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Walter Plecker Letter

  • Walter Plecker Asserted that Virginia Indians No Longer Exist, December 1943
  • Walter Plecker Asserted that Virginia Indians No Longer Exist, December 1943
Walter Plecker's policies pressured state agencies to reclassify most citizens claiming Indian identity as colored.
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    Treaty Between the English and the Powhatan Indians, October 1646
  • Birth Registration Card
    Registration of Birth and Color, 1924
  • Jim Crow Sign Set
    Jim Crow Sign Set, 1930s and 1940s
  • <em>Loving</em> v. <em>Commonwealth</em>
    Loving v. Commonwealth of Virginia, 1958–1966
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Walter Plecker Asserted that Virginia Indians No Longer Exist, December 1943

Virginia has had a long history of legally defining people by race. Colonial laws on slavery often used the words Negro and slave interchangeably, and by law at various times some Indians could be enslaved and others not. An 1866 law decreed that every person having one-fourth or more African American blood was deemed to be a colored person, and everyone not a colored person having one-fourth or more Indian blood was to be deemed an Indian. 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.

Walter Ashby Plecker, in charge of the state's vital statistics records, employed the law to classify all Virginians as "white" or "colored" and to classify the state's Indians as "colored." Plecker believed that some African Americans were attempting to pass as Indians and feared that Indians would attempt to pass as white. He obsessively documented each and every birth and marriage registration submitted to his agency and manipulated and distorted records to show that the genealogical heritage of Virginia's Indians was so intermixed with Virginia's African Americans that no real Indians existed.

Plecker's obsession with racial integrity is well in evidence in this December 1943 letter and list of surnames by county of families that he believed were trying to "pass" for white or Indian. As State Registrar of Vital Statistics, he wrote many letters and directives to county officials were about specific individuals whom he felt were trying to pass as white. He often asked for evidence from the county clerk to prove the people in question were of African American descent. Plecker also regularly sent out alerts to the county officials, hospitals, doctors, midwives, and other healthcare workers and record keepers about families that he considered suspect. He instructed that these families were not to be allowed to be listed as white in any record or to be treated as white in any way, including attendance at white schools.

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 term originating in the South that holds that a person with any trace of African ancestry is considered black. The Racial Integrity Act was subject to the Pocahontas exception. Since many influential Virginia families claimed descent from Pocahontas, the legislature declared that a person could be considered white with as much as one-sixteenth Indian ancestry.

Plecker's policies pressured state agencies to reclassify most citizens claiming Indian identity as colored in spite of a 1930 amendment to the Racial Integrity Act that restored the legal status of some Virginia Indians who lived on reservation lands. Plecker, nevertheless, believed that they also had African ancestry and classified them as colored. This policy has left a modern-day legacy where Virginia's Indians struggle to achieve federal recognition because they cannot prove their heritage as required by federal laws.

Special note:

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.

For Educators


1. Who was Walter Plecker?

2. What records does Plecker cite for his evidence?

3. What Virginia law did Walter Plecker uphold with his reign of white supremacy?

Further Discussion

1. How does the legacy of Walter Plecker's leadership at the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistic still affect Virginia Indians today?

Suggested Reading

Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.

Smith, J. Douglas. "The Campaign for Racial Purity and the Erosion of Paternalism in Virginia, 1922–1930: "Nominally White, Biologically Mixed, and Legally Negro." Journal of Southern History 68, no. 1 (February 2002): 65–106.

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.

Wallenstein, Peter. Tell the Court I Love My Wife: Race, Marriage, and Law—An American History. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Department of Health
Bureau of Vital Statistics
December 1943

