul. The two had lived together as husband and wife for seven years, beginning in 1939. Harvey was black and Caroline was white, but like other couples, they found that they shared things in common and enjoyed each other's company. They met in church in Seattle, Washington. Soon after, they started living together at Harvey's rental unit in the working-class town of Bremerton, across Puget Sound from Seattle, before scraping together enough money to buy a home. They sold Harvey's 1931 Plymouth automobile to make their down payment and put the title in Caroline's name, as Harvey had suffered some discrimination at the hands of a realtor and was too put off to deal with the situation. Friends said the house was more of a shack, but over the years a combination of frugality and hard work allowed them to fix the place up nicely. Harvey did a lot of the work himself, and Caroline helped take care of it, using Harvey's paychecks from the Naval Yard to purchase furniture and pay the mortgage. Unfortunately for Harvey, however, Caroline's death in 1946 brought more than a loss in companionship, because Caroline's daughter by her previous marriage believed that most everything Harvey and Caroline had built over the years, including the house, belonged to her, not Harvey. And she was right: in an opinion teeming with racial implications, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that, because Harvey and Caroline had never formalized their marriage, all of the property purchased in Caroline's name belonged to the white daughter rather than the black spouse.

Harvey and Caroline's story, together with others like it, adds a crucial piece to our understanding of the regulation of interracial sex and marriage in this country's past. Prior to Loving v. Virginia, virtually every state in the Union outlawed the practice at some point, with much of the South singling out whites and African Americans in their prohibitions, and the West adding other disfavored races to the list. Early scholarship picked up on the valuable insight these laws provided into whites' ideologies, noting how they served the dual purpose of maintaining white racial purity while at the same time protecting white patriarchal privilege through lax enforcement. More recent scholarship has dug deeper, exploring the spaces where interracial fraternization took place and studying those involved to help better understand the significance of race and sex at various times and places. Out of the growing number, a handful have been especially good at looking beyond the rigid lines drawn in the statutes, as these laws were of a type destined to be broken.

Yet, as this impressive list of scholarship grows, the topic of interracial relationships in the State of Washington remains considerably understudied. The explanation is undoubtedly because, with the exception of the years between 1855 and 1868, there were no laws criminalizing interracial marriages. The state thus seems relatively unimportant precisely because it appeared more progressive. But such thinking is simplistic or, worse, dangerous. It mistakenly assumes that the topic was not controversial-- it was--and, more importantly, it causes us to miss out on the nuances of race and race relations in the state and region.

This article strives to fill the gap in the literature by exploring the regulation of interracial sex and marriage in the State of Washington from its time as a territory through the first half of the twentieth century. In light of the area's history and settlement patterns, the focus is not limited to blacks and whites, but instead takes into account relationships between whites and other racial groups. The article's main thesis is that, although the criminal bans on the practice were short-lived, Washington elites and powerbrokers used legal mechanisms to discourage and penalize interracial families in much the same way. The result of these efforts may not have been prison time; but, as Harvey Creasman's case demonstrates, lawyers and judges regularly used the law to ensure that wealth and property remained in the hands of whites rather than racial minorities. In doing so, the legal system became an effective deterrent to interracial relationships, perpetuating existing notions of race that privileged whiteness over other racial groups.

Part I of this article introduces the narrative used to explore this thesis. The story involves Swan Anderson, and it begins by recreating the demographics and general environment Swan encountered when he arrived in the Washington Territory in the nineteenth century. This Part also introduces the relationship that Swan developed with Mary, a Native American woman. Part II follows up on this background by situating the passage of the area's antimiscegenation laws within the larger desire of Euro-American settlers to create a white utopia. Part III then examines the repeal of these laws during the Reconstruction era, and contrasts these legal changes with the continuing desire to keep the races separate well into the twentieth century. Part IV refocuses the narrative back to Swan and Mary, exploring in detail the evidence and arguments raised in an inheritance dispute in which Swan and Mary's daughter attempted to prove her parents were husband and wife. Finally, Part V examines the verdict and aftermath of the case, in which decision-makers ruled against the daughter and continued to privilege white ideals and discount the views of people of color. The article concludes by tying together Harvey Creasman's case with this one, and notes that, far from being unique, these stories reflect strongly held assumptions that disadvantaged interracial couples and racial minorities in the state.