Sheldon C. Reed, “Skin Color,” 1955

Sheldon Reed, of the Dight Institute for Human Genetics at the University of Minnesota, consulted frequently with adoption agencies in cases where matching was elusive and problematic rather than easy and natural. His career suggests that deep anxieties about ambiguous racial status persisted in adoption long after the eugenics movement of the early twentieth century had disappeared, along with its frank advocacy of sterilization and race betterment. After 1945, the horror of race-mixing was expressed in the politer form of genetic counseling.

It is most remarkable that the largest single group of requests for information and counseling at the Dight Institute concerns the heredity of skin color. Most of the requests come from adoption agencies and concern the feasibility of placing for adoption children of mixed racial ancestry. The children are usually brought to the Dight Institute for an opinion as to their ability to “pass for white.” The inevitable question is what the skin color and general features will be of the offspring of the children being considered. These children will marry into the white community if their placement is there. The potential foster parents are always perturbed about the old myth that a “black baby” is likely to appear from such a marriage. Such tales have been scientifically investigated a number of times and never have been found to have any basis in fact.

In all cases investigated where a person of mixed ancestry marries a white person, no child is ever darker than the mixed-ancestry parent, and the usual condition is that the offspring are usually intermediate between the parents in general appearance. . . .

The problem of trying to decide whether a baby will be able to pass for white as an adult is not quite so simple as that of disposing of the “black baby” myth. Not enough research on the heredity of racial differences has been done to provide us with unequivocal answers. However, we must do the best we can with what we have. Problems affecting people today have to be solved today, and by following up our best guesses we can get some idea as to which of them were correct. Some diagnostic criteria for estimating whether a child can “pass for white” and thus enjoy the better socio-economic conditions of the white community are given below.

(A) The Sacral Spot. . .

(B) Finger Smudges. . .

(C) Skin Color. . .

(D) Nose Width. . .

(E) Thickness of Lips. . .

(F) Eye Fold. . .

(G) Hair Shape and Texture. . .

The conclusion from these considerations is that the children from racial crosses are probably the most vigorous and healthy stock generally available for adoption. As there is little demand for them, the supply is good. If potential foster parents are found to be free of racial prejudices and also match the children to some extent in appearance, the placement can be expected to be highly successful. That has been the experience with the follow-ups of children seen at the Dight Institute. It should be emphasized that the parents must be informed of the presence of a dash of “colored blood,” and it must be clear that they are capable of accepting the fact without emotion before the child is placed with them.

. . . Request
“Sixteen years ago I adopted a little girl from an orphanage. The mother was unmarried and she told the Sister in charge of the orphanage that the father was white. The girl has now grown up to be a nice young lady and we love her very much. The only thing that puzzled us was her hair because it is always real dry and kinky like Negroes’ hair. It got to a point where the children in school would call her “nigger” and it made her very sad. You see, she does not know she is adopted as yet. My curiosity got the best of me and I went back to the orphanage and had the Sister check on the girl’s father. It turned out that he was a mulatto.

“Now my worry is, will she be able to marry and have white children or is there a possibility of her children being colored? We love our daughter very much and would hate to see her hurt later on. This has upset me very much and I don’t know what to do.

. . . Your daughter will marry a white man, no doubt, and we can assure you that her children won’t look any more Negroid than she does, as her Negro heredity will be reduced by one-half in her children.


Source: Sheldon C. Reed, “Skin Color,” in Counseling in Medical Genetics (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1955), 153-160.

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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3118
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