Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Thousands of Citizens in Virginia Denied Their Identity and Civil Rights in the Twentieth Century


Walter Plecker's racist crusade against Virginia's Native Americans.
"Some of these mongrels, finding that they have been able to sneak in their birth certificates unchallenged as Indians, are now making a rush to register as white." -- W.A. Plecker

"By (Plecker's) standards, codified by the General Assembly in the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, one drop of Negro blood would cause a person to be categorized as black. That was designed to stop light-skinned people with black ansestry from "passing" as white people and thus avoiding the Jim Crow discrimination laws.

"Dr. Plecker sought to categorize many of the "Indians" in Virginia as black. He was forced to finesse the equivalent of one drop of Indian blood, however. Many of the so-called "First Families of Virginia" traced their ancestry back to the son of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, and were proud of their connection to what they considered to be Native American royalty."

Trying to locate documentation regarding Native Americans is very difficult. An outrageous example of this difficulty is the goings-on in Virginia in the early-to-mid 1900's, an era when the eugenics movement was in its heyday.

Plecker was the "vital records czar" for the state of Virginia during the era of the "one drop law." W.A. Plecker, acting as Virginia's first Registrar of Vital Statistics, was determined to designate all so-called Melungeons as other than white.

Michael Everette Bell, Ph.D. (Department of History, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, says:

"For a balanced examination of Plecker and his ideology, see the 'Richmond's History' article by Arthur Zilmence, Walter Ashby Plecker: A Contextual Evaluation."

Ron Welburn ( says:

"One of the best discussions of what Plecker was doing is in Helen Rountree's POCAHANTAS' PEOPLE: THE POWHATAN INDIANS OVER FOUR CENTURIES; read the chapter, 'The Racial Integrity Fight.'"

Virginia's former registrar of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, Dr. Walter Ashby Plecker, a small-town doctor who became registrar of the state's Bureau of Vital Statistics in 1912, spent decades trying to deny the existence of Indians in Virginia. He believed there were no real native-born Indians in Virginia and anybody claiming to be Indian had a mix of black blood and, because in Virginia at that time one drop of African blood rendered an individual completely Aftican, Plecker thereby classified Indians as Blacks. Plecker ran the Bureau from 1912 to 1946.
The "ancestral registration" provisions of the law were strictly enforced by Plecker.
In 1925, he began a campaign to force the U.S. Census Bureau to report no Indians in Virginia in 1930. The Census Bureau conceded to mark Virginia Indians with a footnote: "Includes a number of persons whose classification as Indians has been questioned." Plecker believed that all Indians had 'polluted' their blood by mingling it with free African-Americans. Plecker thus saw those who claimed Indian ancestry as opportunists seeking what Helen Rountree called a 'way station to whiteness'--in other words, he saw all Indians as blacks attempting to 'pass.'"
Nonetheless, in 1930, the U.S. Census reported 779 Indians in Virginia, noting for the first time there were 59 Indians in Caroline County.

Plecker even issued in 1943 a list of surnames belonging to "mongel" or mixed-blood families suspected of having Negro ancestry who must not be allowed to pass as Indian or White.
Plecker's successor, Russell E. Booker Jr., termed Plecker's activities from 1912 to 1946 as "documentary genocide".

Plecker helped pass the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, a strict race classification and law which institutionalized the "one drop rule," under which any person, including Indians, who was believed to have "one drop" or more of "Negro blood" was designated as Black. A person with no "non-Caucasian blood" was classified as white, as well as persons who claimed 1/16th or less "Indian blood," which applied to those who had been proud of their so-called impurity: prominent white persons who claimed to be descended from Pocahantas. To be anything but white in Virginia meant exclusion from employment, education, and basic services. 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.

"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." ("Battles in Red, Black and White"

Plecker changed and/or destroyed labels on vital records to classify Indians as "colored, mongrel, mulatto," investigated the pedigrees of racially "suspect" citizens, and provided information to block or annul interracial marriages with Whites. He not only did this to Indians, but other races as well.

Knowledge of this historical development is vitally necessary for those who are searching their Native heritage to understand why records in the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics are incorrect or missing.

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