Once upon a time....
...It was essential for a black socialite to be wealthy, of good breed, and of light skin
The dynamic of Lynn Whitfield's character Corine and her grandmother (the woman on the far left) in the film The Wedding represented the fragile relationship between white people and their mulotto relatives. Throughout her time in her life, Corine's grandmother constantly reminded her of her duty to "preserve" her family name, in many ways than one.
The exclusivity of the black social elite in the past is almost a hidden and unspoken topic of discussion. Partially because those who were a part of this world were somewhat ashamed of their ways and partially because of the lack of social interaction with people outside of this world, those not a part of it just would not know. As times have changed and ways have been exposed, we can now properly examine some of the divisive and unfair practices of the black social elite.
Dating way way back to slavery, many of us are aware of the fact that many slave masters took advantage of and had children with the female slaves they sexually abused. For the few history textbooks that did inform of these atrocities, many of the textbooks left out one very important detail - the life of those mixed ( mulatto as they were referred to at the time ) children. For those who are unaware ( in some cases ) the progression of blacks post-slavery depended heavily on what white Americans permitted to happen. When it came to educational, political, and monetary advancements, blacks had to rely heavily on white America as they eased their way into this new way of life -- freedom.
Many of the mixed bred children were included in the will of their slave masters (fathers) and were given large sums of money and/or assets upon their death, they were educated earlier than other slaves and sometimes even given permission to go to college, and all around treated better than other non-mulotto blacks/slaves (which would be the start of the light skin vs darkskin rift between black Americans). Interacting with white America was a lot easier for mulottos post-slavery because white people were more tolerant of their appearance due to their diluted "Negro Features". While former slaves were enduring continued forms of slavery even post the 13th Amendment, there were blacks in many parts of the country who were not only educated and accomplished, but in some cases wealthy. Thus giving birth to family dynasties that created a community of upper-class African-American communities and societies!
As many light skinned black people already considered themselves different from darker hued black Americans, the addition of class and education created an even larger and more intense wall of separation that would eventually lead to the elitist practices of upper-class black America. Once dynasties were established, there began a trend of excluding people (regardless of skin color) who did not come from already established wealthy and well-known families. There was even a separation within the black elite of "Old Guard" and "New" families (old money vs new money). Education also played a big role in the division between upper-class black societies and regular black Americans. Going to prestigious (aka the right) HBCU's such as Howard University, Tuskeegee Institute, Spelman College, Morehouse College, Fisk University, Hampton University, and in some cases Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University!
As the Elite Blacks began to prosper in the early 20th century, their social clubs and organizations began to form! Organizations like The Gay Northeasterners (NYC1930), The Girlfriends Inc. (NYC 1927), The Drifters Inc., Top Ladies of Distinction, The Moles Inc., The Links Inc. (Philadelphia 1946), and more! There were also academic organizations that served as essential organizations for upper-class black women in college such as Alpha Kappa Alpha (Howard University 1908) and Delta Sigma Theta (Howard 1913). I only mention the two because for a very short time it was only the two that were available and for a long time it was only the two that were acceptable.
Many of these organization perpetuated the exclusive practices of the black elite because these organizations only consisted of the black elite. Things such as The Brown Paper Bag Test which was a test to see whether not a prospective was lighter enough to not be darker than a brown paper bag, Comb Test to help differentiate those who's natural hair was soft and fine from those who were not (this test required a comb to be able to easily slide through one's hair without being stopped), and blue vein tests that checked if the blue veins in your wrists were visible with the naked eye. There were even parties labeled after the hue of the darkest tone acceptable, and sure enough once the party doors were closed there was no one in attendance darker than that color. As cliché as these all might sound, the execution of these exams were not as literal as they sound. In many instances it was really a state of mind. Many of these people and organizations could tell just by looking or speaking to someone who they wanted... and who they did not.
Although these practices today seem outrageous and sickening we have to look at it through a historical context. Unfortunately, white America was still opposed to black progression although blacks were making tremendous strides pre-civil rights era. Many of the accomplishments, advancements, and progressive activities conducted by blacks before the civil rights era were simply due to the involvement and "okay" from whites in power. Many white were accepting of blacks but only the blacks who lacked distinctive and strong "Negro features". In some cases, many of these upper-class black families also sought the acceptance of white American as it permitted wider ranges of opportunities for more things for them and their children. As you look through pictures in history you begin to notice a pattern of high yellow to mocha skin and fine hair amongst the wealthy, well to do, well-educated blacks whose families were well established for generations. This was partly because white people were comfortable with their looks, being seen with them, and doing business with them. Unfortunately for darker hued blacks many of the doors open to the mulotto and fair skinned blacks were shut to them.
From all that I have read and all that I have observed it seems that many of the upper-class black families simply did what they had to do to continue the well-being and security their families were blessed with, regardless of those who were being left out. Due to their exclusive practices, many darker hued blacks who were making the same strides as them in society were still not being accepted by elite black America due to the features that essentially made them who they were -- black!
As time went on many of these practices became less and less enforced and a lot of these organizations became much more inclusive in regards to skin color. But as any wealthy and elite society wealth and breeding continue to be a determining factor for some wealthy black communities when it comes to who they will accept and who they will not. Family I can say, after all the research I have conducted, still means a lot. Black families in the upper-middle class have created a community and put time, money, effort, and heart into their communities. They are very close knit and interact on a regular basis which is why I understand their exclusivity at times as I have come to learn that new money and old money are very different. Even then I may add, things have still improved. When it comes to being black in America, whether or not your family came into money in 1989 or 1889, we are all still very behind and still making strides towards complete equality and progression and there is a way bigger rate of inclusion into High Society compared to white America.
As a Sociology major this aspect of black high society interested me the most as I could not help by look at their behavior as a result of unhealthy interactions with white America, double consciousness, and those two things sprinkled with money and education. Seeing how each of those factors played into the end result of a colorist society in an age of extreme racial hatred is what makes this all so very interesting and important! While there are not many sociological analyzations, I intend on not only looking deeper into this part of our history but sharing with black America and you (my wonderful reader) all aspects of society life on the chocolate side of America!
As you read more about socialites from the past I hope you learn from them and join me in my attempts to create a better and more positive tomorrow for black socialites of the future. Whether or not you intend on being a socialite of society and joining these wonderful, prestigious, and accomplished organizations or if you just want to be a socialite in a more specific way of life I hope you are a Supernova, a super light of social society!
Below are books and movies that I have read and watched that I feel may be able to better help you understand what it was like!
Books from a Sociologist perspective