THE SUSIE GUILLORY PHIPPS CASE
In 1977, at the age of 43, Susie Guillory Phipps applied for a passport. She hadn't needed one before, and she needed a copy of her birth certificate to obtain one. Susie Phipps went to New Orleans to obtain a copy of her birth certificate from the Division of Vital Records. The clerk took Mrs. Phipps aside and showed her that
her birth certificate showed the race of both parents as "Col." - colored. Mrs. Phipps responded with disbelief, shock and later said that "she was sick for 3 days."
Susie Guillory Phipps insisted that an error had been made and wanted
the birth certificate corrected. She contacted Jack Westholz Jr., state official, chief of the New Orleans section of the Office of the General Counsel of the Louisiana Department of Health and Human Resources.
This Division is the only office which is capable of correcting errors or changing a birth certificate.
Mr. Westholz asked Susie Guillory Phipps to provide the following information: Complete names of her parents; Place of birth of her brothers and sisters. After checking the records, Mr. Westholz informed
Mrs. Phipps that no errors had been made on her birth certificate.
The racial designations on her birth certificate were consistent with the information on the birth certificates of her brothers and sisters. None showed signs of tampering.
The State of Louisiana conclusion: Susie Guillory was correctly identified on her birth certificate as the child of two colored people.
Mrs. Phipps could have obtained her passport, which does not show racial designation.
After all, the legal separation of races system had been dismantled. The racial designations on her birth certificate hadn't affected her life for the previous 43 years. Susie Guillory Phipps had lived as a white woman, was recorded as white on her children's birth certificates and when her parents died, she had identified them as white on the death certificates. She had brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews who lived as white people. No one had challenged any of that. Virtually nobody even knew what her birth certificate said.
Instead, Mrs. Phipps refused to accept a copy of any birth certificate that identified her as black. She insisted that her birth certificate be changed to identify her as white.
In some people's view, and the view of Mr. Westholz, Mrs. Phipps was very insistent to the point of obsession to change her birth certificate thereby receiving official blessing of her color.
Mrs. Phipps maintains it's wasn't because she has anything against black people, she simply felt she had to stand up for what she believed in, that being that "she was white." She also stated that "if her birth certificate didn't get corrected, her descendants might come across it and think she was somebody she wasn't."
Mr. Westholz might have followed the course of least resistance and allowed her to change her birth certificate to whatever race she wanted. He could have fulfilled the obligations of his office in following the law by advising Mrs. Phipps to seek a court order to change the birth certificate, then opposing the order in only a token manner, which would allow Mrs. Phipps to achieve her goal of changing the certificate.
Mr. Westholz, partly out of a belief that a rare opportunity for a test case, which might result in needed administrative reforms regarding racial designation which the legislature was extremely reluctant to deal with. Mr. Westholz hoped a court might provide guidelines to his Department for settlement of disputed racial designations without the need for litigation. He even hoped that a court would get rid of the 1970 on-thirty-second law, which his Department considered unworkable and unconstitutional.
Mr. Westholz was also defending the integrity of his Department. The Department was in charge of the gathering and preserving of records.
The Dept. is also charged with prevention of anyone tampering with those records.
Mr. Westholz believed that the information on Mrs. Phipps birth certificate was correct. Of Mrs. Phipps certificate he stated "Mrs. Phipps birth certificate is a historical record. Let it be. We can't go back and change history."
The documents, which were available, were extensive and unaltered. Mr. Westholz commissioned a Genealogist, Ruth Robertson Fontenot to trace the Guillory family tree. Dozens of birth certificates, baptismal records, marriage contracts and other historical documents were gathered together.
Documents such as "Copy of the Inventory from the 1764 Succession of Manon LaCaze," a copy of an "Agreement between Pierre Ricard and Francois Allain with Louis (Ricard) regarding renumeration for caring for cattle, dated November 8, 1762" were among those researched. Westholz tracked down people who were related to Susie Guillory Phipps. Two large cardboard boxes full of exhibits, depositions, a Genealogy going back to the Eighteenth Century, and a chart depicting the race of the Guillory family according to the "Robertson Fontenot System of Visual Percentage Analysis" were accumulated.
