Rupert and Dee Nelson will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary later this year, no thanks to the state of South Dakota.

Back in 1956, the Nelsons were young and in love and planning a wedding. But there was one little problem.

Rupert was a Danish farm boy from Dell Rapids. Dee Kop, with her dark eyes, brown skin and Asian features, was a Hawaiian resident of Chinese ancestry.

According to South Dakota law at that time, that was enough to keep the state of South Dakota from issuing the two of them a marriage license.

South Dakota had anti-miscegenation laws on the books that dated back to 1909 and prohibited marriage (or illicit co-habitation) between whites and blacks. In 1913, the law was expanded to prohibit marriage between whites and "persons belonging to the African, Korean, Malayan or Mongolian" races. Still not quite satisfied, the state Legislature added the word Asian to the list later. Marriage between American Indians and whites was never outlawed in South Dakota.

The couple, who met when both were students at the University of Sioux Falls, were surprised and disappointed that South Dakota would have such a law, but it never occurred to the Nelsons to challenge it. "I just assumed it would be enforced," Nelson said.

Instead, they simply went across state lines for a marriage license. They were legally married in Minnesota on the morning of Sept. 8, 1956, and had a church wedding in North Dakota that night. (The Nelsons originally chose to marry in North Dakota, which had repealed its own anti-miscegenation laws in 1955, but learned at the last minute that one of them needed to be a state resident, hence the need for a Minnesota license.)

Nelson tells the story of their nearly disastrous wedding day in his memoir, "Like the Rings of a Tree." The bulk of the self-published book covers his childhood growing up in Depression era South Dakota, his service in the Korean War and his work as an agricultural Extension agent on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana. It is available at www.authorhouse.com in either electronic or paperback form.

Later in their marriage, the couple, who have two daughters, spent 33 years as agricultural missionaries with the American Baptist Church in Thailand. But that, as Nelson says, is another book. The Nelsons are retired and have lived in California since 2000.

Challenging the racist law did, however, occur to Nelson's father.

Shortly after his son's marriage, Walter Nelson wrote a letter to the editor of the Argus Leader that launched a public debate on the issue.

"It bothered him that his son and sweetheart couldn't get married in South Dakota," Rupert Nelson said.

It also bothered a newly elected state senator and lawyer from Miller named Herb Heidepriem. Heidepriem was serving his freshmen term in the state Legislature in 1957 when he sponsored legislation to repeal the law against racially mixed marriages.

But it wasn't until after Heidepriem's death in 1993 that his son, Scott, also an attorney and former lawmaker, learned of his father's involvement.

Heidepriem found constituent letters in his late father's files that revealed a heated debate. "I know it was controversial. Some of the letters called him anti-Christian for his position; others agreed with him," Heidepriem said.

Both chambers of the state Legislature voted overwhelmingly for repeal. The Senate vote was 29-6 and the House vote was 63-10.

"It was good that South Dakota was at the front of the line in repealing those laws," Heidepriem said.

Actually, Ohio was at the very front of the line in repealing state anti-miscegenation laws. It did so in 1887. Other states, including Minnesota, never enacted them. (But don't think our progressive neighbor to the east has a perfect civil-rights record. Minnesota changed its constitution in 1917 to say that American Indians could not vote unless they first renounced all ties to their tribes.)

Oregon, Montana and North Dakota also beat South Dakota to the repeal of their mixed marriage laws by a few years. Many other states, primarily in the western U.S., followed suit in the next 10 years.

Then, in 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws banning interracial marriages all across the South, in the aptly named Loving v. Virginia case.

On Tuesday, the Nelsons will celebrate their 50th Valentine's Day as husband and wife. Other than his own mother - who initially asked, "Can't you marry someone who looks like us?" but who just as quickly became a devoted mother-in-law to Dee - they have never experienced any negative reaction to their interracial marriage, Nelson said.

He worries more about cultural differences than racial differences in a marriage. "We were both Americans, so culturally there was less of an adjustment problem."

And his best advice for anyone considering marriage, interracial or otherwise?

"Think about it carefully."

Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8410 or mary.garrigan@rapidcityjournal.com

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