Given the simple life she’d led, Susie Phipps, 48, had never needed formal proof of her identity. Then, four years ago, her husband Andy, 56, proposed a grand tour of Latin America as his way of thanking her for the years of self-sacrifice she’d put into their now thriving seafood business. One fall morning Susie set out from her small bayou community near Sulphur, La. and drove 230 miles to the Bureau of Vital Statistics in New Orleans. She was in quest of the birth certificate needed for her passport, but what she found was evidence of her identity that threatened to destroy her sense of who she was. As the clerk pushed the record across the counter, Susie was shocked to see her parents listed as “Col.,” the bureaucratic abbreviation for colored.
“I told the clerk that it was wrong and to take it off,” remembers Susie. “But she said she couldn’t. She said it was the official record. I was mad. My mother and daddy weren’t colored. They were white. My daddy even had blue eyes. If it was the other way around, If I was black, I’d be just as shocked and would want it fixed right.” Burdened with a nightmare vision of Andy’s reaction (“My husband is a proud man”), Susie tried secretly for a year to get the birth certificate changed. Finally she hired New Orleans attorney Brian Begue to champion her interests. The upshot has been a case, recently heard in state court, which indirectly challenges Louisiana’s so-called “one thirty-second law.” It designates as Negro anyone with more than that fraction of black blood. Birth certificates in most states record race for purposes of identification, census and public health. Most states, and the U.S. Census Bureau, now follow a self-identification policy in registering race at birth. In Louisiana, however, a 1970 statute still on the books has snared Susie and thousands of others into racial classifications determined by fractions. If the ruling expected in the next two months goes against her, Susie vows to continue the fight, which has already cost $20,000, to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
“This is a test case,” says H.M. Westholz, attorney for the Bureau of Vital Statistics, explaining that he is obliged to defend an existing law vigorously. “It is true that Susie is more white than black,” Westholz concedes, but under the law there must be “no room for doubt” before a birth certificate is changed. Westholz also concedes that if the court forbids the state to classify race by fractions, it could cost the state federal funds for minority programs.
In Susie’s case, a genealogist testifying for the state presented evidence that she is descended from a “free Negress” named Margarita, who married a Guillory (Susie’s maiden name) in 1760. The state contended that other ancestors were mulattoes, quadroons and octoroons—outmoded expressions denoting mixed blood. Westholz was even able to produce depositions from some of Susie’s relatives, including her mother’s sister, who lived as “colored.” Susie’s lawyer, Begue, challenged the accuracy of the state’s charts, pointing out that they were gathered from “Black Books” containing family records. Dr. Munro Edmonson, professor of anthropology at Tulane, testified that while the state’s genealogy was “impressive, it says nothing at all about Mrs. Phipps’ race.” Genes are “shuffled” before birth, he explained, and a person can theoretically inherit all his genes from just two grandparents. Besides, Edmonson said—casually launching a missile that may elicit a barrage of vigorous objections—modern genetic studies show that blacks around the country average 25 percent white genes and whites five percent black genes. By these statistics, said Edmonson, and assuming the one thirty-second law prevailed, the entire native-born population of Louisiana could be considered black!
Reared in the Louisiana town of Mowata (Cajun patois for trains that stopped there for “mo wata”), Susie was the ninth of 10 children born to farmer Dominic Guillory and his wife, Simea. Susie’s schooling was brief—she left in third grade—but she says she wanted more than Mowata had to offer. She had two children by an earlier marriage that did not work out. Finally, 20 years ago, she found industrious Andy Phipps. Working long hours with Andy—she helped unload shrimp boats and drove 10-wheel trucks to market—Susie helped him turn his seafood dealership into a prosperous operation.
It was while watching TV one evening in 1979 that Susie dared to tell her husband about her troubles. “You know, Andy,” she said, “my birth certificate says I’m colored.” “It does?” he responded. “Let me see it.” He glanced at the sheet of paper and laughed. He suggested they treat it as a joke, but he saw how much the document mattered to Susie. “I think it’s a bunch of humbug,” says Andy. “I’ve known her family for 30 years. This hasn’t made any changes in us. It’s just plumb foolish. It’s costing a lot of money. But I don’t care. She wants it right, and we’re going to get it right.”