Clarence Rivers King was a geologist, mountaineer, and author. He served as the first director of the United States Geological Survey from 1879 to 1881. What makes Kings story so extraordinary is we have heard numerous stories of Blacks passing as white, but King spends most of his life trying to pass as Black. Even the woman who shared his bed did not know the truth until he lay dying on his deathbed.
After attending Yale, King spent his professional life traveling and doing research. He received federal funding and was named U.S. Geologist of the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, commonly known as the Fortieth Parallel Survey, in 1867. He persuaded Gardiner to be his second in command, and they assembled a team that included, among others.
By 1887, King had met and fallen deeply in love with Ada Copeland, a Black nursemaid and former slave from Georgia, who had moved to New York City. King would spend the next thirteen years leading a double life. Miscegenation was strongly discouraged in the nineteenth century (and illegal in many places), King hid his identity from Copeland. Despite his blue eyes and fair complexion, King convinced Copeland that he was an African-American Pullman porter named James Todd.
King and Copeland entered into a common law marriage in 1888. However, throughout the marriage his true identity was never revealed to Ada. He pretended to be James Todd, a black railroad worker when he was home, and when he was away from home in the field, he was King, a white geologist.
The couple had five children, two daughters who married white men and two sons who served and were classified as black during World War I.
King finally revealed his true identity to Copeland in a letter he wrote to her while on his deathbed in Arizona. King’s friends John Hay and Henry Adams supplied funds for the support of Ada and her family after his death. King died of tuberculosis in Phoenix, Arizona.
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