In 1924, Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act, which was designed to stop the “intermixture” of whites and African Americans. This banned interracial marriage by requiring marriage applicants to identify their race as white, colored, or mixed. The law defined a white person as one “with no trace of the blood of another race.” As the State Registrar of Vital Statistics, Dr. Walter Plecker was in charge of enforcing this law, which he used as a platform to overzealously spread his ideas of racial purity.
This enhanced focus on the separation of races was bolstered by the eugenics movement, which argued that people with “inferior” genes should be stopped from breeding. Laws and marriage applications of the time required applicants to swear that they were not “a habitual criminal, idiot, imbecile, hereditary epileptic, or insane.” Plecker declared that “intermarriage of the white race with mixed stock must be made impossible.” Plecker meticulously checked each birth certificate and marriage license in the state, and wrote frequent letters to county clerks who failed to uphold the law to his standards. Plecker seemed especially concerned about the approximately 20,000 “near white people, who are known to possess an intermixture of colored blood” passing as white, so they could attend white schools or marry white people. Many of his letters focused on a group of families in Amherst and Rockbridge Counties, who he accused of trying to circumnavigate the law. This led to several court cases, but the Racial Integrity Act was not overturned until 1967, when the United States Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that prohibiting interracial marriage was unconstitutional.
As soon as the law was passed, Dr. Plecker sent this Virginia Health Bulletin to all the city and county governments in the Commonwealth. It includes specific instructions for clerks who issue marriage licenses, a copy of the law itself, as well as Plecker’s views on “intermixture” and the harm to society caused “by such abhorrent deeds.”
Citation: Virginia Health Bulletin: The New Virginia Law To Preserve Racial Integrity, March 1924, Box 76, Folder 8, Virginia Governor (1922-1926: Trinkle), Executive Papers, Acc. 21567b, State Government Records Collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond.
Other Sources Used for Context:
Brendan Wolfe, “Racial Integrity Laws (1924-1930),” Encyclopedia Virginia, 4 November 2015, https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Racial_Integrity_Laws_of_the_1920s [viewed 21 December 2017].
Rockbridge County (Va.) Clerk’s Correspondence [Walter Plecker to A.T. Shields], 1912-1943, Local Government Records Collection, Rockbridge Country, The Library of Virginia, Richmond.