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How NAACP leader Dolezal’s story is a repeat of centuries’ old situation

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NEW YORK — After days of silence, former Spokane, Washington NAACP president Rachel Dolezal has now spoken publicly for the first time since being identified by her parents as a white person who had for years lived her life as African-American.

But her situation, while fascinating, is actually not new, by any means.  Throughout American history, people of European descent have portrayed themselves as African American for a variety of reasons, even though the disadvantages of being a person of color in America have historically been far worse than they are today.

"I identify as black," said Rachel Dolezal in an interview on the "Today Show" Monday, when asked if she, a person born of parents of Northern and Central European heritage, is an African American woman.

Her story of leading the Western Washington State NAACP chapter as a black woman despite her being white is now well known.  Less well known is the story of Clarence King, even though it's one with a striking similarity to Dolezal's, but a century and a half older.

In the 1880's King, a blond haired, blue-eyed man who could trace his roots to the signers of the Magna Carta in England 800 years ago, not only lived a double life as a black man, he married former slave Ada Copeland. The two raised four children in Brooklyn and Queens.s.

"He could zip back in the morning and go to work," said Princeton University historian Martha Sandweiss about King's remarkable double life.  She wrote about it extensively in her book "Passing Strange."

For his last 13 years of life, he took on the alias of James Todd, and convinced Copeland that he was a Pullman porter, an African American passenger rail worker, at a time when a white man could, if he wanted, pass himself off as a light-skinned black man.

"We've had a long history of dark white people and light black people," said Daniel Sharfstein of Vanderbilt University Law School.  Prof. Sharfstein has done some of the most extensive research about passing as a member of another race  in his book "The Invisible Line."

He pointed out in an interview that New York has seen more than its fair share of whites passing as black, for a very long time.

"Johnny Otis, the bandleader, who was of Greek heritage," Sharfstein said about the major American musical figure and recording artist of the mid- to late 20th Century, "proclaimed himself to be African American."

Otis, who played many times in Harlem, but was based out of Southern California, was not alone in crossing over, by any means.

George Schuyler, a writer of note during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920's, Sharfstein told PIX11 News, was married to a white woman, Josephine Schuyler.

"She said that she, and other women she knew like her, Sharfstein said, "in many circumstances" they found it more expedient "to say they were African Americans who were light."

Throughout American history, Sharfstein said, even during the colonial period, "for white people in relationships with black people... it was common to swear to African American blood."

It's a further reminder that when Rachel Dolezal said, in her Today Show interview about choosing to be African American, "I'm a survivor," she's reliving a centuries old issue in American history that's worked more often than not for blacks passing as white, but also -- for just as long, the other way around.

"What's race?" asked Prof. Sandweiss.  "That's what's at the center of this."  She added that genealogists have long determined that race is not genetic.  It is instead cultural and social.

For that reason, said Sandweiss about the Rachel Dolezal situation, "the idea that someone would claim your group without experiencing that past is for some people disturbing."