excerpted from: Mark Kittrell, Love on Trial: an
American Scandal in Black and White, 4 Journal of Law and Family Studies
331 (2002)(54 Footnotes)
"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the
color line."-W.E.B. DuBois
Alice Jones and Leonard Rhinelander married in October 1924. They
married after a trying, three-year courtship, which survived attempts by
Leonard's father to break the courtship and Leonard's frequent and
lengthy trips out-of-state. Their marriage made national headlines
because marriage into the Rhinelander family allowed Alice to be the
first black woman to be listed in the Social Register.
In the 1920s, the Rhinelander name connoted power and
wealth."[The Rhinelanders] had been rich and powerful when the
Vanderbilts were still farming on Staten Island." Leonard
Rhinelander stood poised to inherit a vast family fortune and real
estate business. In contrast, Alice Jones came from a family of modest
means: both her mother and father emigrated from England where they
worked as servants. In the United States, her father operated a taxicab.
However, what would become more important for the fate of the marriage
between Alice and Leonard was that Alice's father was not wholly white.
When the local newspapers discovered the marriage, the headlines read,
"Rhinelander's Son Marries Daughter of Colored Man." Soon, the
crush of media fell upon the Jones household where the young married
couple were staying and the marriage made headlines across the country.
Two weeks later, Leonard disappeared with his family and he filed an
annulment suit claiming that Alice misrepresented her race to him.
The annulment trial proved to be a spectacle. Both sides employed
successful and well-known counsel who each utilized fiery rhetoric.
Rhinelander used a former New York Supreme Court justice, Isaac Mills,
as trial counsel; Jones retained a former protégé of Mills, Lee
Parsons Davis. Mills delved into the nature of the personal relationship
between Leonard and Alice. He used her race and her lower class
upbringing against her; he wanted to illustrate that Alice used sex to
trick Leonard into marrying her. Simultaneously, he portrayed Leonard as
a "dupe," a boy who did not possess the faculties to make
rational, good decisions to avoid the temptations of a woman of color.
Mills sought to prove that Alice duped Leonard about her non-white
ancestry and lured him into marriage through sexual wiles. He introduced
"tawdry" love letters that required the judge to clear women
from the courtroom. In addition, he launched character assaults upon
Alice and her family during his questioning, casting aspersions upon the
choices of Alice's sister to marry a black man, and upon Alice's mother
who bore a child out of wedlock before marrying George Jones.
Alice's counsel, Lee Parsons Davis, sought to turn the tables upon
Leonard and corrected the notion that Leonard was a dupe tricked by
Alice. He elicited verbal testimony from Leonard and physical testimony
from Alice, which demonstrated Leonard knew he married a woman of color
and that his father pressured him into ending the marriage. When the
case was given to the jury, the jury found (1) that Alice was
"colored," (2) that she did not hide this fact with silence,
(3) she did not conceal her race to get Leonard to marry her, (4)
Leonard knew that she was not white, and (5) that Leonard married Alice
knowing that she was colored. The court refused to annul the marriage.
It took a few years after the trial for the controversy to fade away.
After the annulment suit, Leonard sued Alice for divorce while Alice
sued Leonard for abandonment and Leonard's father for
alienation-of-affection. Eventually, Alice and the Rhinelanders settled
in 1930. In exchange for accepting the terms of the divorce, Alice
agreed to drop her lawsuits and to receive a $31,500 settlement and
$3,600 annuity for life.
III. Context of Race Relations in Early-Twentieth Century America
To understand the significance of the Rhinelander annulment trial, it
helps to know about the state of race relations in early-twentieth
century America. People of color faced laws and attitudes that routinely
discriminated against them due to their race. Until the Supreme Court's
1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia, Forty-one states and colonies had
banned interracial marriages. Researchers through the 1920s often used
the banner of eugenics to scientifically explain the inferiority of
non-white races. Society forced blacks, and presumably other people of
color, to abide by the "one-drop rule." This "rule"
stated that an individual with any trace of non-white blood rendered
that individual non-white.
The negative consequences of the one-drop rule led many non-whites to
"pass" as whites in society. "Passing" entailed
living within the culture of white America while evading the societal
radar that sought to detect threads of color. White America worried
enough about passing to produce literature aimed at exposing those who
would pass as white. "The phenomenon of racial 'passing' was at its
height in the 1920s . . . . 'Are you Positively Sure that You are Not
Part Negro?' read the provocative blurb for a 1929 publication, From
Negro to Caucasian, or How the Ethiopian is Changing His Skin."'
Additionally, the realities behind "passing" tore apart
non-white communities because non-whites believed that individuals who
passed as white had abandoned their own race which reinforced the notion
that non-whites were inferior. Alice Jones' non-white neighbors scorned
her family because they felt the Joneses were passing as white by
attending a predominantly white church and allowing their daughters to
date white men.
Professors Lewis and Ardizzone argue that Alice Jones symbolized a
threat to the prevailing attitudes regarding racial identity in America.
