Walter Plecker (1861-1947), a White American eugenicist, was the mastermind of the state of Virginia’s Act to Preserve Racial Integrity (1924). The law was an instrument of Jim Crow and did considerable damage to Native American tribes. It led to Loving v Virginia (1967), which made mixed-race marriages legal across the US.
Plecker was born the son of a slave owner ten days before the start of the Civil War. He became a country doctor, then a county public health officer and then, from 1912 to 1946, the head of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics.
He was a pioneer in public health. He cut infant mortality among Blacks nearly in half and reduced blindness among Blacks and Natives.
As a eugenicist he believed in “race improvement”, so his concern for public health extended to keeping the White race “pure”:
“Unless this can be done, we have little to hope for, but may expect in the future decline or complete destruction of our civilization.”
To that end he pushed for the Act to Preserve Racial Integrity:
“the most perfect expression of the white ideal, and the most important eugenical effort that has been made in 4,000 years.”
It was not completely overturned till 1974.
Under the law, his Bureau recorded the race of every person born in Virginia, as either “white” or “coloured”, using the One Drop Rule. When you got married, you had to go through the Bureau, which either knew your race already or required proof of it. This prevented mixed marriages, like the Lovings.
It went beyond marriage: you could not go to a good school or a good hospital unless you were White.
Plecker wrote to one White mother:
“This is to inform you that this is a mulatto child and you cannot pass it off as white. You will have to do something about this matter and see that this child is not allowed to mix with white children. It cannot go to white schools and can never marry a white person in Virginia.
“It is a horrible thing.”
He was a devout Christian:
“Let us turn a deaf ear to those who would interpret Christian brotherhood as racial equality.”
Because many Virginia lawmakers counted Pocahontas as an ancestor, they made an exception to his White ideal: you could be up to 1/16th Native and still count as White.
To close this loophole, Plecker said that all Natives were “mixed-blooded negroes,” that he could prove that with state records going back to 1830.
Because some Natives could pass for White, he made lists of common Native names, like Branham, public.
Families were torn apart: many Natives left Virginia to escape Plecker’s world.
Natives were recorded as “coloured” (Black) under Plecker. In part because they had disappeared from state records as Natives, the US government sees Virginia as having no tribes. So Virginian tribes do not receive the rights and money granted to other tribes.
It will take an act of Congress to undo the damage, something tribes have been pushing for.
– Abagond, 2015.
- Native Americans
- Black Americans
- 1920s racism