April 26, 2011

Virginia classified Indians as blacks

White Supremacists from 1920s Still Thwarting Virginia Tribes

By Tanya LeePlecker, registrar of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912-1946, was instrumental in crafting that state’s law. He argued that there were no full-blooded Indians left in the state by the early 20th century; therefore, all who claimed Indian heritage were part something else, and he decided the best thing to do would be to lump them in with blacks, since, by his mandate as registrar, a person could claim only one of two racial backgrounds in Virginia: Caucasian or “Negro.” People claiming to be Indians, Plecker said, were r­eally blacks trying to move their families into a position where they could “pass,” or claim to be Caucasian.

Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 outlawed miscegenation, and its intent, quite simply, was to keep Anglo-Saxon blood pure. Wrote Plecker: “For the purpose of this act, the term ‘white person’ shall apply only to the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian.… The [terms] ‘Mixed,’ ‘Issue,’ and perhaps one or two others, will be understood to mean a mixture of white and black r­aces, with the white predominating. That is the class that should be reported with the greatest care, as many of these are on the borderline, and constitute the real danger of race intermixture.”
More about Plecker and the eugenics movement:Plecker was not just the eccentric, lone-wolf evil person he is sometimes portrayed as—though he may have been both eccentric and evil. Among the many advocates of eugenics in America back then were Alexander Graham Bell, Harvard professor Charles B. Davenport, Madison Grant, a founder of the New York Zoological Society, President Theodore Roosevelt, MIT geneticist Frederick Adams Woods and virtually every geneticist in the country, as well as a raft of wealthy patrons who supported the spread of eugenics and paid for research to substantiate its premises. President Calvin Coolidge, who signed the 1924 immigration law, had said when serving as vice president, “America should be kept American.… Biological laws show that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races.” Writing for the majority in the Supreme Court’s 1927 ruling in Buck v. Bell, Virginia’s landmark test case on forced sterilization, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said: “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.… Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

(In 1932, Plecker gave the keynote speech at the Third International Conference on Eugenics in New York at the American Museum of Natural History under the auspices of the International Federation of Eugenics Societies. Ernst Rudin, who had come over from Germany for the conference, was unanimously elected president of the International Federation of Eugenics Societies. A year later, he became one of the architects of the racial policies of Nazi Germany that led to the Holocaust.)
Comment:  The article makes clear some of the obstacles tribes face in getting recognized. Whites defined them out of existence, then set the standards so high the "former Indians" couldn't meet them.

Given Roosevelt's bigoted views on Indians, it's not too surprising that he believed in eugenics. But when a president and a Supreme Court justice believe in their own racial superiority, you know America's deck is stacked against you.

For more on the subject, see Vermont to Apologize for Sterilization? and Sotomayor, Empathy, and Sterilization.

Below:  "Plecker wasn’t a lone wolf with his racial purity notions—eugenics had many supporters."


Anonymous said...

The odd thing is, eugenics wasn't very popular until it got blatantly racial. Religious sentiment generally opposed eugenics, since 1) it inherently devalues human life, and 2) implicit in eugenics is the acceptance of natural selection. Populists opposed eugenics on the grounds that, in addition to coming from the "eastern establishment", it said these farmboys were inferior.

But once race got involved, it suddenly became more popular.

Plecker was a bizarre case. He did have a mammy, and was quite attached to her, but his love for nonwhite people ended with her. He even harangued interracial couples in other states. And he even ignored actual anthropology: When asked about a Filipino man marrying an Italian woman, he asked if she was a mainlander or Sicilian. He declared the people of India to be "Malay or Mongolian, I'm not sure which" rather than Caucasian. But he absolutely hated American Indians worst of all, mostly because the Virginia aristocracy, many of whose ancestors came over with John Smith, had history of intermarrying with Indians, so he could only get his laws passed by allowing for one-sixteenth Indian blood.

Of course, any attempt to classify Virginia's Indians as Negro could be considered unconstitutional as the whole law is unconstitutional as per Loving v. Virginia.

BTW, you don't need to put "Negro" in quotes. It's a correct, if not used any more, term.

Sarah S. said...

You are right Anonymous that there was an exception made for those with 1/16th Indian blood. However, that was not because of the ancestors of Virginia's aristocracy having a history of intermarrying with Indians. The exception was made for one marriage between an Indian and an Englishmen, the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. Many aristocratic Virginians proudly trace their lineage to this couple, hence the exception that Plecker hated having to make.

Also, while you are correct that Loving v. Virginia made the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 unconstitutional, and the labeling Virginia Indians as Negro that went with it, I feel it should be pointed out that the case was not brought up and decided until 1967. Plecker's damage had long since been done by that point.

Rob said...

Yes, I know about "Negro." The instance in quotes was in the original article.