Susie Guillory Phipps most significant ancestor, Marguerite, was her great-great-great-great grandmother, a former slave.
Marguerite was a historical figure of prominence. In Spanish legal records the Spanish records always refers to Marguerite as "Margarita."
In the early 1780s when the Spanish controlled Louisiana, a noted legal battle took place in the Court of Alcalde Panis.
Marguerite was seeking to ensure the freedom of herself and her children.
Joseph Gregoire Guillory, known in the records as a French Planter, had a family of eight children by his white wife, Marie Jeanne LaCasse.
Marguerite had been his wife's slave. Just before Joseph Gregoire was to move his family and possessions to Old Opelousas Post, (what is now Opelousas, located in what is now Acadian Parish, Louisiana) Marie Jeanne LaCasse died.
Joseph Gregoire Guillory moved his family and their possessions to Old Opelousas Post in Louisiana. There he had four children by Marguerite.
Shortly after, his son-in-laws from Old Mobile filed suit in Dupont vs Guillory for their (their wives) share of Marie Jeanne LaCasse's property. This legal dispute resulted in a valuation of property assets of Joseph Gregoire Guillory, which were owned by Marie LaCasse Guillory. Marguerite and her children are listed in the valuation as property.
Joseph Gregoire Guillory was forced to turn over Marguerite and her children to his white children as their share of their mother's property.
Joseph Gregoire Guillory went to his eldest son's home (Jean Baptiste Guillory) with a knife and kidnapped Marguerite from his children.
Joseph Gregoire Guillory accomplished for Marguerite and her children, a manumission freeing them on condition Marguerite stayed with him until his death. Marguerite did so.
After Joseph Gregoire Guillory's death, his white children disputed Marguerite and her children's freedom and filed in court to have them returned to their control.
Marguerite sued in court, presenting her case and won. Although her children would have to work for their half-siblings for a period of time to pay back a certain amount of money, they indeed had their freedom.
One son of Joseph Gregoire Guillory & Marguerite married a Free Person of Color, named Eloise Meuillon. This Guillory genealogical tree was studded with people described in various documents with words such
as "quadroon" and "marabout" and the line led straight down to Susie Guillory's birth in 1934.
Mr. Westholz went to the area where Joseph Gregoire Guillory had settled over a hundred and fifty years before. Elderly people who still living in the old Frey Community where Susie Guillory Phipps grew up remembered the Guillory family. Many in nearby towns were related in one way or another to Susie Guillory Phipps. He obtained school records, census field reports. Documents and interviews were all consistent. The Guillorys in the area were known as mulattoes.
All of the documents amassed showed that Susie Guillory Phipps racial designation on the birth certificate was indeed correct.
Mr. Westholz showed the information to Mrs. Phipps New Orleans lawyer, Brian Begue, expecting him to drop the case. The alternative was a major challenge in court of state law.
By this time, the Department of Health and human Resources had passed new regulations which would have allowed Susie Phipps to acquire a copy of the birth certificate in short form, which included nothing about race.
Mrs. Phipps belief that she was white didn't seem to be affected by the information presented about her family genealogy. She continued to insist that her racial designation was a mistake.
Although Mrs. Phipps continued to insist that she was white, she stated in a 1983 interview "she came to believe that Margarita had been dark rather than black." Rarely did she acknowledge the existence of the tri-racial society that existed during Marguerite's time.
After many delays, Mrs. Phipps case came to trial in New Orleans District Court, 5 years after she had applied for her birth certificate. Although some of her relatives joined her suit, many others dropped out of the suit.
Throughout the legal wrangling, the issue of race, or designation of race, how a person was designated as a certain race by "traceable amount of black ancestry" dominated the trial.
Mrs. Phipps lawyer Brian Begue tried the case in the court of public opinion, through the newspapers. Articles appeared which tended to leave an impression that the state was trying to designate a white person as black via a bizarre 1970s law.
Mr. Westholz insisted that the State merely preserves information by its residents. He further insisted that his Department had been hoping to get rid of the 1970 law for years.
