The story of Richard and Mildred Loving has always been presented as black and white. That is a white man married a black girl in Washington, D.C., in 1958, violated Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, and forever changed history when the Supreme Court eventually ruled any law forbidding interracial marriage unconstitutional. But there’s just one problem with that story, according to Mildred’s grandson Mark, she wasn’t black.
Mark, who was raised by Mildred, spoke with NBC 12, and said his grandmother identified as Rappahannock Indian.
“I know during those times, there were only two colors: white and black. But she was Native American, both of her parents were Native American.”
The local Virginia news channel goes on to report, “Mark says if his grandmother was alive today, she would cringe at all the attention the family is getting, and she’d be insulted that she was racially profiled as someone she wasn’t.”
Those are pretty strong words, especially when you consider the history of African and Native American ancestry. One one hand, being Black and Native American are hardly mutually exclusive; on the other, the racial mixing isn’t as common as some have traditionally thought. “I got Indian in my family” is a running joke in the Black community. The reality is “19 percent (of African Americans) have at least 1 percent Native American ancestry, and only 5 percent of African American people carry more than 2 percent Native American ancestry,” as Henry Louis Gates pointed out in a 2014 article on why most black people aren’t “part Indian.” The real truth is many African Americans claimed Native American ancestry because “Having a Native American in one’s background is ennobling and elevating, but having physical traits associated with European subjugation is not,” as anthropologist Nina Jablonski said in Gates’ article.
Still, despite having the physical characteristics many would associate with an African American woman, on Richard and Mildred’s original D.C. marriage license she is identified as “Indian.” And in a Time article, writer Arica L. Coleman states, “While researching my book That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia, I spoke to Mildred Loving, who died in 2008. ‘I am not black,’ she told me during a 2004 interview. ‘I have no black ancestry. I am Indian-Rappahannock. I told the people so when they came to arrest me.’”
But what one says they are and what they actually are aren’t always congruent. And that’s likely the case when it comes to Mildred. The Time article goes on to note:
“In 1930, legislators, fearing that blacks would use the Indian claim to subvert the law, restricted the Indian classification to reservation Indians on the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Reservations in King William County, the nation’s oldest reservations. Numerous non-reservation citizens claiming an Indian identity circumvented the restriction by marrying in Washington, D. C., where they were able to obtain marriage licenses with the Indian racial designation.
“Mildred Loving was no exception. Her racial identity was informed by the deeply entrenched racial politics of her community in Central Point, Va.”
Not even Mildred’s lawyer was aware of her Native American ancestry. When asked about her Indian background, Bernard Cohen said, “That’s news to me. She always insisted that she was black.”
While Mildred may have been Native American, it’s most likely she was Native American and black; therefore her grandson should take no offense to accurate portrayal as African American.