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Patricia "Pinky" Johnson, a light-skinned African-American woman, returns by train to her childhood home in a small Southern town. Her grandmother Dicey, a hard-working, religious washerwoman, is happy that Pinky has come back from the northern school to which Dicey sent her when she was very young. Pinkie is now a fully qualified nurse, and Dicey hopes that she will use her knowledge to help their community. Dicey suspects that Pinky has passed for white up North, and when Pinky confesses that she has, her grandmother, ashamed that Pinky has denied her own racial identity, makes her pray for forgiveness. Pinky is haunted, however, by thoughts of her fiancé, Thomas Adams, a white Boston doctor to whom she wants to return. When Pinky learns that neighbor Jake Waters has kept money that the illiterate Dicey gave him to mail to her, she confronts Jake at his shack. Jake, a conniving lay-about, gives her fifteen dollars belonging to his wife Rozelia and promises to return the rest soon, but Rozelia sees Pinky leave with the money and threatens her. Two police officers see the confrontation and, believing Pinky to be white, begin to slap Rozelia. When Rozelia reveals that Pinky also is black, the police arrest them and shove them all into their car. At the courthouse, Judge Walker, who is fond of Dicey, releases Pinky with a warning to keep out of trouble. Later, after the distressed Pinky goes out walking, Jake visits Dicey and finds a letter addressed to Pinky that Dicey had been keeping from her. Dicey snatches it back and burns it, but Jake warns that the white doctor whose return address is on the envelope will surely come looking for Pinky and offers to send a telegram to stop him. While walking alone, Pinky is accosted by two intoxicated white men, and after she escapes their lecherous grasp, she returns home and begins to pack. Dicey stops her, however, and tells her that she has volunteered her as a nurse for Miss Em, a sickly white woman living in a nearby, decaying mansion. When Pinky refuses, saying that Miss Em treated her as an inferior in the past, Dicey berates Pinky for her hardened heart and relates that when she had pneumonia, Miss Em slept in her shack, fed and washed her, and even emptied her "slops" until Dicey recovered. Pinky then agrees to nurse Miss Em for Dicey's sake. Although she is humiliated by the domineering old woman, Pinky realizes that Miss Em will die soon, after which she will be able to leave. When Miss Em castigates Pinky for pretending to be what she is not, Pinky disparages the racial rules set by white society. One day, Pinky is met by Tom, who has located her after receiving the telegram sent by Jake. Pinky reveals that she is black, and Tom tenders his belief that no race is superior to another and his hope that he has no hidden racist feelings. He asks her to return North with him and live as a white, but she insists she must continue with her case and not join him after she is finished. When Melba Wooley, the wife of Miss Em's cousin, visits, Miss Em, not wanting a long visit from the busybody, has Pinky remain in the room. Mrs. Wooley, obvlivious to Miss Em's sarcastic attempts to get rid of her, reveals that her maid, Rozelia, has been spreading gossip that Pinky is a thief. Although Mrs. Wooley does not want Miss Em to make a will, after she leaves, Miss Em sends Pinky away and writes one. She collapses as Pinky is returning, and when Miss Em revives, she has Doc Joe, her physician, witness the will without Pinky's knowledge. Pinky has grown fond of the old woman, who has never been afraid to speak her mind, and is saddened when Miss Em dies. When Mrs. Wooley sees Pinky at the dry goods store soon after, she castigates the owner for allowing his saleslady, who is unaware that Pinky is black, to sell to "nigras" before whites. She then implies that Pinky, who is there to purchase a mourning veil, is using money stolen from Miss Em. After the funeral, Pinky and Dicey learn from Doc Joe that Miss Em left Pinky her home and land as an expression of regard and confidence that she would put the property to good use. Outraged, Mrs. Wooley decides to contest the will, and rumors spread among the whites in town that Pinky drugged Miss Em and forced her to make the will. Jake warns Pinky that she and the other blacks in town will face severe repercussions if she accepts the bequest, but Pinky, touched by Miss Em's faith in her, decides not to return North until the matter is settled. Although Judge Walker believes that Miss Em acted unadvisedly, Pinky prevails upon his lifelong friendship with Miss Em and he agrees to represent her. Unable to obtain nursing work and needing money for the court expenses, Pinky does washing for Dicey, who is ill now herself. When Tom visits, he tries to convince Pinky to drop the case, but she is adamant that she does not want to let down Miss Em, herself or her people. She states that if the whites are going to get the house and land by cheating, she wants it out in the open for all to see, and Tom pledges his support. During the trial, Mrs. Wooley's lawyer tries to prove that Pinky exerted undue influence over Miss Em, but the presiding judge rules that the will is a binding legal document. Afterwards, Judge Walker expressed to Pinky his doubts that winning the case has served any interests of the community other than justice. When Tom tells Pinky that he plans to join a clinic in Denver because too many people in Boston have read about the trial, Pinky realizes that Miss Em gave her the house so that she would stay in the South and be herself. She tells Tom that she cannot deny she is a Negro and that she does not want to be anything else, then asks him to go. Using the house and land, Pinky establishes "Miss Em's Clinic and Nursery School" for the black community and operates it with Dr. Canady, a black physician, Doc Joe and Dicey.