F. Heite 6 Mar 2000, "Plecker in Virginia"
from the Virginia History list is certainly of interest to many
of our members, so I'm copying the whole thing. The infamous Dr.
Plecker tried to destroy all record of Indian people in twentieth-century
Virginia, and not all the damage has been corrected. In view of
the fact that Virgina has two longstanding recognized reservations,
it's amazing that he was able to go so far in his efforts to de-recognize
Virginia Native Americans - 19th & 20th centuries
From Rosanna Bencoach (firstname.lastname@example.org) 05 Mar 2000, to email@example.com
Some of you
may be interested in in two articles in today's Richmond Times-Dispatch.
The paper devoted almost 3 full pages to Peter Hardin's well-researched
articles concerning the late head of the state bureau of vital records,
Walter Plecker, the damage he did to Virginia's Native American
population, and his legacy that the state and the Virginia tribes
are still working to undo. The links to the two articles are below,
with the article leads.
recent development was omitted from the article. In 1997, the Virginia
General Assembly passed a law entitling any Virginia-born Native
American or American Indian, whose certified copy of a birth record
filed in Virginia before July 1, 1960 contains a racial designation
that is incorrect, to obtain, without paying the now-$10 fee, a
certified copy of his birth record from which such incorrect designation
has been removed. The certifications shall not be marked "amended"
solely for this reason. The legislation, sponsored by Delegate Harvey
Morgan of Gloucester, passed both houses unanimously and was signed
by then-Governor Allen, and the legislature included the reimbursement
to vital records, for the certificates they anticipated would be
requested, in that year's budget amendments. If anyone needs the
citations, the bill was HB 2889, and it amended Code of Virginia
section 32.1-272. It's Chapter 470 of the 1997 Virginia Acts of
Families' surnames on racial hit list
Times-Dispatch Washington Correspondent
Sunday, March 5, 2000
Ashby Plecker spent decades trying to deny the existence of Indians
in Virginia. A half-century after his death, the damage is still
the Indian woman gave birth to a baby boy, Virginia branded him
with a race other than his own. The young Monacan Indian mother
delivered her son at Lynchburg General Hospital in 1971. Proud of
her Indian heritage, the woman was dismayed when hospital officials
designated him as black on his birth certificate. They threatened
to bar his discharge unless she acquiesced.
orders came from Richmond generations ago.
former longtime registrar of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, Dr.
Walter Ashby Plecker, believed there were no real native-born Indians
in Virginia and anybody claiming to be Indian had a mix of black
policing the color line, he classified "pseudo-Indians"
as black and even issued in 1943 a hit list of surnames belonging
to "mongrel" or mixed-blood families suspected of having
Negro ancestry who must not be allowed to pass as Indian or white.
With hateful language, he denounced their tactics.
" . . . Like rats when you are not watching, [they] have been
'sneaking' in their birth certificates through their own midwives,
giving either Indian or white racial classification," Plecker
Twenty-eight years later, the Monacan mother's surname still was
on Plecker's list. She argued forcefully with hospital officials.
Today, the woman's eyes reveal her lingering pain. She consulted
with civil rights lawyers and eventually won a correction on her
son's birth certificate.
"I don't think the prejudice will ever stop," said the
woman, who agreed to talk to a reporter only on condition of anonymity.
She waged a personal battle in modern times against the bitter legacy
of Plecker, who ran the bureau from 1912 to 1946. A racial supremacist,
Plecker and his influential allies helped shape one of the darkest
chapters of Virginia's history. It was an epoch of Virginia-sponsored
A physician born just before the Civil War, Plecker embraced the
now-discredited eugenics movement as a scientific rationale for
preserving Caucasian racial purity. He saw only two races, Caucasian
and non-Caucasian, and staunchly opposed their "amalgamation."
After helping win passage in 1924 of a strict race classification
and anti-miscegenation law called the Racial Integrity Act, Plecker
engaged in a zealous campaign to prevent what he considered "destruction
of the white or higher civilization."
