Doctor’s quest to engineer a “master race” in the early 1900s still hurting Virginia’s Indian tribes

Doctor’s quest to engineer a “master race” in the early 1900s still hurting Virginia’s Indian tribes

Richmond, Virginia

Mark Holmberg, Staff reporter

RICHMOND— Richmond’s famous Hollywood Cemetery serves as the final resting place of presidents, statesmen and generals.

Few have had the impact of Dr. Walter Plecker. His stormy legacy continues today, 150 years after his birth.

“My parents always made sure we knew the story of what Walter Plecker had done and how it had affected our people,” said Wayne Adkins, president of the Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance For Life.

“Plecker was a menace to Virginia Indians over many years,” said Stephen R. Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy Tribe. “My mom and dad, for instance, had to go to Washington DC in 1935 to get married as Indians. It was illegal to do so in Virginia under penalty of up to a year in jail.”

“Dr. Plecker was convinced that there was a need to purify the white race,” said Paul Lombardo, a law professor at Georgia State University and formerly a eugenics expert at the University of Virginia. “He thought that he was preserving the Commonwealth of Virginia, that he was maintaining the United States of America and, most importantly to him, that he was protecting the white race.”

For 34 years, starting in 1912, Dr. Plecker served as the director of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, carefully compiling birth, death and marriage records.

For Plecker, a native of Augusta County, there were only two races: white and non-white. Anyone who had what he thought was one drop of other than white blood was listed as “colored.” They were mongrels, in his view.

Plecker was a complex man who saved the lives of countless babies, including those of blacks and Indians, with updated birthing and midwife techniques, along with simple, homemade incubators for premature babies, according to historic profiles.

He was relentless. With great energy he compiled lists and wrote letters chastising whites who applied for marriage licenses with those Plecker thought were impure. Those letters are part of the extensive correspondence that are part of the vast Plecker record.

“There’s no question that Plecker was incredibly aggressive using the few prerogatives the law gave him to register people,” Lombardo said. “He used those prerogatives really to threaten people, to coerce them… Dr. Plecker once boasted that he had a list of people, by race, that rivaled the list that was kept by Hitler of the Jews.”

If he even just suspected someone had any African-American blood, they would go on his mongrel list.

Virginia’s Native Americans particularly felt his wrath. He was certain the tribes had interbred with blacks. “Like rats, when you’re not watching, they’ve been sneaking in their birth certificates though their own midwives,” Plecker wrote.

“We couldn’t claim we were Indian, it was against the law to say we were Indian,” said Kenneth Branham, chief of the Monacan Tribe. “What do we claim? We’re not black. And we’re not white.”

“That whole idea that you’re not what you believe yourself to be,” said Sharon Bryant, the newly elected Monacan chief. “That an entire community would tell you that, it becomes very oppressive to the people.”

“Whole groups of people who formerly were recognized among the tribes of Virginia simply disappeared from the records,” Lombardo said. “They were no longer considered to be Native Americans or Indians as they were called. Their children were not recognized as members of the tribes, and they’re living with that legacy right now.

Plecker and his many supporters believed not only that the races should never intermarry, they shouldn’t even mingle. Strict segregation would last for generations.

Blacks had to have their own schools and neighborhoods. So did Indians…

…In 1924, at Plecker’s urging and with the support of many Virginians, the General Assembly passed the Racial Integrity Act, which narrowly defined race and made it illegal to for whites to marry anyone of any other race. Plecker wrote to the governors of the rest of the states, urging them to pass similar laws to save the white race.

Also, that year, Lombardo said, “there’s a sterilization law that’s passed in Virginia, upheld later in the United States Supreme Court, allowing some 60,000-plus people to be sterilized in institutions in 32 states all over the country.”

There was also a strict immigration law passed then.

The Racial Integrity Act stood until 1967, when the Loving case about an interracial couple led to a Supreme Court reversal.

But the damage to Virginia’s Indian tribes continues. There are more than 560 federally recognized Indian tribes in the country. But none of Virginia’s tribes, the ones that helped the settlers survive, have that crucial recognition that gives them, in essence, sovereign status and entitles them to nation-building assistance.

The U.S. Department of the Interior requires that tribes be able to show an unbroken bloodline. And Walter Plecker carved a hole – decades long – in their heritage…

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