In times past, African-Americans have pretended to pass as a white person to avoid harassment and discrimination. The reverse has happened many times as well,(think Rachel Dolezal) as in the case of Rev. L.M. Fenwick, who was a white pastor pretending to be Black.
The Fenwick case is curious and not rich in detail, although historians and scholars alike have found the story fascinating. Fenwick was living in Indiana prior to becoming the pastor of Milwaukee’s oldest church, St. Mark A.M.E. In census records, Fenwick identified as white and his wife was listed as Black or mulatto. There is some speculation that Fenwick faced questions around the union and fled the region.
In his arrival to Wisconsin, it appears that Fenwick either never made mention of his race or it was assumed he was Black because of his wife, Nettie. However, on October 11, 1903, the news broke the story that Pastor Fenwick was indeed white.
The news shook St. Mark attendees and the church was divided. Fenwick attempted to explain that there are other white preachers in Black churches to no avail. He eventually stepped down in 1904 amid the controversy.
A professor at Syracuse University studied much of Fenwick’s life and determined that the pastor may have been trying to avoid the strict laws against interracial marriage. There’s also some thought that a crime of another sort occurred in Indiana.
Not much is known about Fenwick’s later life. He eventually separated from his wife in 1910 and moved into another Black neighborhood.