She was essentially placed on trial for "passing" as a white,
even though she contended throughout the trial that Leonard knew she was
not white. She threatened these attitudes of race by defying racial
categorization and highlighting that race was more a social construction
than a scientific category; Alice's race depended upon the reactions of
society for definition. The authors ask, "What is race, anyway? Was
it possible for a woman with some African or Indian heritage to be
white?" Alice certainly played the role of an individual who
belonged to white society: she attended white churches, she dated white
men, and she generally did not associate with her town's black
community. However, people were quick to question her status as a white
due to her "dusky" skin and darker complexion. Essentially,
Alice existed in a space between black and white societies. If Alice
could "pass" as white, then her existence affirms that the
concept of race depends less upon biology, and more upon social
constructs. If race is a social construct, then the prejudiced reasoning
that fueled racist Jim Crow laws could be subverted and discounted.
IV. Racial Rhetoric at the Annulment Trial
However, Alice's trial counsel, Lee Parsons Davis, willingly ignored
this space that Alice occupied in society. Her attorney stated during
opening statements, "[Alice] for the purpose of this trial . . .
admits that she has colored blood." Due to the one-drop rule, this
admission made her black in the eyes of society. The admission stunned
Rhinelander's counsel because they anticipated that Alice would attempt
to prove she was white. Davis's trial strategy seemed to place the
notion that it was wrong to marry across racial lines upon trial.
Unfortunately, both attorneys relied upon familiar racial stereotypes to
advance their case.
Rhinelander's counsel, Judge Isaac Mills, was the worst offender. In
his opening statement, he characterized Alice as a predatory,
oversexualized vamp who sought to marry a rich, white man in order to
become a white member of the social elite. During his direct examination
of Leonard Rhinelander, Mills introduced the "tawdry" love
letters Alice wrote to Leonard. These letters contained passages which
supposedly revealed the predatory, sexual nature of Alice, "[h]ow I
could carress you dear. Because you no [sic] you love me to carress you
dear." Mills used Alice's poor spelling and grammar to illustrate
her low level of literacy and lack of upper class education.
Additionally, as further evidence of Alice's oversexualized nature,
Mills elicited testimony from Leonard about Alice's prior sexual
encounters with another man.
Lee Parsons Davis countered Mills' characterization of Alice as an
oversexed creature by flipping the racial argument into an argument
about gender roles. Davis managed to trip-up Leonard during his
cross-examination and forced Leonard to admit that he pursued Alice, he
convinced her to spend pre-marital weekends in hotel rooms, and that he
betrayed her trust by allowing intimate love letters to be read in
court. These were acts unbecoming of the ideal gentleman and Davis
shrewdly shifted the focus of the trial from Mills' vampy Alice to a
broken down, disgraced Leonard. By defusing the negative racial and
class characterizations of Alice and focusing on the proper gender roles
of Leonard and Alice, Davis created a more sympathetic Alice for the
However, Davis' strategy merely reinforced stereotypical notions of
race and gender. Davis pulled the most outrageous stunt of the trial
when he had Alice "testify" by disrobing for the judge, jury
and attorneys. The purpose of this event was to see the color of Alice's
skin and to determine if Leonard knew that Alice had colored blood.
However, this stunt and the rhetoric used during his presentation of the
case dangerously played with traditional stereotypes of young, black,
single women. By failing to question the assumption that Leonard should
have known that interracial romance meant trouble, Davis implicitly
condoned the prevailing stereotype that interracial marriage should not
occur. By ordering Alice to disrobe in front of the jury box, Alice's
own counsel dehumanized his client and unintentionally recalled the era
when blacks were routinely paraded in front of crowds before they were
auctioned as slaves. Additionally, Davis insinuated that Alice was an
emotionally weak individual who became easy prey for Leonard's
The national black media criticized both attorneys for playing up
prejudices. Judge Mills received the brunt of the criticism regarding
his use of racial stereotyping to win a case. Mills made direct appeals
to the all-white jury's prejudices, "[t]here isn't a father among
you who would not rather see his own son in his casket than to see him
wedded to a mulatto woman . . . ." However, Davis also received
criticism for suggesting that it would be difficult for individuals to
set aside their prejudices when it was time to decide the case, almost
admitting that it was difficult to vote for a poor black woman who
married a wealthy scion to one of New York's most powerful families.
However, Davis' rhetoric and strategy saved the case for Alice and
allowed Alice to prevail by settling with the Rhinelander family.
Professors Earl Lewis and Heidi Ardizzone tell a very compelling
story that deals with many of the issues confronting racial identity in
America. What does it mean to be black, white, or multiracial? Do the
new questions regarding racial identity on the U.S. Census signify a new
paradigm in race relations? The answers to these questions have
importance for the United States in the 21st century because they will
allow us to deal better with issues of race. If anything, Love on Trial
illustrates that concepts of race are fluid and that any answers given
to these questions will evolve and grow as the concepts of race evolve
[a1]. Junior Staff Member, Journal of Law & Family Studies.