Battles in Red, Black, andWhite

Virginia's Racial Integrity Law of 1924:

A Nansemond family, ca. 1900

Walter Ashby Plecker was unassuming in appearance: a small-town doctor whose penchant for number-crunching earned him the position of registrar in Virginias Bureau of Vital Statistics in 1912. But appearances were indeed deceiving. With Plecker at the helm, the bureau went on an all-out war against "amalgamation".

Plecker was not the author of the Racial Integrity Law of 1924--Virginia's infamous "one drop" statute, which created two racial categories, "pure" white and everybody else. But he--and allies such as John Powell of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America--pushed hard to enforce the act's provision for "ancestral registration".

Virginians shied away from compliance in that area, according to J. David Smith in The Eugenic Assault on America: Scenes in Red, White, and Black. Indeed, "passing" might have been commonplace among whiter-skinned African- Americans since at least 1662, when the first anti-miscegenation laws were passed in Virginia, but even for allegedly "pure" whites, proof of racial purity might have been difficult to obtain.

Detail from John Rolfe and Pocahontas,
J. W. Glass, early 1850s

And at least one group of whites who had been proud of their so-called impurity lobbied successfully to have the act revised. The aristocratic descendants of Pocahontas-- resentful of being lumped in with "Negroes, Mongolians, American Indians, Malayans, or any mixtures thereof, or any other non-Caucasian strains"--twisted arms until the legislature decreed that persons with no more than one-sixteenth Native American ancestry might still be considered white.

But Plecker's power to grant birth, death, and marriage certificates gave him unprecedented and awesome powers over Virginians who had less clout than the Pocahontas contingent. With the stroke of a pen, Plecker could write an individual into "Negro" status--and legal and social oblivion. Plecker was only too willing to exercise that power, thus making him a figure of dread to Indians in general, but particularly to the Powhatan remnants in Rockbridge and Amherst counties, until his retirement and subsequent death in 1946.

William Terrill Bradby, a Pamunkey, in full regalia. The Pamunkeys were very conscious of the importance of maintaining a "wild" image and even sent a representative to the 1893 World's Fair.

According to Helen Rountree, a Old Dominion University professor who has written extensively on Virginia's Powhatan tribes, Plecker believed that all Indians had "polluted" their blood by mingling it with free African-Americans--or "free issues", in the local vernacular. Plecker thus saw those who claimed Indian ancestry as opportunists seeking what Rountree called a "way station to whiteness"-- in other words, he saw all Indians as blacks attempting to "pass."

Plecker's beliefs placed him squarely in the mainstream of the American eugenics movement, which assaulted the rights of poor whites as vigorously as those of racial minorities. (Compare, for example, the case of Carrie Buck, an 18-year-old Caucasian girl from Lynchburg who was believed, it now appears erroneously, to be "feeble- minded." In a case that went before the Supreme Court, the state vigorously pursued and won the right to sterilize Buck to prevent her from passing on her "imbecility.") But the desire to make Native Americans simply "vanish," whether into the African-American population or into thin air, had much deeper roots.

Peter Houck, author of Indian Island in Amherst County, cites Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 as the first sustained and coordinated effort in Virginia to drive the Powhatans from their land. But we cannot forget that the nation's Indian removal policy was formulated by that great defender of liberty Thomas Jefferson and carried out by that great defender of the common man Andrew Jackson. Indeed, long before Ulysses S. Grant had developed "vanishing" into an official "Peace Policy," Virginians had mastered the mechanics.

"In time, you will be as we are," Jefferson promised in his 1809 Indian address. "You will become one people with us. Your blood will mix with ours; and will spread with ours over this great Island..." Absorption into the white race--a consummation devoutly to be wished from one perspective--was the lure Jefferson tossed before the tribes.

The Majors, a Mattaponi family, ca. 1900

As for those who "mingled their blood" with African-Americans, they, too, would be absorbed--though they might not like the consequences. Let us consider the example of the Gingashins. This eastern tribe had two strikes against it: Its members refused to give up their traditional lifeways; even worse, they intermarried freely and unashamedly with blacks.

This was anathema to Virginia elites. Intermarriage with whites could be, and was, tolerated. Intermarriage with blacks, however, was an intolerable challenge to the arbitrary color line that had been in place since the first chattel slavery law passed in 1661. Thus, in 1813, the Gingashins made their way into the history books, becoming the first U.S. tribe to be terminated.

Needless to say, Gingashin identity did not die with the legal decree. As late as 1855, Rountree notes, county maps showed an "Indian Town," an Indiantown Creek, and a settlement of seven houses. Eventually, however, white antagonism, not to mention opportunism, forced the Gingashins to merge into a sympathetic African-American community. Tribes such as the Pamunkeys, Mattaponis, Upper Mattaponis, Nansemonds, Rappahannocks, and Chickahominies took note of the lesson--and learned how to resist.

A century later, armed with the awesome power of the state, Plecker declared war on these people. Consulting a listing of surnames associated with Native American ancestry-- such as Beverly (from beaver), Sparrow, Penn or Pinn, Fields, Bear, and so on--and drawing his authority from century-old census records that were likely to list Indians as "mulattoes"--particularly if the census were taken in summertime, Houck notes-- Plecker embarked on a crusade to re-classify every Native American in the state as an African-American.

A marriage certificate from 1940. Note that "mixed" is handwritten below the typed designation "Indian."

Plecker intimidated mid-wives, wrote threatening pamphlets, editorialized in newspapers, and trained an entire generation of county clerks and health service workers in his methods. When all else failed, he simply changed records to suit his prejudices, striking out the designation "Indian" and replacing it with "Negro" or "colored" or "mulatto"--or writing notations on the back.

But while Powhatans suffered under Plecker's tyranny, they refused to vanish. When necessary, they sacrificed both family ties and good will in the African-American community by refusing to attend Jim Crow schools or segregated churches.

These isolationist tactics cost them--Indian communities in Amherst were often poor and poorly educated--but they appear to have worked. It is worth noting that Amherst Indians who successfully held themselves aloof from "black contamination" regained tribal recognition in the 1980s. Another group, also living in Amherst County, which proudly claimed African, Native, and Caucasian ancestry--the Buffalo Ridge Cherokee--did not.

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