Documentary Genocide: Families Surnames on Racial Hit List
By Peter Hardin, Times-Dispatch Washington Correspondent
Sunday,March 5, 2000 A1
Long before 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. The original orders came from Richmond generations ago.
Virginia’s 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 blood.
In aggressively 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 wrote.
Twenty-eight years later, the Monacan mother’s surname still was on Plecker’s list. She argued forcefully with hospital officials. She lost.
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 racism.
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 their existence.
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 the law.
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 say.
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 known today.
“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 Tribe.
“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 sad.”
Said Chief William P. Miles of the Pamunkey Tribe: “He came very close to committing statistical genocide on Native Americans in Virginia.”
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 made before.
“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 route?”
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