When he perceived Indians as threats to enforcing the color line,
he used the tools of his office to endeavor to crush them and deny
Many Western tribes experienced government neglect during the 20th
century, but the Virginia story was different: The
Indians were consciously targeted for mistreatment.
Plecker changed racial labels on vital records to classify Indians
as "colored," investigated the pedigrees of racially "suspect"
citizens, and provided information to block or annul interracial
marriages with whites. He testified against Indians who challenged
Virginia's Indians refused to die out, although untold numbers moved
away or assumed a low profile.
Now, eight surviving tribes recognized by Virginia in the 1980s
are preparing to seek sovereign status from the U.S. government
through an act of Congress. About 3,000 of the 15,000 Indians counted
in Virginia in the 1990 census were indigenous to the state, experts
As they bid for federal recognition, more Indian leaders are talking
openly about the injustice of Plecker's era. They gave a copy of
his 1943 "hit list" to Virginia members of Congress along
with other data in support of their bid.
Modern scholars have studied Plecker and the racial integrity era.
Their findings contributed to this article. Yet he's not widely
"It's an untold story," said Oliver Perry, chief emeritus
of the Nansemond Tribe.
"It's not that we're trying to dig him up and re-inter him
again," said Gene Adkins, assistant chief of the Eastern Chickahominy
"We want people to know that he did damage the Indian population
here in the state. And it's taken us years, even up to now, to try
to get out from under what he did. It's a sad situation, really
Said Chief William P. Miles of the Pamunkey Tribe: "He came
very close to committing statistical genocide on Native Americans
Chief G. Anne Richardson of the Rappahannock Tribe spoke bluntly:
"Devastation. Holocaust. Genocide.
"Those are the words I would use to describe what he did to
us," she said. "It was obvious his goal was the demise
of all Native Americans in Virginia. . . . We were not allowed to
be who we are in our own country, by officials in the government."
For people of Indian heritage, Plecker's name "brings to mind
a feeling that a Jew would have for the name of Hitler," said
Russell E. Booker Jr., Virginia registrar from 1982 to 1995. That
view "certainly is justified."
Indeed, one of Plecker's most chilling letters mentioned Adolf Hitler
-- and not unfavorably.
"Our own indexed birth and marriage records showing race reach
back to 1853," Plecker wrote U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs
John Collier in 1943. "Such a study has probably never been
"Your staff member is probably correct in his surmise that
Hitler's genealogical study of the Jews is not more complete."
Plecker also used haunting rhetoric in publishing a brochure on
"Virginia's Vanished Race" a month before his death in
1947. He asked, "Is the integrity of the master race, with
our Indians as a demonstration, also to pass by the mongrelizations
Bear Mountain, miles up a country road outside Amherst, a visitor
finds more evidence of the new willingness to confront Plecker's
It's the historical center of the Monacan Indian Nation. A one-room
log schoolhouse dating to the 1870s is standing. Also there are
a simple white church and a small ancestral museum with a new sign
proclaiming "History Preserved is Knowledge Gained."
Tribal activist and researcher Diane Shields digs into her files
and pulls out for a visitor a dozen manila folders with photocopies
of Plecker's letters covering two decades.
The Monacans acknowledge the stigma and pain, the second-class status,
the lack of economic opportunity and the inferior education inflicted
upon them and other Virginia tribes.
Indian children were relegated to substandard "colored"
schools. Their parents, wanting to keep an Indian identity, often
declined to send them there. Some tribal children studied in lower
grades at reservation schools or church-sponsored schools like the
one at Bear Mountain.
Even in this history of oppression, some Monacans have found a value:
a common identity.
"It's a horrible thing, what he did to the Indian people,"
Shields said of Plecker. "But you know what? It gives me a
sense of belonging -- because I'm grouped with my own people.
"It kind of backfired with Plecker. He pushed the Indian people
closer and gave us an identity."
Johnny Johns, is a tribal leader and electrical technician. He's
51. Enrolled at Lynchburg College at midlife, he's been learning
about the eugenics movement. Johns, whose surname was on Plecker's
"hit list," regards him in two ways.
