It’s not easy to access photos of famous black people from centuries ago, but on top of that, many individuals who looked ethnically ambiguous during the time of segregation would not lay claim to their black roots. For these and other reasons, there are plenty of people of note throughout history—even today—who, much to the public’s surprise and sometimes their own, are part black. Here’s a list plucked from HowStuffWorks and Styleblazer of famous people you didn’t know were black.
General Alexandre Dumas
Dumas is one of the unsung heroes of the French Revolution. He was born in what today is Haiti to a white aristocratic father, and a black slave mother. Dumas’ father took him to France to spend his childhood, where those of mixed race had more opportunities. In France, Dumas entered the military academy and eventually became a general. He went on to lead over 50,000 soldiers, allegedly single-handedly captured 13 prisoners, and fought in the French campaign to conquer Egypt. In the 1790s, Dumas was captured by Napoleon’s followers and thrown into a dungeon, where he was left for two years. He was eventually released, but that was the end of his military career. However, his exciting career inspired the novel, “The Count of Monte Cristo,” written by his son Alexandre, who also wrote “The Three Musketeers.”
Anatole spent most of his adult life hiding his roots, but he was in fact born to light-skinned black parents, and raised in a predominantly black Brooklyn neighborhood. Broyard succeeded in joining the segregated Army as a white man and after leaving the Army, he opened a bookstore in New York City, eventually becoming a copywriter at an ad agency. Broyard landed himself a job as a book reviewer for The New York Times, all the while living as a “white man,” even to his wife and children. In 1990, Broyard died of prostate cancer but his daughter wrote a book exploring his identity issues: “One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets.”
“Just a steel town girl on a Saturday night…” goes the “Flashdance” soundtrack. Ms. Beals–still fit and beautiful as she was in her immortalized role in the 1983 hit film–is of mixed race. Born in Chicago’s rough-and-tumble South Side, Beals’ father is African-American and her mother Irish-American. Beals claims she felt that she “always lived sort of on the outside,” being “on the other side of society.” The first time she was able to express this dichotomy was in the film “Devil in a Blue Dress,” playing a bi-racial woman who attempts to pass as white.
Here’s where identity comes into the picture as an arguable way to express one’s race. This super-masculine action film star, born Mark Vincent, never met his father, and his mother is Scottish, English, and German. Being “definitely a person of color” according to him, he was raised by his mother and her husband, his African-American stepfather, in a time where anti-miscegenation laws were still existent in some American states.
Best-selling author of “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” “Outliers,” and “What the Dog Saw,” Malcolm Gladwell was born to a Jamaican mother and British father. Gladwell took no issue with his mixed heritage and in fact, found it to be great material for his writing. In his New Yorker stroy, “Black Like Them,” Gladwell extrapolated on the differences between American blacks and West Indians, making observations about his own family and upbringing including discrimination among his dark- and light-skinned ancestors.
Say what you will about this celebrity, this maybe-talent Nicole Richie is the adopted daughter of pop legend Lionel Richie. While we realize that adoption does not denote race, Richie is indeed of African-American lineage: her biological father Peter Michael Escovedo was of Afro-Mexican heritage. She also holds Creole and Spanish ancestry. At a young age, Nicole was put under the guardianship of Richie and his wife after her parents, friends of Richie, could not financially support her.
The former member of American rock band Fall Out Boy was known for his signature look of stick-straight hair. It was only after his band dissolved that he began to let his natural hair show, and that hair was tight curls. This prompted rumors that Wentz might have black ancestors, and the rumors turned out to be true. Wentz’s family on his mother’s side is from Jamaica.
Viewers were confused when O’Brien debuted as the host of CNN’s “Black in America,” until they discovered the star anchorwoman is the daughter of a black Latina mother and a white Australian father. Although O’Brien grew up in a mostly white neighborhood, her parents told her she should identify as black. O’Brien has spent much of her career fighting for equal coverage for people of color in the media.