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)