First, there's "the horror, the terror." Yet he believes
Plecker "did us a favor, because the list of [Indian] names
is there. We know who we are. It's a two-edged sword, a duality."
Kenneth Branham, 47, remembers shunning by whites when Indian children
were first allowed into public elementary school in the 1960s. School
bus drivers sometimes refused to transport them.
Plecker was cruel, Branham believes. But "he kind of drew us
together. We were a tightknit group, because there was nobody else
we could associate with."
His tribe, which has grown dramatically in recent years to about
1,100 enrolled members, is using federal grant money to document
its history. The Monacans are making their comeback with people
like Shields and Johns, who were drawn back from beyond Virginia
to their family and tribal roots, the place they now call home.
Among them is Indian activist Mary B. Wade, who learned only in
the late 1980s about her Monacan heritage from an uncle in Maryland.
Now she's secretary of the Virginia Council on Indians, a state
government advisory panel.
The Monacan tribe owns more than 100 acres on and near Bear Mountain
and dreams of buying hundreds more, developing a retirement home
and a day-care center.
These Amherst Indians won recognition from the General Assembly
in 1989, five years after Lynchburg pediatrician Peter Houck laid
out a Monacan genealogy for what was once called a lost tribe. Houck
detailed his findings in a book, and the recognition has contributed
to a spirit of resurgence among the Monacans.
Indian people of Amherst and adjoining Rockbridge counties were
a special target of Plecker.
He wrote in a 1925 letter, "The Amherst-Rockbridge group of
about 800 similar people are giving us the most trouble, through
actual numbers and persistent claims of being Indians. Some well-meaning
church workers have established an 'Indian Mission' around which
Across the state in eastern Virginia, home for tribes that once
made up the Powhatan Confederation, Plecker evokes diverse reactions
from Indian leaders.
"He was just determined to get rid of us," said Chief
A. Leonard Adkins, 73, of the Chickahominy Tribe. "It was hard
to believe that a man could do what he did and get away with it."
A Chickahominy midwife was threatened by with imprisonment by Plecker
if she didn't stop putting 'Indian' on birth records, Adkins said.
She decided to stop her midwifery rather than buckle under to him
or risk a prison term.
During Plecker's era, a number of Indians didn't admit to their
cultural heritage or pass down traditions to their children. It
was easier for many to adapt to white society, said Chief Barry
Bass of the Nansemond Tribe.
"There's probably a lot who have gone to their grave who still
didn't admit they were Indian. That's where it hurt," said
Bass, the acting chairman of the Virginia Council on Indians.
Plecker wrote in a 1924 state-published pamphlet, "Eugenics
in Relation to the New Family," that there were no true Indians
in Virginia who didn't have some black blood. He later refined this
to apply to "native-born people in Virginia calling themselves
His 1943 letter alluding to "rats . . . 'sneaking' in their
birth certificates" claimed that mixed-blood groups were intent
above all on "escaping negro status and securing recognition
as white, with the resulting privilege of attending white schools
and ultimately attaining the climax of their ambitions, marrying
into the white race."
Plecker misunderstood the Indians' culture, said Dr. Helen C. Rountree,
an anthropoligist and Virginia Indian expert recently retired from
Old Dominion University. Those whom she studied in eastern Virginia
believed that if they married a white, the children would be Indians,
Rountree wrote in her book, "Pocahontas's People."
These Indians did not want to be "white," she wrote, although
they wanted access to the better facilities available to whites
and the freedom to marry whites to avoid inbreeding.
In drawing his conclusions, Plecker relied heavily on old birth
and death records that indicated only whether an individual was
white or nonwhite, said former registrar Booker.
"There was no place to register 'Indian.' Nonwhite was later
taken to mean black, by Plecker and by the Racial Integrity Act,"
To Booker, the racial integrity era amounted to what today would
be called "ethnic cleansing." Or "documentary genocide."
