Registration of Birth and Color, 1924
Virginia has had a long history of legally defining people by race. Colonial laws on slavery often used the words Negro and slave interchangeably. A law of 1792 distinguished among people with African ancestry by declaring any person with one-fourth or more African ancestry a mulatto. An 1866 law decreed that every person having one-fourth or more African American blood was be deemed a "colored" person, and every person not a "colored" person having one-fourth or more Indian blood was to be deemed an Indian. A 1910 law reduced to one-sixteenth the minimum of African ancestry for "colored" persons. On March 20, 1924, Virginia passed the "Act to Preserve Racial Integrity," which defined as "colored" all persons having any discoverable nonwhite ancestry and therefore subjecting all persons of mixed-race ancestry to the racial segregation laws and laws against interracial marriage.
The Racial Integrity Act required the registration of all Virginia residents with the State Bureau of Vital Statistics, noting their status as either white or "colored." It also required all doctors, midwives, and other health or county officials to fill out birth registration forms that clearly identified children they delivered as "colored" or "white." Walter Ashby Plecker, the head of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics, routinely threatened officials with arrest and jail time when he believed they were intentionally or unintentionally mis-categorizing children as white or Indian.
The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 recognized only two races, white and colored. The act required that a racial description of every person be recorded at birth, and made marriage between white persons and nonwhite persons a felony. Plecker developed the racial criteria behind the act and adhered strictly to the one-drop rule, a historical colloquial term that holds that a person with any trace of African ancestry is considered black. The law was the most famous ban on miscegenation in the United States, and was overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1967, in Loving v. Virginia.
1. Who was Walter Plecker?
2. What Virginia law allowed Walter Plecker to take actions like requiring the registration of birth and color?
3. What are are some of the things that this registration card recorded?
This letter came to the Library of Virginia in a group of records from Rockbridge County, Virginia. The records consist of the correspondence of the county clerk, Abner Terry Shields, with Plecker from 1912 to 1943. The correspondence includes Vital Statistics forms and instructions, Virginia Health Bulletins about enforcing the Racial Integrity Law of 1924, a letter to the attorney general asking for clarification of procedures required by the new Racial Integrity Act about issuing marriage licenses, pamphlets about eugenics issued by Plecker and the Bureau of Vital Statistics, specific inquiries from Plecker about individuals he was seeking to prove were nonwhite, and newspaper articles about court cases challenging the Racial Integrity Law. Evidence that people protested against and resisted Plecker's campaign is clear in this correspondence as well.
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Smith, J. David. The Eugenic Assault on America: Scenes in Red, White and Black. Fairfax, Va.: George Mason University Press, 1993.
Sherman, Richard B. "'The Last Stand': The Fight for Racial Integrity in Virginia in the 1920s." Journal of Southern History 54, no. 1 (February 1988): 69–92.
Smith, J. Douglas. Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
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