Virginia has had a long history of legally defining people by race. Colonial laws on slavery often used the words Negro and slave interchangeably, and by law at various times some Indians could be enslaved and others not. An 1866 law decreed that every person having one-fourth or more African American blood was deemed to be a colored person, and everyone not a colored person having one-fourth or more Indian blood was to be deemed an Indian. On March 20, 1924, Virginia passed the "Act to Preserve Racial Integrity," which defined as "colored" all persons having any discoverable nonwhite ancestry and therefore subjecting all persons of mixed-race ancestry to the racial segregation laws and laws against interracial marriage.
Walter Ashby Plecker, in charge of the state's vital statistics records, employed the law to classify all Virginians as "white" or "colored" and to classify the state's Indians as "colored." Plecker believed that some African Americans were attempting to pass as Indians and feared that Indians would attempt to pass as white. He obsessively documented each and every birth and marriage registration submitted to his agency and manipulated and distorted records to show that the genealogical heritage of Virginia's Indians was so intermixed with Virginia's African Americans that no real Indians existed.
Plecker's obsession with racial integrity is well in evidence in this December 1943 letter and list of surnames by county of families that he believed were trying to "pass" for white or Indian. As State Registrar of Vital Statistics, he wrote many letters and directives to county officials were about specific individuals whom he felt were trying to pass as white. He often asked for evidence from the county clerk to prove the people in question were of African American descent. Plecker also regularly sent out alerts to the county officials, hospitals, doctors, midwives, and other healthcare workers and record keepers about families that he considered suspect. He instructed that these families were not to be allowed to be listed as white in any record or to be treated as white in any way, including attendance at white schools.
The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 recognized only two races, white and colored. The act required that a racial description of every person be recorded at birth, and made marriage between white persons and nonwhite persons a felony. Plecker developed the racial criteria behind the act and adhered strictly to the one-drop rule, a historical term originating in the South that holds that a person with any trace of African ancestry is considered black. The Racial Integrity Act was subject to the Pocahontas exception. Since many influential Virginia families claimed descent from Pocahontas, the legislature declared that a person could be considered white with as much as one-sixteenth Indian ancestry.
Plecker's policies pressured state agencies to reclassify most citizens claiming Indian identity as colored in spite of a 1930 amendment to the Racial Integrity Act that restored the legal status of some Virginia Indians who lived on reservation lands. Plecker, nevertheless, believed that they also had African ancestry and classified them as colored. This policy has left a modern-day legacy where Virginia's Indians struggle to achieve federal recognition because they cannot prove their heritage as required by federal laws.
This letter came to the Library of Virginia in a group of records from Rockbridge County, Virginia. The records consist of the correspondence of the County Clerk, Abner Terry Shields, with Plecker from 1912 to 1943. The correspondence includes Vital Statistics forms and instructions, Virginia Health Bulletins about enforcing the Racial Integrity Law of 1924, a letter to the attorney general asking for clarification of procedures required by the new Racial Integrity Act about issuing marriage licenses, pamphlets about eugenics issued by Plecker and the Bureau of Vital Statistics, specific inquiries from Plecker about individuals he was seeking to prove were nonwhite, and newspaper articles about court cases challenging the Racial Integrity Law. Evidence that people protested against and resisted Plecker's campaign is clear in this correspondence as well.
1. Who was Walter Plecker?
2. What records does Plecker cite for his evidence?
3. What Virginia law did Walter Plecker uphold with his reign of white supremacy?
1. How does the legacy of Walter Plecker's leadership at the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistic still affect Virginia Indians today?
Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.
Smith, J. Douglas. "The Campaign for Racial Purity and the Erosion of Paternalism in Virginia, 1922–1930: "Nominally White, Biologically Mixed, and Legally Negro." Journal of Southern History 68, no. 1 (February 2002): 65–106.
Smith, J. David. The Eugenic Assault on America: Scenes in Red, White and Black. Fairfax, Va.: George Mason University Press, 1993.
Sherman, Richard B. "'The Last Stand': The Fight for Racial Integrity in Virginia in the 1920s." Journal of Southern History 54, no. 1 (February 1988): 69–92.
Smith, J. Douglas. Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Wallenstein, Peter. Tell the Court I Love My Wife: Race, Marriage, and Law—An American History. New York: Palgrave, 2002.