"He was convinced he was one of the chosen," Booker said
of Plecker. "He was the original martinet."
The Plecker letters
Plecker left a major paper trail.
He gave carbon copies of hundreds of his official letters, neatly
typed on "Commonwealth of Virginia, Department of Health"
stationery, to John Powell, a Richmond-born concert pianist and
an outspoken advocate for race-purity measures in Virginia.
Today, the letters offer a rare record of a bureaucrat intruding
in individual lives, harassing and intimidating citizens, bullying
local officials and stamping out civil rights.
The correspondence is housed in a collection of Powell documents
at the University of Virginia's Alderman Library. Powell graduated
Phi Beta Kappa from U.Va. at age 18. He became an internationally
known pianist and lectured in U.Va.'s music department.
In one letter, Plecker wrote a Lynchburg woman in 1924 to correct
a supposedly false birth report for her child, which had been signed
by a midwife.
"This is to give you warning that this is a mulatto child and
you cannot pass it off as white," he wrote. Plecker apprised
her of the new "one-drop" rule, which defined a white
person as having "no trace whatsoever of any blood other than
"You will have to do something about this matter and see that
this child is not allowed to mix with white children," Plecker
admonished. "It cannot go to white schools and can never marry
a white person in Virginia.
"It is an awful thing."
To a woman he knew to be from a "respectable" white family
in Hampton, Plecker voiced surprise that she would ask about a license
to marry a man of mixed African descent.
"I trust . . . that you will immediately break off entirely
with this young mulatto man," he wrote.
Plecker threatened a Fishersville woman with prosecution in 1944
for a birth record he contended hid her Negro lineage.
"After the war it is possible that some of these cases will
come into court. We might try this one. It would make a good one
if you continue to try to be what you are not," Plecker warned.
His writing supports the view of leading scholars that Indians were
a secondary, not primary, target of the eugenics movement in Virginia.
"The attack on persons of African descent laid the foundation
for the attack against the American Indian community in Virginia
as a mixed-race population," wrote an anthropologist, Dr. Danielle
Moretti-Langholtz of the College of William and Mary, in a dissertation
on the political resurgence of Virginia's Indians.
Plecker was vehement about preserving the color line.
"Two races as materially divergent as the white and the negro,
in morals, mental powers, and cultural fitness, cannot live in close
contact without injury to the higher," he told an American
Public Health Association session in 1924. "The lower never
has been and never can be raised to the level of the higher."
Plecker went on, "We are now engaged in a struggle more titanic,
and of far greater importance than that with the Central Powers
from which we have recently emerged," he added. "Many
scarcely know that the struggle which means the life or death of
our civilization is now in progress, and are giving it no thought."
He concluded, "Let us turn a deaf ear to those who would interpret
Christian brotherhood to mean racial equality."
H e had risen to become Virginia's first registrar at a time when
segregationist Jim Crow laws and attitudes already were securely
in place in the South.
In the eugenics movement, Plecker and allies found a basis in "science"
for their extremist thinking, according to scholars who have studied
Plecker was born April 2, 1861, in Augusta County. He died at age
86 in August 1947 when he failed to look before crossing the street
on Chamberlayne Avenue in Richmond and was hit by a car.
Schooled at Hoover Military Academy in Staunton, he attended the
University of Virginia and graduated with a degree in medicine from
the University of Maryland in 1885. For about 25 years, he practiced
as a country doctor. After joining the health department of Elizabeth
City County, now the city of Hampton, he set up a system for keeping
health records and vital statistics, earning that county a national
In 1912, he came to Richmond to help state officials organize the
Bureau of Vital Statistics, and he was tapped as its first registrar.
Births, deaths and marriages would have to be reported to the bureau.
"He was a pioneer in the health of the newborn," said
former registrar Booker, who as a youngster delivered the newspaper
to Plecker's Richmond home. "He wrote what I thought was an
outstanding book for midwives."
Plecker was drawn to the eugenics movement, which held that society
and mankind's future could be improved by promoting better breeding.
