Free, white, and 21

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:


And so, “free, white, and 21” was as much about power denied as asserted. Women used it more often precisely because their freedom was restricted. Men would use it too, whenever challenged. In That Certain Woman (1937), Henry Fonda tells of his desire to work up the courage to use the phrase against his domineering father. In real life, Henry Ford used it in 1919 to justify defying his stockholders. The saying was an assertion of will, of the rights of identity—only some were better positioned to capitalize on this than others. To some extent, the expression created its own truth, gave itself currency. The traits it named had the power to open doors; asserting them, even more so.

…The turning point for Angela Murray, the light-skinned heroine of Jesse Redmon Fausset’s 1928 novel Plum Bun, comes at the entrance of a movie theater. The usher accepts Angela’s ticket without a second thought, but then her darker-skinned date, a few steps behind her, is denied entry. After a humiliating moment with the pair split at the entry, they walk away together. The incident is so demeaning that Angela resolves to abandon her community in Philadelphia and pass as a white woman. Soon living in a new city and on other side of the color line, the cliché strikes her: “She remembered an expression ‘free, white and twenty-one,’—this was what it meant then, this sense of owning the world, this realization that other things being equal, all things were possible.” Angela starts going repeatedly to the movies, and for the first time is able to identify with the characters.

The people using “free, white, and 21” weren’t just speaking to themselves, whether they realized it or not. Although theaters were segregated, black America was entertained by Hollywood as well, making the phrase not just a personal declaration but also a public insult—and worse, for Angela, one more indignity corrupting her relationship with her community and herself.

White newspapers said nothing about this. But when the phrase began appearing in movie after movie, the black press took notice. “There seems to be a tendency on the part of the moving picture industry to use the above phrase at every slight opportunity,” wrote Walter L. Lowe beneath the headline “Free, White, and 21” in the Chicago Defender in 1935.

The African-American press also used the saying to critique the contours of the privileges being asserted. Leftist critics at these papers saw the expression as another tool of capitalist oppression. “As the distance between the poor whites and the rich whites widens,” the Philadelphia Tribune noted in 1930, the former will have “nothing to look forward to in life save the dubious satisfaction of being free, white, and twenty-one,” a privilege that is “considerable when there is no other” but nonetheless serves primarily to keep them from growing “restive under exploitation.” In 1930, when two Northern college professors were beaten for attending a mixed-race Communist gathering in Memphis, an Afro-American headline noted that they were “‘White’ but not ‘Free and 21.’” And just how free were people with these traits, another story asked, if they still couldn’t “conduct the most simple bit of business with a colored man or woman”?