Louisiana had adopted the policy that other states follow in determining racial designations on birth certificates - "the race is whatever the new born baby's parents say it is." The blank is filled in with the cooperation of the parents.
In the trial, it was stated "Race information is needed on birth certificates, for example, sickle cell anemia is found almost exclusively among blacks, while phenlketonuria, a genetic defect that can cause mental retardation unless treated early, is found almost exclusively in whites. A person seeking their birth certificate in order to find their parents for medical purposes would need racial designation in order to determine possible medical history or potential problems.
Scientists testified by deposition and on the witness stand that modern science didn't offer any better way than that of determining race - the child is the race of whatever the parents say.
Mr. Westholz stated "I know you can't scientifically ascertain race, I knew that before the trial."
Mr. Westholz view was that the Judge had to decide whether Susie Guillory Phipps could prove beyond any doubt that the information on her birth certificate was incorrect.
Mr. Begue tried to demonstrate that partly because of imprecise use of terms inherited from Colonial days, genealogical records could not reflect racial ancestry with mathematical certainty. The State had the burden of proving that it could legally classify Mrs. Phipps as black because of the one-thirty-second law.
Begue didn't refute the genealogical evidence, but argued that if any racial classification had to be done, it should be based on the "self image" of the classified.
Begue maintained that people who think of themselves as white, their neighbors think they are white, should not have to prove in court that they are white.
Colored relatives disputed Mrs. Phipps claim that "she was raised white. I am white. I am all white. I was raised as a white child. I went to a white school. I married white twice."
May 1983, the Court found that the State Vital Statistics Law
"clearly places the burden of proving the propriety of an alteration on the person seeking to have it made. The plaintiff's contention that because they appear to be white, the State must prove otherwise was without legal foundation."
In his decision, the Judge stated "it was clear that the plaintiff's have the appearance of "white people", having fair skins and in some cases blue eyes and blond hair. It is also entirely clear that they are of mixed white and Negro blood."
Mrs. Westholz considered the verdict a bittersweet victory, since the court did not alter the burden of proof and did not offer any guidelines for the future. He stated, "he hoped Mrs. Phipps would appeal."
June 1983, a month after the Phipps case, the legislature repealed the 1970 one-thirty-second law and established a preponderance of the evidence as the burden of proof borne by someone who wanted to argue that information on a vital record should be changed.
Mrs. Phipps appealed the verdict in her case. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the original verdict.
The Court pointing out that it was Mrs. Phipps parents racial designations that Mrs. Phipps would have to change, stated "We do not believe that an individual may change the racial designation of another person, whether his parent or anyone else. That appellants might today describe themselves as white does not prove error in a document, which designates their parents as colored. This anomaly shows the subjective
nature of racial perceptions but does not give appellants a cause of action to alter it."
The Appeals Court further stated" Individual racial designations are purely social and cultural perceptions, and the evidence conclusively proves those subjective perceptions were correctly recorded at the time appellants' birth certificates were issued."
Mrs. Phipps lawyer, Begue applied for a hearing before the Louisiana Supreme Court. By a vote of 5 to 2, the Supreme Court of Louisiana denied the application.
Begue argues that when it comes to racial designation, "Susie Guillory Phipps should not be bound by the racist notions of 1934, but by the same policy that is in effect for someone today in filling out a birth certificate application in a New Orleans Hospital, you are whatever race you think you are."
Mr. Westholz argues "history is history; he doesn't quarrel with Mrs. Phipps calling her children white, but he doesn't think there is anything she can do about her parents' being colored. The birth certificates were filled out by the plaintiff's parents, who apparently listed their children's race as black because that is what the parents' own birth certificates read. It's our position that the plaintiffs are asserting that there's something wrong with records that their parents submitted, in which case the burden of proof is upon them."
Mrs. Phipps after the original court verdict stated, "if she lost in Louisiana, she would go to the Supreme Court of the United States. If she lost there, she would go to the President. She would ask him if he thought she was colored."
Lake Charles American Press Sept 15, 1982
Lake Charles American Press Sept. 16, 1982
Monroe Newspaper Oct 19, 1985
The New Yorker Magazine Article "American Chronicles Black or White"