Ada Copeland King

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Ada Copeland was the common-law wife of the American geologist Clarence King, who was appointed as the first director of the United States Geological Survey. Copeland was presumed born a slave on or around December 23, 1860 in Georgia. As a young woman, she moved to New York in the mid-1880s and worked as a nursemaid.[1] In about 1887,[2] she became involved with Clarence King, an upper-class white man who presented himself to her as a light-skinned black Pullman porter under the name of James Todd. (Given the long history of slavery in the United States, many African Americans had European ancestry. Some passed or identified as white, given their majority white ancestry.)

They married in September 1888,[2] with King living as Todd with her, but as Clarence King while working in the field.[3] They had five children together, four of whom survived to adulthood. Their two daughters married white men; their two sons served classified as blacks during World War I.[4] Before his death from tuberculosis in 1901, King wrote to Copeland confessing his true identity.

After King died, Copeland embarked on a thirty-year battle to gain control of the trust fund he had promised her. Her representatives included the notable lawyers Everett J. Waring, the first black lawyer to argue a case before the Supreme Court of the United States, and J. Douglas Wetmore, who contested segregation laws in Jacksonville, Florida.

Eventually, in 1933, the court determined that King had died penniless, and no money was forthcoming. John Hay, a friend of King's, provided Ada King with a monthly stipend and, after his death in 1905, Hay's daughter Helen Hay Whitney continued the support.[2] The stipend eventually stopped, though Copeland until her death continued to live in the house John Hay had bought for her. She died on April 14, 1964, one of the last of the former American slaves.[1]


  • Martha A. Sandweiss, Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception across the Color Line (2009)


  1. ^ a b American National Biography
  2. ^ a b c "Love knows no race, creed, or colour". Mmegi Online. Retrieved 2011-09-10. 
  3. ^ Sandweiss, Martha A. (2009). Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line. ISBN 1-59420-200-1. 
  4. ^ American Lives: "The 'Strange' Tale of Clarence King", PBS, August 18, 2010, accessed 21 September 2012