In 1924, Virginia's General Assembly passed the Racial Integrity Act, which was designed to stop the “intermixture” of white and Black people. The act 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.” The law did stipulate that "persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian" would be considered white, an accommodation for elite white Virginians who proudly claimed to be descendants of Pocahontas.
As Virginia's first state registrar of vital statistics, Dr. Walter Plecker was the driving force behind the law and oversaw its enforcement. After the law was enacted, Plecker sent this Virginia Health Bulletin to all the local governments in the state. It included specific instructions for clerks who issued 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.”
Plecker’s focus on the separation of races was bolstered by the eugenics movement, a part of which adhered to white racial superiority over non-whites and depended on white genetic purity. He declared that “intermarriage of the white race with mixed stock must be made impossible.” He 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. He even wrote to midwives, as in the case in this letter in which he warned a woman against making "false statements" about the racial identity of newborn infants. Additionally, Plecker expressed his belief that there existed people who were 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.
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. The Virginia General Assembly repealed the Racial Integrity Act along with other racially discriminatory laws in 2020.
Citation: Virginia Health Bulletin, 16 (March 1924): 1-4; and W. A. Plecker to Mary Sorrels, Aug. 15, 1925, Rockbridge County Clerk’s Correspondence [Walter Plecker to A.T. Shields], 1912-1943, Library of Virginia.
For more information, see the article on “Racial Integrity Laws (1924-1930),” at Encyclopedia Virginia.
Scan It: Scan one page of the document. Identify three or four phrases or sentences that stand out. What do you think was the purpose of the act? What reaction do you think it got from the general public?
Be the Journalist: You are a journalist preparing to write a story about Dr. Walter Plecker and the lasting impact of the Racial Integrity Act on modern Virginians. How would you prepare to write your article? Who would you interview? What are three questions you would ask?
Current Connections: What similarities and/or differences do you see between the struggle for interracial marriage and the fight for LGBTQIA+ marriage equality?