As the author explains in an Afterword to this book, she is white and her husband, fellow illustrator Sean Qualls, is African-American. They fell in love and were married in 2003. Alko writes:
“I must admit, it’s difficult to imagine that just decades ago couples just like us not only faced discrimination, but were told by their governments that their love was unlawful.”
But it was only in 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court declared that anti-mixed marriage statutes were unconstitutional, in the landmark civil rights case Loving v. Virginia. Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for the Court, declared that statutes preventing marriage solely on the basis of racial classification violate the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.
At the time of this decision, Virginia was one of sixteen states prohibiting and punishing marriages on the basis of racial classification. According to one Virginia statute, a “white person” was absolutely prohibited from marrying anyone other than another “white person.” The license-issuing official had to be satisfied that applicants’ statements as to their race were correct, and certificates of “racial composition” had to be kept by both state and local registrars.
This book tells the story of two Virginia residents, Mildred Jeter, part African-American and part Cherokee, and Richard Loving, a fair-skinned white boy. The two fell in love, but had to travel to Washington, D.C. to get married legally, which they did in 1958. Shortly thereafter, they returned to Virginia and took up residence.
They’d been married just a few weeks when, in the middle of the night in July, 1958, the county sheriff and two deputies, acting on an anonymous tip that the Lovings were in violation of the law, stormed into the couple’s bedroom. They informed the Lovings that their marriage license was no good in Virginia, and hauled Richard and the pregnant Mildred off to jail.
The couple eventually pleaded guilty to violating the Virginia law, which recognized citizens as “pure white” only if they could claim white lineage all the way back to 1684. The presiding judge ruled:
“Almighty God created the races white, white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents.” And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
The Lovings were convicted and sentenced to one year in jail; however, the trial judge suspended the sentence for 25 years on the condition that the Lovings leave Virginia. They moved to D.C., but missed their friends and family and the Virginia countryside. In 1964, frustrated by their inability to travel together to visit their families in Virginia, Mildred Loving wrote in protest to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy referred the matter to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU filed a motion on the Lovings’ behalf to vacate the judgment and set aside the sentence on the ground that the statute, the “Racial Integrity Act of 1924,” violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The Lovings also filed a class action in federal court to have the Virginia statutory scheme declared unconstitutional. This began a series of procedures and appeals that ultimately reached the Supreme Court.
Mildred and Richard Loving went on to have three children: Donald, Peggy and Sidney Loving. In the book, the authors aver that the Loving family, back in Virginia, lived “happily (and legally!) ever after.” But the truth is more tragic. Richard Loving died at age 41 in 1975, when a drunken driver struck their car. Mildred Loving lost her right eye in the same accident.
Mildred Loving died of pneumonia in 2008, in Milford, Virginia, at age 68. Her daughter Peggy Fortune said “I want [people] to remember her as being strong and brave yet humble — and believ[ing] in love.”
This book is a testament to that love, and also to the love between Selina Alko and Sean Qualls. For the art work, they collaborated, using paint and collage in bold and beautiful colors. This is their first book together, but you can see in this book the influence of their previous (separate) books about mixed race relationships, such as Who Will I Be, Lord? by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, Sean Qualls, Illustrator, and I’m Your Peanut Butter Big Brother by Selina Alko (both author and illustrator).
Evaluation: This story is told truthfully, but with the focus on the positive aspects of love, family, and the conviction that “Brand-new ideas, like equal rights for people of all colors, were replacing old, fearful ways of thinking.” One can only hope that faith continues to be justified.
Published by Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., 2015