1949 “WHITE MAN OR NEGRO?” (Ad for movie “Lost Boundaries”)

white man or negroThis 1949 advertisement for the movie “Lost Boundaries” measures 10″x 6.5″ and appears to be for a theater in Alexandria, Virginia.  It says, “If he revealed his secret it would blast four lives wide open!!  So out-of-the-ordinary, you’ll HAVE TO SEE IT TO BELIEVE IT!”

Atlanta banned the film under a statute that allowed its censor to prohibit any film that might “adversely affect the peace, morals, and good order of the city”.  Memphis did so as well, with the head of the Board of Censors saying: “We don’t take that kind of picture here.”

Walter White, executive director of the NAACP, reported his reaction to viewing a rough cut of the film: “One thing is certain–Hollywood can never go back to its old portrayal of colored people as witless menials or idiotic buffoons now that Home of the Brave and Lost Boundaries have been made…” The Washington Postcountered attempts on the part of some in the South to deny that the film represented an actual social phenomenon by calling it “real life drama” and “no novel” that presented “the stark truth, names, places and all”.  In The New York Times, critic Bosley Crowther said it had “extraordinary courage, understanding and dramatic power.”

Ferrer later said: “This was a very, very radical departure from any kind of fiction film anybody was making in the country. It was a picture which broke a tremendous number of shibboleths, and it established a new freedom in making films.”

William Lindsay White, a former war correspondent who had become editor and publisher of the Emporia Gazette, published Lost Boundaries in 1948. It was just 91 pages long, and a shorter version had appeared the previous December in Reader’s Digest.  The story was also reported with photographs in Life, Look, and Ebony. White recounted the true story of the family of Dr. Albert C. Johnston (1900–1988) and his wife Thyra (1904–1995), who lived in New England for 20 years, passing as white despite their Negro backgrounds until they revealed themselves to their children and community.

Lost Boundaries focuses on the experience of their eldest son, Albert Johnson, Jr., beginning with the day Albert, Sr., tells his 16-year-old son that he is the son of Negroes who have been passing as white. The story then recounts the lives of the parents. Dr. Johnston graduates from the University of Chicago and Rush Medical College, but finds himself barred from internships when he identifies himself as Negro. He finally secures a position at Maine General Hospital in Portland, which had not inquired about his race. In 1929, he establishes a medical practice in Gorham, New Hampshire. His blue-eyed, pale-skinned wife Thyra and he are active in the community, and no one suspects their racial background, at least not enough to comment on it or question them. In 1939, they move to Keene, New Hampshire, where he takes a position at Elliot Community Hospital. At the start of World War II, he applies for a Navy post as a radiologist, but is rejected when an investigation reveals his racial background. Struck by this rejection, he then shares his and his wife’s family history with his eldest son Albert, who responds by isolating himself from friends and failing at school. Albert joins the Navy, still passing as white, but is discharged as “psychoneurotic unclassified”. Albert then tours the U.S. with a white schoolfriend, visiting relatives and exploring lives on either side of the color line. Much of the book is devoted to Albert Jr.’s personal exploration of the world of passing, where he learns how the black community tolerates its members who pass, but disapproves of casual crossing back and forth between the black and white communities. The other Johnson children have their own problems adjusting to their new identity and the acceptance and rejection they experience. Finally, Albert Jr., attending the University of New Hampshire, tells his seminar on international and domestic problems “that perhaps he could contribute something to this discussion of the race problem by telling of the problem of crossbred peoples because he was himself a Negro.”

The film adaptation does not follow the younger Johnson on his exploration of the broader racial landscape, but instead the son in the film visits Harlem, where he witnesses lives lived in the street rather than in the private homes of his New Hampshire environment and becomes involved in violence. The film ends on a note of interracial reconciliation as the white population excuses the Johnstons’ deception without examining the economic social pressures that led them to pass as white. The film, in one critic’s analysis, presents a subject of racial violence and social injustice within the bounds of a family melodrama.