To Local Registrars, Clerks, Legislators,
and others responsible for, and interested
in, the prevention of racial intermixture:
 In our January 1943 annual letter to local registrars and clerks of courts, with list of mixed surnames, we called attention to the greatly increased effort and arrogant demands now being made for classification as whites, or at least for recognition as Indians, as a preliminary step to admission into the white race by marriage, of groups of the descendants of the "free negroes," so designated before 1865 to distinguish them from slaves.
 According to Mendel's law of heredity, one out of four of a family of mixed breeds, through the introduction of illegitimate white blood, is now so near white in appearance as to lead him to proclaim himself as such and to demand admission into white schools, forbidden by the State Constitution. The other three find it more difficult to make the grade. As a climax of their ambition colored people of this type are applying for licenses to marry whites, or for white licenses when intermarrying amongst themselves. These they frequently secure with ease when they apply in a county or city not the home of the woman and are met by a clerk or deputy who justifies himself in accepting a casual affidavit as the truth and in issuing a license to any applicant regardless of the requirements of Section 5099a, Paragraph 4, of the Code. This Section places the proof upon the applicants not upon the clerks. We have learned that affidavits cannot always be accepted as truth. This loose practice (to state it mildly) of a few clerks is now the greatest obstacle in the way of the proper registration by race required of the State Registrar of Vital Statistics in that Section. Local registrars, who are supposed to know the people of their registration areas, of course, have no excuse for not catching false registration of births and deaths.
 In many cases negroids have white marriage certificates, while the Bureau demands correct legal registration as to race when their children's births are reported. Armed with the clerk's marriage certificate, they leave home and easily pass as white, when a birth certificate with the pedigree on the back is not required. They are even threatening legal action against the State Registrar but have difficulty in securing a lawyer if he first applies to the Bureau of Vital Statistics for the facts.
 The Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics, through the exceptional, painstaking, and laborious work of the highly trained genealogist whom it is fortunate in having, has made a study by groups and families of the principal borderline aspirants for racial change. The chief sources of information are the early birth and death records, made by tax assessors from 1853 to 1896; marriage records from 1853 to date; United States Census reports for 1830, 1850, and 1870, especially a printed list of free negroes by counties from the 1830 Census; county tax payer list by races, now in the State Library, which have been studied back to 1808; and, not of least value, their own proclamation of race made by applicants for registration as voters, made soon after the War Between the States, to United States military authorities, now preserved in the State Library. The progenitors of the present would-be whites then marched up voluntarily and registered, for the first time in the life of their race in Virginia, as negro voters—not as Indians, not as whites.
 Public records in the office of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, and in the State Library, indicate that there does not exist today a descendant of the Virginia ancestors claiming to be an Indian who is unmixed with negro blood. Since our more complete investigation of all of these records and the statements (mostly signed) of numerous trustworthy old citizens, many now dead, all preserved in our "racial integrity" files, no one has attempted by early recorded evidence to disprove this finding. If such evidence exists, our research worker would have found it.
 One weak point, which is giving us endless trouble, is the fact that many birth certificates since 1912 have, without realization of future danger, been accepted with false registration as "Indian." Not a few, when we were off our guard, have slipped by as white. The General Assembly should empower us to state the recorded pedigree on the backs of such certificates and transcripts, to protect those desiring the truth now and in the future.
     Very truly yours,
     W. A. PLECKER
     W. A. Plecker, M. D.
     State Registrar of Vital Statistics



Albemarle:  Moon, Powell, Kidd, Pumphrey
(Migrants to
Allegheney and
Campbell) Adcock (Adcox), Beverly (this family is now trying to evade the situation by adopting the name of Burch or Birch, which was the name of the white mother of the present adult generation), Branham, Duff, Floyd, Hamilton, Hartless, Hicks, Johns, Lawless, Nuckles (Knuckles), Painter, Ramsey, Redcross, Roberts, Southards (Suthards, Southerds, Southers), Sorrells, Terry, Tyree, Willis, Clark, Cash, Wood.

 McVey, Maxey, Branham, Burley (See Amherst County)
*Buena Vista: 
* Rockbridge: (Migrants to Augusta)
 Cash, Clark, Coleman, Duff, Floyd, Hartless, Hicks, Mason, Mayse (Mays), Painters, Pultz, Ramsey, Southerds (Southers, Southards, Suthards), Sorrell, Terry, Tyree, Wood, Johns.

Charles City:
King William: Collins, Dennis, Bradby, Howell, Langston, Stewart, Wynn, Adkins
Collins, Dennis, Bradby, Howell, Langston, Stewart, Wynn, Custalow (Custaloo), Dungoe, Holmes, Miles, Page, Allmond, Adams, Hawkes, Spurlock, Doggett.

New Kent:
 Collins, Bradby, Stewart, Wynn, Adkins, Langston.
Henrico and Richmond City:
 See Charles City, New Kent, and King William.
 Byrd, Fortune, Nelson. (See Essex)

Essex and King and Queen:
 Nelson, Fortune, Byrd, Cooper, Tate, Hammond, Brooks, Boughton, Prince, Mitchell, Robinson.

Elizabeth City & Newport News:
 Stewart (descendants of Charles City families).

 Epps (Eppes), Stewart (Stuart), Coleman, Johnson, Martin, Talley, Sheppard (Shepard), Young.

Norfolk County & Portsmouth: Sawyer, Bass, Weaver, Locklear (Locklair), King, Bright, Porter, Ingram.


 Sorrells, Worlds (or Worrell), Atwells, Gutridge, Oliff.

Shifflett, Shiflet

Prince William:
 Tyson, Segar. (See Fauquier)

 Hoffman (Huffman), Riley, Colvin, Phillips. (See Prince William)

 Dorsey (Dawson)

 Beverly, Barlow, Thomas, Hughes, Lethcoe, Worley

Roanoke County:
 Beverly (See Washington)

Lee and Smyth:
 Collins, Gibson (Gipson), Moore, Goins, Ramsey, Delph, Bunch, Freeman, Mise, Barlow, Bolden (Bolin), Mullins, Hawkins.—Chiefly Tennessee “Melungeons.”

 Dingus. (See Lee County)

 Keith, Castell, Stillwell, Meade, Proffitt. (See Lee & Tazewell)

 Hammed, Duncan. (See Russell)

 See Lee, Smyth, Scott, and Russell Counties.

* Arthurs, Burley, Cooper and Lawhorn.