The campaign for racial purity and the erosion of paternalism in Virginia, 1922-1930: “nominally white, biologically mixed, and legally Negro”.

The campaign for racial purity and the erosion of paternalism in Virginia, 1922-1930: “nominally white, biologically mixed, and legally Negro”.

The Journal of Southern History
Volume 68, Number 1 (February 2002)
pages 65-106

J. Douglas Smith

In September 1922 John Powell, a Richmond native and world-renowned pianist and composer, and Earnest Sevier Cox, a self-proclaimed explorer and ethnographer, organized Post No. 1 of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America. By the following June the organization claimed four hundred members in Richmond alone and had added new groups throughout the state, all dedicated to “the preservation and maintenance of Anglo-Saxon ideals and civilization.” For the next ten years Powell and his supporters dominated racial discourse in the Old Dominion; successfully challenged the legislature to redefine blacks, whites, and Indians; used the power of a state agency to enforce the law with impunity fundamentally altered the lives of hundreds of mixed-race Virginians; and threatened the essence of the state’s devotion to paternalistic race relations.

The racial extremism and histrionics of the leaders of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs have attracted the attention of both legal scholars and southern historians, particularly those interested in the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, the major legislative achievement of the organization, and Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed three centuries of miscegenation statutes in the United States. Historian Richard B. Sherman, for instance, has focused on the organization’s leaders, “a small but determined group of racial zealots who rejected the contention of most southern whites in the 1920s that the “race question was settled.” Sherman, who has written the most detailed account of the legislative efforts of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs, has argued in the pages of the Journal of Southern History that the leaders of the organization constituted a “dedicated coterie of extremists who played effectively on the fears and prejudices of many whites.” Convinced that increasing numbers of persons with traces of black blood were passing as white, they made a “Last Stand” against racial amalgamation.

While Sherman is certainly correct that the Anglo-Saxon Clubs owed their success to the commitment of their leaders, their views and policies resonated with a much broader swath of the white population. The Anglo-Saxon Clubs did not merely manipulate the racial fears and prejudices of whites but also tapped into the same assumptions that undergirded the entire foundation of white supremacy and championed segregation as a system of racial hierarchy and control. The call for racial integrity appealed especially to elite whites in Virginia who were obsessed with genealogy and their pristine bloodlines. Lady Astor, for instance, reportedly informed her English friends that they lacked the purity of the white inhabitants of the Virginia Piedmont. “We are undiluted,” she proclaimed. Author Emily Clark satirized this prevailing view in Richmond when one of her characters remarked, “for here alone, in all America, flourished the Anglo-Saxon race, untainted, pure, and perfect.” White elites across Virginia gave their support to the Anglo-Saxon Clubs and allowed Powell’s message a hearing: state senators and delegates approved legislation; governors publicly advocated the aims of the organization; some of the most socially prominent women in Richmond joined the ladies auxiliary; and influential newspapers offered editorial support and provided a public platform for the dissemination of the organization’s extreme views…

…In addition to exposing a fundamental weakness in the system of managed race relations, the Anglo-Saxon Clubs unintentionally revealed the absurdity of the basic assumption that underlay their mission: it proved impossible to divide the state, or the nation for that matter, into readily identifiable races. The longer they waged their campaign, the more apparent it became that they could not divine the precise amount of nonwhite blood in a given individual. Furthermore, the Anglo-Saxon Clubs met a great deal of resistance from individuals and communities who rejected the clubs’ particular construction of racial identity. Communities across the state revealed a variability in race relations that confounded those most committed to a discrete, binary definition of race…

