American Indians were not American citizens even after ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, and they were often discriminated against and denied the equal protection of the laws. After the Civil War, white government officials in Virginia began to enforce racial distinctions that before the war had not always affected American Indian descendants. After the creation of the public school system, American Indian children were not allowed to attend white schools. Legalized segregation forced American Indian communities to search for differences between themselves and African Americans. For American Indian tribes, reasserting American Indian identity meant rejecting the biracial categories of “white” and “colored.”
Schools became a key site to assert American Indian autonomy. Between 1880 and 1920, many American Indian communities established their own schools rather than attend black schools. In this way, American Indians resisted the color line by insisting on the creation of “Indian” as a third category. In Virginia, the Pamunkey tribe went so far as to carry membership cards with them so they could not be forced onto the “colored” railway coach. Some Pamunkey tribal chiefs wore their hair long in order to show that it was straight and not curly. The Pamunkey Tribe established its own school, which consisted of a single-story frame building.
Citation: Pamunkey Schoolhouse Photograph, May 31, 1937; Pamunkey Indian School, Pamunkey Indian Reservation, King William County, School Buildings Service Photograph Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia
Analyze: Why do you think American Indians were not considered American citizens? Why do you think they were treated this way?
In Their Shoes: What do you think it would have been like to grow up as an American Indian during this time? What might a “normal” day look like for a high school student?
Analyze: What do you think happened to American Indians in Virginia after Brown v. Board of Education? Do you think this affected them?