Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bureaucrat ripped hole in tapestry of Virginia's Indian history

From the Virginia Pilot, "Bureaucrat ripped hole in tapestry of Virginia's Indian history," by Joanne Kimberlin:
Tall and thin, with a neat mustache and white hair, Plecker was Virginia’s registrar of vital statistics from 1912 to 1946. He was the gatekeeper of birth, marriage and death records during the era of eugenics – a movement that combined bans on interracial marriage with the mandatory sterilization of the mentally ill.

The plan was to improve the human race by reducing what was viewed as defective breeding. Virginia was far from alone in its support of the “science”: In the early 1900s, interracial marriage was illegal in 30 of the then 48 states. Nazi Germany’s lethal persecution policies had roots in eugenics.

Virginia, however, had the distinction of being the first to outlaw interracial marriage – a law enacted in 1691 forbidding blacks and whites to marry.

The state’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act reinforced the old prohibitions and sought to clarify the dividing line. Anyone not matching the act’s definition of “white,” with “no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian,” was classified as “colored” – including the Indians.

Plecker, an icily efficient man who rarely smiled, carried out a campaign to make sure the vital records of Indians across the state reflected their new racial category.

Indians who refused the change risked a year in jail. Hospitals detained native newborns until parents signed birth certificates designating their child as black.

Natives say Plecker’s “paper genocide” created a gap in their history that makes it nearly impossible for them to prove that their tribes have existed “continuously” – one of the requirements of federal recognition.

Chief Walter D. “Red Hawk” Brown, III. The Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe, Southampton County Virginia is an Iroquoian-speaking Tribe
But R. Lee Fleming, a director at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, says Virginia tribes aren’t as short on records as they say. Contrary to popular belief, Fleming says, Plecker did not entirely obliterate their bloodline.

Fleming has a file that contains 16 Indian birth, death or marriage certificates from the Plecker era where the race was not altered.

“I just scratched the surface and found these,” he said. “I was certainly surprised. That’s not at all what I’d been hearing.”

Steve Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy, wasn’t shocked to hear that some records escaped Plecker’s purge, but he doesn’t think there are enough to clear federal hurdles: “You can find 16 vital records in any tribe that weren’t changed, but you’ll find 150 to 200 that had the wrong documentation.”

(source: The Virginian-Pilot, 10 June 2009, by Joanne Kimberlin)


  1. Some of my dad's people came from Virginia. Not exactly sure what part; but one of my patriarchs was mixed with Indian and British isles mix. He married a woman from Georgia of mixed ancestry and they ended up in Texas.

    The state of Texas classified my grandmother as Indian on my dad's Birth Certificate. Obviously this was during the period right before Hitler's rise, with segregation, Eugenics theories, and the one drop rule in full swing in the USA. Had certain things taken place and had his people ended up in Va, they'd have been seen as "colored."

    Texas has its own sins and troubled history, but, thank you, State of Texas.

    I've no animosity to Dr. Plecker because he didn't screw my folks over, but, thank you, Folks of Indigenous ancestry, Melungeons, African Americans, etc, for fighting the Good fight to overthrow his wicked legacy.

  2. The unfortunate thing is that some tribes that the English settlers encountered in 17th Century Jamestown were just recognized by the federal government as late as 1978.

    Many tribes had to spend millions of dollars to petition the government for recognition...and they were the original inhabitants of the land. Then, they had to deal with shady characters like Jack Abramoff to lobby for their tribal recognition.

    Plantation slavery worked in tandem with the removal/reclassification of the Native American tribes. The lands had to be ethnically cleansed (that's why the British army was here in the first place, to kill Indians and keep the Dutch, French and Spanish away from English settlements); then they put up a fence (usually they built forts and walls -- remember Wall Street in New York was a really for real wall built by slaves to keep the Indians out of Manhattan); write the laws to favor the rich and powerful (every colony had slave codes), and lastly import human beings that they could enslave in perpetuity (the first slaves were Native Americans and white convicts).

    I'm glad your family was able to keep your Native American heritage. I think it is important for everybody to be what they really are.


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