…Although Powell and Cox initially placed their efforts within the broader nativist context of the national debate over federal immigration policy, they soon ceased to mention immigration at all. (11) Instead, they focused their energies toward “achieving a final solution” to the “negro problem.” Their ultimate concern, as they suggested in lengthy articles in the Times-Dispatch, was to prevent “White America” from devolving into a “Negroid Nation.” Writing in July 1923, Powell argued that the passage of Jim Crow laws and the disfranchisement of blacks had “diverted the minds of our people from the most serious and fundamental peril, that is, the danger of racial amalgamation.” “It is not enough to segregate the Negro on railway trains and street cars, in schools and theaters,” the pianist declared; “it is not enough to restrict his exercise of the franchise, so long as the possibility remains of the absorption of Negro blood into our white population.” Powell acknowledged that Virginia’s laws already prevented the intermarriage of blacks and whites but warned that such laws did not necessarily “prevent intermixture.” He and his colleagues in the Anglo-Saxon Clubs also believed that a 1910 Virginia statute that defined a black person as having at least one-sixteenth black blood no longer protected the integrity of the white race. Pointing to census figures that showed a decrease in the number of mulattoes in Virginia from 222,910 in 1910 to 164,171 in 1920, they argued that an increasing number of people with some black blood must be passing as white. Consequently, a new, “absolute” color line offered the only “possibility, if not the probability, of achieving a final solution.”

Powell’s analysis of census data, however, points to the absurdity of his campaign to define race in absolute terms. While Powell interpreted the steep drop in mulattoes as proof of increased passing, historian Joel Williamson argues that by the early twentieth century the only significant “mixing” occurred between lighter-skinned blacks and darker-skinned blacks. Even census officials warned in 1920 that “considerable uncertainty necessarily attaches to the classification of Negroes as black and mulatto, since the accuracy of the distinction depends largely upon the judgment and care employed by the enumerators.” Mulattoes in Virginia did not become white between 1910 and 1920 but rather became black. In fact, the census bureau did away with mulatto as a category for the 1930 enumeration…

…Although Powell was the Anglo-Saxon Clubs’ leading spokesman, Walter Plecker, as director of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, was without a doubt the group’s primary enforcer. From 1924 until his retirement twenty-two years later, Plecker waged a campaign of threats and intimidation aimed at classifying all Virginians by race and identifying even the smallest traces of black blood in the state’s citizens. In short, the statistician operated on the belief that a person was guilty of being black until he or she could prove otherwise.

Plecker considered it his mission to encourage as many Virginians as possible to register with the state. Between ten and twenty thousand near-white Virginians, he noted, “possess an intermixture of colored blood, in some cases to a slight extent, it is true, but still enough to prevent them from being white.” Such people previously had been considered white, which had allowed them to demand “admittance of their children to white schools” and “in not a few cases” to marry whites. Although such people were “scarcely distinguished as colored,” they “are not white in reality.” Registration, he argued, would enable the Bureau of Vital Statistics to head off such trouble…

…Linking racial integrity and segregated schools assumed a level of critical importance as the General Assembly prepared to meet in January 1930. Revelations that a number of mixed-race children attended white schools in Essex County provided advocates of a stricter racial-definition law the means of persuasion that they had lacked in 1926 and 1928 when they were seen as unnecessarily harassing the state’s Indians. The situation in Essex County first developed in 1928 as local school officials took steps to remove from the white schools children considered mixed. One family resisted, hired a lawyer, and filed suit. In the Circuit Court of Essex County, school officials acknowledged that the children in question had less than one-sixteenth black blood. Consequently, Judge Joseph W. Chinn ruled that the children could not be kept out of white schools.

Chinn based his ruling on what racial integrity advocates had long understood as a loophole in the original legislation. The 1924 Racial Integrity Act defined a white person as an individual with “no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian,” making an exception only for certain Indians, and failed to define a black person. Furthermore, the act specifically prohibited the intermarriage of a white person with a nonwhite person, but it made no mention of the schools. Powell later testified that he had assumed that all persons not deemed white would be automatically classified black. But since the 1924 statute did not amend the 1910 act which termed blacks as persons with one-sixteenth or more black blood, an individual with less than one-sixteenth black blood could not be considered black, and therefore he or she could not be prevented from attending white schools.

A reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch concluded that under Chinn’s ruling “any child having less than one-sixteenth Negro blood, not only can attend a white school, but must attend it, and is by law prevented from attending a colored school.” The judge’s opinion, moreover, opened the door for persons with less than one-sixteenth black blood to attend any of Virginia’s colleges or universities. In the wake of Chinn’s decision, local officials understood that their only avenue of relief lay with the state legislature passing a stricter law; consequently, sponsors introduced a measure that defined as black “any person in whom there is ascertainable any Negro Blood”—the so-called one-drop rule

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