One day in 1928, the first Registrar of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics, Walter Plecker, was approached by a mixed couple who wanted to confirm the legitimacy of their marriage and sequential child. This was a regular task for the tall, thin man with neatly-combed white hair and trim moustache, whose job was to approve the validity of marriage certificates in the state.
Though slavery was long gone and some had begun to accept the legitimacy of the freedman, Plecker was a traditional Southerner, devoted to the remaining and diminishing values of the ex-Confederacy. He was a chapter leader of the white supremacist organization, Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America, and a devout Presbyterian who “thumped the white truth of the Bible.”
He had lobbied for the successful passage of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act four years prior, which reinforced the legitimacy of the one-drop-of-blood rule. And he obsessively argued for and strictly reinforced the concept of two races—white and black. Thus, Natives, minorities, and mixed children (mulattos) were unfairly stripped of their legitimacy and heritage.
On this fateful day, he rejected the couple’s marriage and claim that their newborn was white, stating that the father had traces of “dark blood.” In a follow-up letter he wrote: “To inform you that this is a mulatto child and you can not pass it off as white … you will have to do something about this matter and see that this child is not allowed to mix with white children. It can not go to white schools and can never marry a white person in Virginia.”
Though the woman cried excessively, Plecker—who claimed his office was “right about everything” as he possessed the state genealogical records from the early 1800s—held firm to his cold decision.
Although his unjust racial policies delegitimized thousands of Virginia couples and children, Plecker failed to recognize the truth of love as millions of interracial married couples and children live happily and peacefully in Virginia today… and the definition of love and its boundaries continue to be stretched.
In 2014, Chief Kenneth Adams of the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe said about Plecker: “You have to wonder how anyone could be so consumed with hate.”
To assess Plecker’s motives for bolstering eugenics and denying interracial marriages, it is necessary to examine his past. Walter Ashby Plecker was one of the last babies to be born in the old Antebellum South, on April 2, 1861, ten days before the bombardment of Fort Sumter and the start of the American Civil War.
As he was raised in a world that was strictly defined by gender and racial hierarchies (his father was a prominent slave owner), Plecker naturally formed his opinions based on the longevity of white power, which included purifying his race among marriages and sexual relationships.
His distrust of Negroes and other colored minorities grew in school (he attended a private institution for white elite males) and by the time he graduated from the University of Maryland’s medical school in 1885, Plecker took a special interest in delivering “pure” white babies and creating propaganda that discouraged sexual unions between mixed couples.
In the early 1880s, he wrote a letter to a medical colleague expressing his abhorrence towards interracial breeding: “As much as we hold in esteem individual Negroes, this esteem was not of a character that would tolerate marriage with them, though we know now to our sorrow much illegitimate mixture has occurred… If you desire to do the correct thing for the Negro race, inspire (them) with the thought that the birth of mulatto children is a standing disgrace.”
Plecker strongly believed that the increasing Negro (including mixed) births during the Gilded and Progressive eras would likely play an important role in reducing the power of the white patriarchy; he recorded they were “like rats when you’re not watching.”
He was not the only southerner to think this. In her book “Building a Better Race” (University of California Press), historian Wendy Kline argues that southerners believed social and economic changes in the early twentieth century—including immigration and industrialization—threatened to undermine established racial hierarches and white power.
Plecker once wrote that unless racial propaganda and enforcement of eugenics had a successful effect upon the community, then “we have little to hope for, but may expect in the future decline or complete destruction of our (white) civilization.”
Like most southerners, Plecker’s heritage and the beliefs he acquired from his schooling contributed to his repudiation of interracial marriage and breeding.
It’s worth noting that Plecker was a lonely man and exhibited traits that presumably contributed to his enjoyment in tearing mixed marriages and sexual unions apart, not to mention making people cry.
He made no effort to make friends and regularly grumbled when conversing with others. Plecker would choose to eat his daily lunch, which usually consisted of an apple, alone.
Russell E. Booker Jr., who worked at the Bureau, described his colleague as “a very rigid man; I don’t know of anyone who ever saw him smile.” Instead, he focused his energies on expansive projects in the hospital and Bureau, recording every detail about births and labor operations.
Although married, Plecker did not devote efforts to the institution, never had children, and spent little time at home with his wife. He once listed his hobbies as “books and birds.”
Plecker was also deeply religious and believed that God had blessed him with “special powers,” and expected everyone to treat him like royalty—his decisions final. In fact, he just about expected the cars to stop for him. One time a woman grabbed him just as he was about to get hit by a car, and he laid her out like she’d been touched by God.
Moreover, Plecker believed that the white man had been ordained by the Lord to preserve racial superiority. As a devout Presbyterian, Plecker was instrumental in preaching the “white truth” in front of large crowds, establishing many white conservative churches in the Bible Belt, and actively campaigning for university officials and politicians to enforce a mandatory sterilization of mentally-retarded people and an interracial marriage ban.
Plecker was a man of science and a passionate believer in eugenics. He regularly dined at the New York City home of Harry H. Laughlin, a leading eugenics advocate.
He also wrote to every governor in the nation persuading them to toughen marriage laws, he pressured superintendents to remove mulatto children from white schools, and he gave the keynote address at the Third International Eugenics Conference in 1932, where the audience included Ernst Rüdin, who would write Adolf Hitler’s eugenic laws for Germany eleven months later.
In 1943, Plecker lamented that “Hitler’s genealogical study of Jews was not more complete.” In “What Comes Naturally” (Oxford University Press), historian Peggy Pascoe noted that Plecker often looked back in family archives and “corrected” what he considered errors in racial reporting.
In fact, he had planned to evict “Negro-like” children from several Presbyterian orphanages and draft a book on the decline of the white race; however, he died in 1947 when he was hit by a car.
Plecker’s life was one filled with loneliness and hate, but fortunately the man could not break the definition of true love. His legacy is lost and the hate that surrounded his policies—though it may still exist in history books—are gone in modern government.
Historian Sharon E. Wood notes that the masculinity that defined the ex-Confederacy has been trumped by the rejuvenation of love and the desire for world peace.
Meanwhile, interracial love is common in many countries today. Thus, children from mixed parents are a regular (and beautiful) occurrence. Moreover, love between two men and two women is not shameful, as members of the LGBTQ community are now constitutionally allowed to marry and be recognized by the United States government.
Though a touchy issue in other parts of the world, Americans have had a growing appreciation for immigrants and other people’s cultures. And Native heritage in Virginia has since been restored, as President Donald Trump recently signed a bill (the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017), which recognizes six Virginian tribes at the Federal level, including the Upper Mattaponi Tribe.
In a nutshell, Plecker tried to purify the white race in Virginia by what amounted to bureaucratic genocide. However, he failed and his legacy was left in pieces upon his death. Modern generations have mostly shed the remnants of hate and racial violence and have embraced marriages and love among all races and ethnicities.
Fiske, Warren. “The Black-and-White World of Walter Ashby Plecker.” The Virginian-Pilot 38, August 18, 2004.
Heim, Joe. “Kaine and Warner push for federal recognition for 6 Virginia tribes.” Washington Post, March 20, 2017, online news article.
Kline, Wendy. Building A Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom. Berkley: University of California Press, 2001.
Pascoe, Peggy. What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Smith, Douglas J. “The Campaign for Racial Purity and the Erosion of Paternalism in Virginia, 1922-1930: ‘Nominally White, Biologically Mixed, and Legally Negro.” Journal of Southern History 68, February 2002; 65-106. Wood, Sharon E. The Freedom of the Streets: Work, Citizenship, and Sexuality in a Gilded Age City. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005.