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Chicago's Interracial Marriage History A Bumpy One

By DNAinfo Staff | November 29, 2016 5:33am | Updated on June 16, 2017 11:07am
 The boxer Jack Johnson with his first wife, Etta.
The boxer Jack Johnson with his first wife, Etta.
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Library of Congress

Editor's note: Monday marks the 50th anniversary of the Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court decision that struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage. This story was originally published in November, 2016, to mark the opening of the film depicting that case.

CHICAGO — "Loving," a new movie now in theaters in Chicago and elsewhere, explores the interracial marriage of Virginia's Richard and Mildred Loving, whose 1967 Supreme Court case ended state laws against such couplings.

By the time the Supreme Court ruled, interracial marriages had been legal in Chicago for almost 100 years.

That is not to say they were wholly accepted here.

A Chicago Public Library blog exploring the history of marriage here cites an 1829 Illinois law that stated: “No person of color, negro or mulatto shall marry any white person." Those laws were repealed in 1874 even as interracial marriage continued to be prohibited in much of the rest of the country until the Loving v. Virginia decision.

"Loving" stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving. The film is about a 1967 Supreme Court ruling on interracial marriage.
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Universal Studios

In "Black Chicago's First Century," author Christopher Robert Reed quotes an African-American's assessment of Chicago circa 1887, describing how many blacks lived in and around the Loop. "There were some colored men that had white wives and they lived good and were respectable," the man said.

Reed also quotes from a Daily News story from around that same period describing a community of well- educated blacks. "The ladies of this class are absolutely opposed to marrying a white man," seeing it as "degrading" because it indicated a wish to be like whites, the newspaper story said.

Nearly 1 In 5 Newlyweds In Chicago Area Are In Interracial Marriage: Study

The library blog adds that in the 1920s, Chicago's Motion Picture Censors' and Reviewers' Manual, unlike censorship boards elsewhere, refused to ban depictions of interracial marriage.

But boxing great Jack Johnson, the sport's champion between 1908 and 1915, felt the wrath of some local white officials who were infuriated by him having white girlfriends and, in three cases, marrying them.

In 1913, Johnson, who lived in Bronzeville, was convicted of transporting a white prostitute from Pittsburgh to Chicago — a Mann Act charge that "was motivated by public outrage over his marriages to white women," said Ken Burns in his documentary "Unforgiveable Blackness."

Johnson was sentenced to a year and a day in violation of the Mann Act, which was also known as the "white slave traffic act."

Johnson is buried in Graceland Cemetery near his first wife, Etta Duryea, a white socialite he met in 1909 in Brooklyn.

Today, some 19 percent of marriages over a recent five-year period in the Chicago area were between people of different races or ethnicities, Pew Research says.

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