The Primary Source Librarian

Dedicated to Excellence in Teaching with Primary Sources

Passing Strange: A Story of Primary Sources

I depend a lot upon New York Times book reviews when selecting books to add to my “I wish I had the time to read” pile. Between listening to my growing collection of books on my iPod while working out at the Y and reading about 1/5 of the books I put on hold at the public library, I manage to learn a lot. I try to mix up my “reading” with a little non-fiction, a little fiction, and an occasional iTunesU lecture. I won’t even get into the time I spend following Twitter links and RSS feeds to round out my reading.

I am constantly struck by just how much primary source research informs my reading choices. In fact, I’m beginning to think that 99% of the most memorable stories would turn to mediocre stories without primary sources. And I don’t just mean stories in books about history.

My latest recommended book is called Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, by Martha A. Sandweiss (New York: Penguin Press, 2009). It’s the story of Clarence King – brilliant scientist, first director of the U.S. Geological Survey, surveyor of the West after the Civil War, art collector, bestselling author, sought-after conversationalist, friend of the privileged class, white – and Ada Copeland, his secret African American wife. It’s the fascinating story of a double life known only to Clarence King.

Clarence King, U.S. Geological Survey, 1879 (Wikimedia Commons)

New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin praises the author for her skill at reconstructing Ada’s life based on the available paucity of primary sources:

“Ms. Sandweiss constructs the life of the heretofore unknown young Ada, extrapolating from very scant evidence to create a remarkably solid portrait. Ada came from Georgia, was born pre-Emancipation and traveled to New York City to live as a domestic and children’s nursemaid. In

other words, she went from one set of strictures to another, and only with Clarence did she achieve some kind of autonomy in a middle-class household.”

In other words, because Ada Copeland was born a slave in western Georgia, the evidence of her early life is so scarce that the author had to dig more deeply into primary sources than do biographers who normally write only of famous people. Sandweiss had to depend upon general sources about the 1860’s life of an African American in western Georgia, both before and after the Civil War. She is always careful to point out the lack of direct evidence.

For information about Ada’s later life in Brooklyn, Sandweiss relied heavily on census records, which tell a fascinating racial story in themselves. The rules of recording race changed with nearly every census, so Ada Copeland (Todd) King and her five children by Clarence King (alias James Todd) were variously recorded as black, mulatto, white, and back again to black.

The author notes that census records on such sites as made it possible for her “to quickly scan the 1880 records to search for the living situations of Georgia-born blacks in the greater New York area.” She adds, “The digitization of census records makes such calculations about the origins of large numbers of people much simpler. Using the databases accessible at, for example, one can describe the makeup of Manhattan’s and Brooklyn’s black and mulatto communities by conducting a search using both race and birthplace as variables.”

Sandweiss also consulted the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for significant information about Brooklyn and the time period when Ada and Clarence lived there as (often-absent) husband and wife. Here she found valuable stories about neighborhoods, race relations, labor, social groups, politics, and even events in which Ada King and her family were directly named. For example, when Ada King’s children were of school age, they may have been impacted by the legislative decision to eliminate segregated schools in New York City. The relevant facts appear in an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from March 30, 1900:

From this single article, we learn the following facts about the debate:

No Exclusion, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 30 Mar 1900

“Under this bill the city educational authorities will find it impossible to recognize separate schools and will be compelled to permit the colored children to enter any public school.”

Senator Grady, the leader of the Democratic minority said that “it was merely an attempt to get back the colored vote in New York City which was lost through the failure of the Republicans to keep their promises to the race…”

Senator Ellsworth, leader of the Republican majority was said to have “made one of the most eloquent addresses of the session on the subject of equal rights to all men. He declared the time had come to live up to the constitutional amendment. He spoke of schools in his district where white and black studied side by side in perfect harmony, solving in that quiet and effective way the great race problem.”

Normally I do not read end notes in detail, but the many pages of primary source notes in Passing Strange tell a story of an author, her sources, and her determined effort to cover the subject in as complete and responsible a way as possible. I am certain that every school has a handful of students who could benefit from having the end notes pointed out to them.

It is also possible to duplicate searches starting with some of the end notes. School librarians can find the newspaper article pictured here by searching on March 30, 1900 (page 3) in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle online version. Don’t stop there! Try some original searches within the database. Search by date. Search by keyword. Investigate the left side links to genealogy information and immigration. Explore, enjoy, and make the Brooklyn Daily Eagle your own! Better yet, invite a student to join you.


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