He was among eugenics adherents who believed in the supremacy of
white genetic stock, the inferiority of other races and the threat
that mixing with the white race would lead to decline or destruction.
To push for law to preserve "racial integrity," Plecker
teamed with Powell and Tennessee-born Earnest S. Cox, author of
a book titled "White America."
Powell was a leading founder of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America,
an all-male, native-born group started in Richmond in September
1922 and a year later claiming to have 25 posts statewide. Plecker
was a member.
Its goals were preservation of Anglo-Saxon ideals and "the
supremacy of the white race in the United States of America without
racial prejudice or hatred," according to its constitution.
"This was the Klan of the aristocracy -- the real gentleman's
Klan," said J. David Smith of Longwood College, a eugenics
Newspaper accounts at the time detailed a link with former Richmond
KKK members. The Richmond Lodge of the KKK seceded in 1922 from
the national organization, according to news accounts. A lawyer
for some of the former Klansmen said the national group was judged
to be a "rampant anti-Catholic organization instead of an organization
to maintain white supremacy."
"The Ku-Klux Klan in Richmond organized the Anglo-Saxon Clubs
of America, and the local organization is known as Richmond Post,
No. 1," the lawyer went on to say in The Times-Dispatch.
Powell wrote in correspondence later that the Anglo-Saxon Clubs
had "no connection whatever" with the KKK and were "in
no sense unfriendly to the Negro."
In 1924 the General Assembly adopted race-purity legislation championed
by the Anglo-Saxon Clubs and promoted by Plecker, Cox and Powell.
It would stand until a landmark 1967 ruling by the U.S. Supreme
The Racial Integrity Act was one of the nation's strictest. It defined
white person for the first time, using the "one-drop rule,"
and went beyond earlier state law against inter-marriage by making
it illegal for whites to marry any nonwhites, including Asians.
However, the law permitted persons with one-sixteenth American Indian
blood and "no other non-Caucasic blood" to be classified
as white. That was a nod to descendants of Pocahontas, some of whom
counted themselves among "first families" of Virginia.
Some leading state newspapers, including The Times-Dispatch and
The Richmond News Leader, endorsed the race-purity goals.
The Times-Dispatch editorialized in 1924 that race intermingling
would "sound the death knell of the white man. Once a drop
of inferior blood gets in his veins, he descends lower and lower
in the mongrel scale."
This newspaper also gave Powell a platform, publishing two years
later a 13-part series of his articles titled "The Last Stand"
and describing what he called Virginia's declining racial purity.
Plecker, meanwhile, lent support for black separatist Marcus Garvey's
Plecker kept trying to narrow loopholes in the Virginia law. The
legislature agreed in 1930 to define "colored" people
as those "in whom there is ascertainable any Negro blood."
Framers of the Racial Integrity Act found "a convenient façade"
for their race prejudices in the "pseudo-science of eugenics,"
said Paul A. Lombardo, a eugenics expert who teaches at the University
of Virginia law school.
Lombardo wrote, "The true motive behind the [act] was the maintenance
of white supremacy and black economic and social inferiority --
racism, pure and simple."
Enforcing the act
In his more than 30 years as registrar, Plecker stood up to those
who disagreed with him, urged him to back off, or got in his way.
They included courageous Indians, a Virginia governor and federal
Some people were imprisoned for violating the Racial Integrity Act,
but a number of juries wouldn't convict. There were legal challenges
to the act and Plecker's enforcement, but it took the U.S. Supreme
Court in 1967 to void Virginia's anti-miscegenation law.
Two of the earliest challenges came in Rockbridge County in 1924.
A circuit judge upheld in the first case the denial of a marriage
license for an Indian woman to marry a white man. But in the second
case, he set the eugenics backers reeling.
Judge Henry W. Holt heard expert testimony from Plecker before ruling
in favor of an Indian woman who had challenged the denial of a license
for her to wed a white man.
