16 June 2020

How Tom and Josie Found a Loophole in Utah's Interracial Marriage Law in 1907

News clipping headline from
The Salt Lake Herald Jan 6 1907
This is the story of Josie and Tom Sun who in 1907 found a loophole in Utah’s ban on interracial marriage.

Their marriage made headlines across Utah but this clipping from the Jan 6 1907 edition of the Salt Lake Herald certainly used the most racist language to describe the union.

According to newspaper articles printed at the time, Tom and Josie were schoolmate sweethearts when they both lived in San Francisco (but Tom was nearly 10 years her senior so maybe not so much) and the two corresponded quite often, even after Josie and her parents moved to Seattle. When Josie turned 18 they decided to marry.

Tom was of Chinese descent (records conflict on if he was born in China or California) while Josie was African American, described as an “octoroon” (a dated term meaning one-eighth black by descent) and as a "Negress."

Laws prohibiting interracial marriage were common in the U.S. The couple was turned away by 4 different states (California, Oregon, Washington, Montana) citing miscegenation laws.

When they arrived in Salt Lake City, the County Clerk initially turned them away, but Tom had secured an attorney and soon the Salt Lake County Attorney’s office was involved.

The Utah law prohibited Asians and Whites from marring and Blacks and Whites from marrying but the law was silent on Asians and Blacks marrying. So, the County Attorney said the couple could marry under Utah law and they married that day, Jan 5 1907.

Life was pretty good for the couple for a short time. They were respectable people, purchased a house at 208 E 800 South SLC, and had a daughter, Susie.

But life soon became difficult: Susie was a colic baby (and Josie being 19!), Tom was away to Nevada, and then Tom went bankrupt. Josie even gave up her baby for adoption once but soon changed her mind and got Susie back.

The last record I could find on Josie was in 1914 when she was sentenced to 14 days in jail for vagrancy on Ogden’s 25th Street.

The last record I could find of Tom was his death certificate in 1937 when he died at the County Hospital in Roy, Utah, with no known relatives.

Whatever happened to Susie Sun is a bit of a mystery. The 1910 census is the only record I could find of her. My guess (but I have no evidence) is that she was given up for adoption again to the same local Black family she was originally given to. Her last name probably changed and I lost track of her in the records.

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