Dr. Albert Johnston became a doctor in a time when other Black Americans were banned from even attending medical school.
Johnston was raised in Chicago and attended the University of Chicago Medical School in the 1920s. According to Stanford history Professor Allyson Hobbs, he later moved to New Hampshire after securing an internship at a small town hospital, eventually becoming a radiologist.
Johnston, his wife and their children were black, but that was a secret kept from their community for two decades. It wasn’t until World War II that Johnston’s racial heritage was called into question. Johnston’s application to join the Navy was rejected because he indicated he was “mixed-race” on the form.
The doctor was rejected by the Navy, and when word got around, the hospital he worked for fired him, too.
Hobbs writes about Johnston’s stories and others in her book, “A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing.” In this book she points out that other races passing as white in an effort to avoid racial prejudice was once seen as “an individualistic and opportunistic practice; a tool for getting ahead,” Hobbs said.
But that doesn’t accurately describe Johnston’s story. It was not an easy decision to live behind the mask. Were racism not such a debilitating reality for black people during most of the 20th Century, Dr. Johnston may have embraced his blackness earlier.
“I’m not as interested in what people gained by being white, but rather in what they lost by not being black,” Hobbs said. “To understand passing we can’t just look at the story of the person who passed, we have to look at their whole social world, because everyone is going to be impacted.”
Dr. Johnston was hardly the only black man who resisted defining himself by his race to avoid undue treatment, a trend which seems to rise and fall in cadence with great national conflict.
“During periods of relative racial openness and pluralism, most notably, after emancipation, during the Reconstruction era and the Harlem Renaissance… American society revalued black identity in positive terms,” Hobbs said. “The choices of racially mixed people in these periods reveal moments when racial categories appeared more malleable.”
A mural honoring Dr. Johnston was put up in downtown Keene, NH. Learn more about it in the video below.
Sadly, many more similar stories have been lost to history. This “resistance against a racial binary,” Hobbs writes, also had the effect of blending to a racist society, losing a critical part of one’s identity in the process.
“The family jokes, the oral history every family has, and repeats and passes down,” Hobbs told NPR, “those things are lost to people who pass.”
Yet it was clear to the author that stories of passing have been prevalent throughout the history of the United States, each one tinged with immeasurable pain and loss.
“Historians and literary scholars have paid far more attention to what was gained by passing as white than to what was lost by rejecting a black racial identity,” she said. “I want to show that passing is a deeply individualistic practice, but it is also a fundamentally social act with enormous social consequences. I want to show what was lost by walking away from a black racial identity.”
It was not just a love of history that brought Hobbs to this topic. She has a personal connection to the practice of passing, or “crossing over” as it’s also been called.
Hobbs discovered a relative in her own genealogy, a black girl who, like Dr. Johnston, was raised in Chicago. Being light-skinned, the girl’s grandmother told the her that she would have greater opportunity if she just tried to consider herself white.
“Her grandmother said to her, ‘you’re going to graduate, you’re going to leave Chicago, you’re going to go to California, and you’re going to become a white woman. And this is the best thing for you,'” Hobb said. “The young girl protested, she didn’t want to leave her friends, her family, the only life she’d ever known. And her grandmother said, ‘no, this is the best thing for you. You’ll have the best life chances if you do this.'”
Years later, the girl was married with children and living in Los Angeles when she heard her father was dying. The girl’s mother asked her to return to Chicago to be with her family. She refused.
“And she says to her mother ‘I can’t go back. I’m a white woman now,'” Hobbs said. “‘This what you forced me to do. What you wanted for me. These are the consequences of what you chose for me.’ And she never went back.”
Learn more about Hobbs’ work in the video below.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.