Solve this Memoir/History Problem For Me
August 20, 2015 2:39 PM   Subscribe

Was interracial marriage ever illegal in New York State? What was the status of the law in 1961?

I am reading Samuel Delany's memoir The Motion of Light in Water, which covers his early life into young adulthood. In 1961, he and Marilyn Hacker were married. They traveled from New York City, where they lived, to be married in Detroit. Delany says that Michigan was one of only two states that allowed interracial marriage at the time, and it was the one closest to them.

Curious about what the other one was, I went looking on the internet. But all the resources I can find say that New York never forbade interracial marriage. If it were a lesser matter, I'd say Delany just remembers things counter-factually. Delany even discusses this in the book, where he talks about remembering very clearly that his father died in 1958, although looking into it he discovered that his father actually died in 1960).

But leaving the state to get married is a bigger deal than memory playing tricks with your timeline. It seems to me that if they could have been married in New York City, Hacker and Delany would have been. Is there some more complex, subtle aspect to the law, at a level beyond "New York never had an anti-interracial marriage law on the books" that would have been in effect in 1961?

I'd be happy with suggestions of places to pursue further research as well as information from the knowledgeable.
posted by not that girl to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I can't find anything to back this up at the moment, but I was a big Samuel Delany fan way back and I remember reading somewhere that the issue was that the officials were requiring parental consent for Hacker (who I think would have been over 18 but under 21 at the time?). I don't know if that same parental consent would have still been required if she were marrying a white man, but I don't find it implausible that this might have been enforced more stringently or arbitrarily in the case of interracial relationships.
posted by northernish at 3:00 PM on August 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: According to Hacker's wiki profile the book says "there were only two states in the union where we could legally wed. The closest one was Michigan." so it may be that some states were ruled out for age regulations and some for their anti-miscegenation legislation, some maybe for both. New York apparently never enacted anti-miscegenation legislation so the state may have been ruled out on the grounds of age, unless, as you say, there was something more subtle going on. Both Hacker and Delany seem to have been born in 1942 so would have been 18 at their time of marriage in 1961. I am struggling to confirm legal marriageable age in 1961 for New York, its currently 18 without parental consent but it has moved around a bit. (Apparently it was 10 until 1885.)
posted by biffa at 3:13 PM on August 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

You might look into scholarly articles about Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967), which was the big SCOTUS case that said states can't outlaw interracial marriage. I'm sure someone has written a scholarly article describing the history of anti-miscegenation laws leading up to the decision.

... I didn't find anything immediately myself, though. But fn. 5 of Loving itself suggests nothing specifically in NY at the time (the footnote lists 16 states that still had the laws and 14 states "[o]ver the past 15 years" that "have repealed laws outlawing interracial marriages" - NY is on neither list.)
posted by cdefgfeadgagfe at 3:15 PM on August 20, 2015

Response by poster: Ah! The age thing! It seems obvious now that you point it out to me. I bet that's it. Thanks very much!
posted by not that girl at 4:38 PM on August 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

The legal age to get married in New York was 18 in 1962, but going back farther than that is not easy with what I have available to look through. If you really want to know I would try a New York law library. They should have the old code volumes.
posted by interplanetjanet at 5:08 PM on August 20, 2015

I just figured out I was doing that the long way. It was 18 in 1922 and it is still 18 today so most likely it was 18 in 1961.
posted by interplanetjanet at 5:15 PM on August 20, 2015

The legal ability to get married and the practical ability to get married are two separate issues, too. I would imagine it would be possible, but impractical or difficult for two eighteen year olds to get married if they were of different races. It's possible some contemporaries related how hostile the environment was and they decided they'd rather go somewhere where they could just get married, rather than face discrimination for a legal act that should be completely noncontroversial.
posted by mikeh at 6:33 PM on August 20, 2015

interplanetjanet: I can't find the link but while looking into this last night I think I read that the marriageable age regs for men and women in New York only equalised quite recently, though they had been the same in the 1920s - it dropped to 17 for one gender for a bit.

It does sound like the actual reason was racism-induced shenanigans hiding behind the power of authority.
posted by biffa at 2:13 AM on August 21, 2015

It was definitely 18 for both in 1962. I can scan the page from the session laws if you want. But the laws were changed i some way in 62 and I didn't find 1961.

I know I read an article recently saying there were counties in the south where magistrates wouldn't perform interracial marriages just a few years ago even though it was legal, so you are right the New York officials may have just refused to do it, no matter what the law said.
posted by interplanetjanet at 5:53 AM on August 21, 2015

i'm Thinking maybe Hawaii was the second state since Stanley Ann Dunham and Barack Obama, Sr were married on Feb 2, 1961.
posted by Kensational at 2:39 PM on August 21, 2015

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