Holt found no evidence that the woman, Atha Sorrells, was of mixed
lineage under a reasonable interpretation of the new law. He questioned
its constitutionality and the legal meaning of the term Caucasian.
"Half the men who fought at Hastings were my grandfathers.
Some of them were probably hanged and some knighted, who can tell?
Certainly in some instances there was an alien strain. Beyond peradventure,
I cannot prove that there was not," he wrote in his opinion.
Drawing on "Alice in Wonderland," he added, "Alice
herself never got into a deeper tangle."
John Powell shot back with a pamphlet, published by the Anglo-Saxon
Clubs, titled "The Breach in the Dike: an Analysis of the Sorrels
Case Showing the Danger to Racial Integrity from Intermarriage of
Whites with So-Called Indians."
Holt's ruling was not appealed, however. An assistant state attorney
general warned that the act might be declared unconstitutional.
Absalom Willis Robertson, the Rockbridge commonwealth's attorney,
represented the state. A former state senator, Robertson would rise
to fame as a congressman and U.S. senator for 34 years. A conservative
Democrat, he was known as an expert on federal finances.
On civil rights, Sen. Robertson opposed the progressive stands of
the national Democratic Party and was involved in the filibuster
over civil rights legislation in 1963. His son, Republican Pat Robertson,
is the conservative television evangelist who founded the Christian
Coalition and, in 1988, ran for president.
In an October 1924 letter, Plecker personally had asked A.W. Robertson
to represent Virginia "if your charge is not too great, and
the Governor will pay the bill."
Gov. E. Lee Trinkle, too, had written Robertson.
"Willis, this law is a new one and I regard it of vital importance.
There are a great many of our real substantial white people who
fought hard for the Bill and are doing all they can to help out
in this situation over the State."
Asking what Robertson would charge if he were to represent the state,
Trinkle added, "I know that you will be more than
reasonable because you, like the rest of us, are interested in this
When Plecker sought to have the race-purity law toughened the following
year, the governor advised moderation.
Trinkle wrote Plecker, urging him to "be conservative and reasonable
and not create any ill feeling if it can be avoided between the
Indians and the State government.
"From reports that come to me," Trinkle added, "I
am afraid sentiment is moulding itself along the line that you are
too hard on these people and pushing matters too fast."
Plecker didn't yield.
The registrar tried to tell U.S. Census officials how to list Indians
and urged Selective Service officials not to induct them as whites.
A number of Virginia Indians, struggling to retain their identity,
battled to be inducted with whites in World War II, a position Plecker
opposed. Through various petitions and channels, the Indians met
Three Rappahannock men who refused induction with blacks were prosecuted
and sentenced to prison, but they later were allowed to pass the
war years by laboring in hospitals as conscientious objectors. Yet
in a federal court in western Virginia, a judge sided with seven
Amherst County Indians who resisted induction as Negroes.
Finally the government, after years of wrangling, generally deferred
to registrants to choose their race, an Indian victory that some
scholars believe helped pave the way for the civil rights movement.
In the same period, Plecker wrote a letter to Powell that reflected
a defeat -- and Plecker's own authoritative gamesmanship.
Plecker had begun putting "corrections" on the backs of
birth certificates issued by his bureau before 1924 to remove the
A prominent Richmond attorney, John Randolph Tucker, representing
two Amherst County Indians, challenged Plecker's standing to "constitute
himself judge and jury" by making such a change and threatened
court action. Plecker yielded temporarily.
"This is the worst backset which we have received since Judge
Holt's decision," he confided to Powell on Oct. 13, 1942. "In
reality I have been doing a good deal of bluffing, knowing all the
while that it could not be legally sustained. This is the first
time my hand has absolutely been called."
The "backset" didn't last long.
The General Assembly voted in 1944 to allow the registrar to put
on the backs of birth, death or marriage certificates data that
would correct erroneous racial labels on the front.
Plecker died in 1947. But his legacy survived. Not until 13 years
after the Warren Court's landmark 1954 desegregation decision in
Brown vs. Board of Education was the intermarriage ban in Virginia's
Racial Integrity Act overturned.
