Skin Trouble

Complexion in Jim Crow America could be a tricky thing. In the spring of 1955, Ebony magazine ran a curious story about the Platts, a family of Florida orange-pickers who had been “barred from the best schools because of a nose, [and] ostracized because of the tint of the skin” despite their claims of being white. According to teachers and law enforcement officials in Lake County, Florida, six of the Platts’ seven children had dusky complexions and “broad noses” befitting Negroes. Thus, the family had no place in the whites only community to which they belonged. Local authorities expelled the Platt kids from Lake’s white schools and forced the family to move out of their white neighborhood and into a house without running hot water and other basic amenities.

The Platts’ appearance in Ebony speaks to several, overlapping realities about color and capitalism in mid-twentieth century America. Working-class white ethnics, immigrants, and indigenous people often took great pains not to be forced into a “Negro” existence, as the Platts had been. (So-called black people did the same in the practice widely known as “passing”.) Black media companies, for their part, worked hard to showcase stories like the Platts’ as both a way to sell magazines and to highlight the arbitrary nature of racial categories under segregation.

Yet, the complexities of race and skin color went even further, reaching off the page and into the homes of Ebony’s black readership. Page three of the Platt’s story appears on the same page as Palmer’s “Skin Success” ointment and soap. In addition to helping with rashes and pimples, Palmer’s was well-known to “even” (i.e. lighten) the complexions of its black consumers. “You’ll forget,” the ad assures, “you ever had skin trouble.” One could only hope.

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