The Black Investigator Who Went Undercover as a White Man in the Jim Crow South
Walter Francis White helped the NAACP document the truth about lynchings in America. The fact that he could pass as caucasian came in very handy.
On a hot September day in 1919, Walter Francis White found himself running for his life.
In the two days since he had been in Elaine, Arkansas, White had seen the bodies of dozens of black men and women strewn across dirt roads. The ones who were lucky enough to still be alive remained hiding in the cotton fields.
White ducked down an alley, then picked up speed along the railroad tracks. Breathless and weary, he reached the station and climbed onto the platform just as the conductor announced the final call for the doors.
As recounted in White’s autobiography, A Man Called White, the conductor gave White an odd look before asking him why he was leaving before the fun began. “There’s a damned yellow nigger down here passing for white,” the conductor explained. “When they get through with him, he won’t pass for white no more!” he cackled.
What the conductor didn’t know was that the last-minute passenger he was talking to was in fact the very man he was talking about. White later wrote in his autobiography, “No matter what the distance, I shall never take as long a train ride as that one seemed to be.” When he finally set foot back in New York, his colleagues at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sighed with great relief.
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