Several months ago I got a phone from Hawaii about one of my family branches. It turns out the caller was a distant cousin who had questions about why her ancestors on the 1920 and 1930 census for Virginia were listed as being white. The oral tradition is the family had Native American ancestry. Coming from a multi-ethnic society and culture in Hawaii, she didn’t understand why Virginia didn’t have a variety of categories to describe racial or ethnic make-up. I had to explain to her the history of how a president, scientists, and social reformers robbed people of their identity at best, and having any descendants at worst.
In today’s world where diversity is celebrated, we need to remember this wasn’t always the case. Twentieth century reformers, including President Woodrow Wilson and Margaret Sanger, supported the betterment of the human race through eugenics, the science of improving a human population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics. It fell into disfavor only after the twisting of its doctrines by the Nazis. But many people don’t know that it was American eugenicists who influenced the Nazis, and forced sterilization of “inferior persons” was widespread in the United States until the 1960’s. Eugenics with its goal of selective breeding, had racism at its core with people of color being considered inferior and undesirable.
One of the major players in the eugenics movement was a Virginian, Walter Ashby Plecker. He was the first registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, serving from 1912-1946. He drafted and lobbied for the passage of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. It institutionalized the one-drop rule, meaning any person with “one drop of black blood” was considered black no matter how many generations in the past. It recognized only two races, “white” and “colored” (black). This went beyond existing law, which had classified persons as white who had one-sixteenth (equivalent to one great-great-grandparent) or less black ancestry.
The result of this act and Plecker’s influence as the vital statistics registrar is that people with Native American or with mixed-racial ancestries wanted to “pass” for white rather than be recognized as “colored” and have to live with segregation and Jim Crow laws that made people of color second class citizens.
The truth is that there was more racial mixing between white, black, and Native Americans than people wanted to recognize. Plus the definitions of who was considered white changed. For example, in 1822 Virginia, a person was considered legally white with up to one-fourth African ancestry (equivalent to one grandparent). This later became one-sixteenth (equivalent to one great-great-grandparent) and eventually the one-drop rule of the Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which was adopted by many other states as well.
The irony is that free persons of color in colonial America were not uncommon. Paul Heinegg’s Free African Americans in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Delaware and Maryland, 1999–2005, is a ground-breaking study on free persons of color in early America.
He found that 80 percent of the people listed as “other” or “free Negroes” and “free people of color” in North Carolina in censuses from 1790-1810 were descended from African Americans free in Virginia during the colonial period. Those were born mostly of relationships freely chosen between white women, free or indentured servants, and African or African American men, indentured servants, free or slave. Such relationships indicated the fluid nature of society before slavery became defined as a lifelong racial caste. Because the women were white, their children were born free. In addition, some slaves were freed as early as the mid-17th century, so after 150 years had generations of descendants by 1800, the turn of the 19th century.
Many free African Americans, along with European-American neighbors, migrated to frontier areas of Virginia, North Carolina, and then further west. Such families sometimes settled in insular groups and were the origin of some isolated settlements, which have long claimed or were said to be of American Indian or Portuguese ancestry.
Some Americans of mixed European and African ancestry claimed Mediterranean, Arab or Native American heritage to explain skin color and features differing from northern Europeans. They were trying to find a way through the binary racial divisions of society, especially in the South, where slavery became closely tied in the colonial era to the foreign status of people of African descent, which prevented them from being considered English subjects. In the 18th and 19th centuries, most free people went by appearance. If they looked white, were accepted by neighbors and fulfilled community obligations, they were absorbed into white or European-American society.
Along came Plecker and the eugenics movement. Those who had passed for white, or were accepted as white, had that racial designation, but for Native Americans, or those who had an oral tradition of Native American, they had no separate identity under this either-or system. Plecker did not recognize that many mixed-race Virginia Native Americans had maintained their culture and identity as aboriginal persons.
He believed there were few “real” Indians left, as they had intermarried over time with other ethnic groups, plus he thought “colored” people were attempting to pass as “Indian.” He ordered state agencies to reclassify most citizens’ claiming American Indian identity as “colored,” although many groups of Virginia Indians had continued in their cultural identity, practices and communities. Their identities were often recorded as Indian in church records, for instance. Specifically, Plecker ordered state agencies to reclassify certain families whom he identified by surname, as he had decided they were trying to pass and evade segregation. This was legal in the South until federal legislation of the 1960s.
Among other effects, Plecker’s policy caused a contemporary problem: members of eight state-recognized Virginia tribes struggle to achieve federal recognition because they cannot prove their continuity of heritage through historic documentation, as required by federal laws. Plecker’s actions in the twentieth century altered records and for decades destroyed the evidence for many individuals and families of cultural continuity as Indians.
So for Virginia’s Native Americans, they were the victims of identity theft. For some families, the only way to reclaim their heritage is to test their DNA. Plecker could erase or alter the records, but he couldn’t erase what was in their genes.