Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia
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Walter Ashby Plecker

WALTER ASHBY PLECKER (1861–1947)

Rockbridge County (Va.) Clerk's Correspondence [Walter A. Plecker to A. T. Shields], 1912–1943. Local Government Records Collection, Rockbridge County Court Records. Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

Walter Ashby Plecker was born on April 2, 1861, in Augusta County, Virginia. His father was a merchant and slave owner who fought in the Civil War. Plecker graduated from Hoover Military Academy in Staunton in 1880 and obtained a medical degree from the University of Maryland in 1885. He settled in Hampton, Virginia, in 1892, and became the Elizabeth City County public health officer in 1902. He took an active interest in obstetrics and public health issues. In 1912 he was asked to head the newly formed Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics where he made great strides in educating midwives, inventing a home incubator, and prescribing home remedies for infants. His efforts are credited with an almost 50 percent decline in birthing deaths for black mothers.

An avowed believer in white superiority, Plecker was a leading member of the elite white supremacist organization, the Anglo Saxon Clubs. With pseudoscientific arguments, he and other club leaders, John Powell and Earnest Sevier Cox, lead the campaign for the Virginia Racial Integrity Act. Passed by the state's General Assembly in 1924, the act recognized only two races, white and colored. Plecker believed that the state's American Indians had been completely integrated with its African American population. He feared that black people were attempting to pass as Indian and obsessively documented each and every birth and marriage registration submitted to his agency. Plecker's policies pressured state agencies to reclassify most citizens claiming Indian identity as colored. He went so far as to change the racial designations on birth certificates and marriage licenses without notifying the people they recorded.

Plecker led the Bureau of Vital Statistics until his retirement in 1946. He was struck by a car while crossing a street in Richmond less than a year later and died on August 2, 1947.

Suggested Reading:

Warren Fiske. "The Black & White World of Walter Plecker" Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk), August 18, 2004.

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.

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.