Saying Virginia's anti-miscegenation law was based on racial distinctions,
the Supreme Court concluded, "There is patently no legitimate
overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination
which justifies this classification.
"The fact that Virginia prohibits only interracial marriages
involving white persons demonstrates that the racial classifications
must stand on their own justification as measures designed to maintain
In 1975, Virginia repealed its racial definition and segregation
Virginia tribes preparing to seek federal recognition as sovereign
nations have told officials in Washington about the lasting damage
sustained in the Plecker era, three centuries after Virginia's "first
people" encountered the European settlers. A bill being drafted
by Rep. James P. Moran, D-8th, would ask Congress to grant federal
Gene Adkins of the Eastern Chickahominy said it may take beyond
the current generation of Virginia Indians to correct the wrongs
of Plecker's era.
"We're getting [more] advantages, but we still don't have the
same advantages today of the white population," Adkins said.
Telling the story of Plecker's mistreatment of the Indians could
open more doors, Adkins said.
"It boils down to this: More people will be sympathetic to
what we're trying to do."
Eugenics affected Va. law
Theory advocated social engineering
BY PETER HARDIN
Times-Dispatch Washington Correspondent
Sunday, March 5, 2000
The eugenics movement, which blossomed in America in the early 1900s
and influenced the Nazis, played itself out in race-purity and forced-sterilization
laws in Virginia.
"Virginia has to be seen in some ways as a crucible for the
eugenics movement in this period," said J. David Smith, dean
of education and human services at Longwood College and author of
a book titled "The Eugenic Assault on America."
Charles Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, proposed this new "science"
of "race improvement" in England in the late 19th century.
As the movement grew, advocates focused on getting rid of what they
considered hereditary disorders or flaws through selective breeding
and social engineering.
The movement found fertile ground in Virginia, where supporters
successfully pushed in 1924 for two pieces of landmark legislation.
A stricter law
One, the Racial Integrity Act, defined a white person as having
no trace of black blood and made it illegal for whites and non-Caucasians
to marry. It was stricter than earlier anti-miscegenation laws and
was used by the state not only to strip minorities of their rights
but also to lay siege to a scattered Indian population.
The second law, permitting involuntary sterilization, led to the
sterilization of more than 8,300 people across Virginia who were
considered defective by the state. Of 30 states that adopted such
laws, many modeled them on Virginia's.
Revelations of forced sterilizations of thousands of so-called "misfits"
drew widespread attention in the early 1980s.
Also in 1924, Congress endorsed eugenics thinking in adopting the
Immigration Restriction Act, which led to sharply reduced immigration
quotas for southern and eastern Europeans.
The "pseudo-science" of eugenics provided fuel for people
with racist views.
"It was an accident of history that eugenic theory reached
its peak of acceptability in 1924 so as to be available as a respectable
veneer with which to cover ancient prejudice," wrote Paul A.
Lombardo, who teaches at the University of Virginia's law school
and center for biomedical ethics. At U.Va., eugenics once was taught
Used his authority
Dr. Walter A. Plecker, head of Virginia's Bureau of Vital Statistics
from 1912 to 1946, believed in eugenics and used his authority and
state law to try to protect what he fervently believed was the superior,
threatened white race.
"Plecker was enabled to do what he did because the society
felt it was necessary to characterize people by the concept of race,"
said Smith. "We saw that reach its pinnacle with the Nazis."
theory in America was used to develop not only Virginia's sterilization
law but also the race hygiene program adopted in Nazi Germany.
With the opening of Holocaust memorials in recent years, and with
recent scientific gains in detailing the human gene map, popular
interest in the now-discredited eugenics movement has risen.
is a surprising, enormous resurgence of interest," Lombardo
said. He's writing a book about the Virginia trial in which Carrie
Buck's planned sterilization was challenged.
A white teen-ager, Buck was selected to be the first person sterilized
under Virginia's 1924 law. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court,
which in 1927 upheld the law.