What do I conclude from this odd episode? That Hester Holland was named as “colored” confirms what others, particularly Edwin Black in War Against the Weak, have already documented: that Plecker used a rigid and arbitrary sense of racial purity to reclassify Virginians at his own whim. Plecker was motivated by white supremacy and by the fear that African Americans were claiming Indian heritage in order to evade Virginia’s segregation laws and “pass over” into white.
I also think I can conclude that as late as 1940 the state of Virginia officially regarded Irish people as “colored,” as comical as that idea might seem. Today, in stereotypes, Irish Americans appear to be extremely “white,” freckled, prone to sunburn, represented on TV by right wing anti-immigrant blowhards like Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly. Few Americans today would regard the Irish as a distinct race: they are just white people. But in 1940, Plecker’s office regarded the Irish as a non-white race.
That in turn suggests that eugenics had a far more tenacious hold than Americans would prefer to believe. Plecker continued trying to weed out the racially unfit even as American GIs were liberating the Nazi concentration camps. Though he saw black/white segregation as his core concern he apparently thought it crucial to segregate the ethnic cultures we now commonly think of as “white.” I don’t know this for a fact–I wonder if other families have found similar documents? I hope to do more research on this subject.
Plecker’s career also demonstrates the negative side of progressivism, the ways it used a notion of science to bully and disrupt and destroy. From his desk in Richmond he assumed the power to tell people who they could marry, where they could live, what schools they could attend, what rights they could enjoy. What made the “problem” of racial “mixing” so urgent?
The case makes it abundantly clear how race is “constructed,” an idea born out of the imperatives and needs of specific classes and the State rather than permanently installed by nature. The problem, for Plecker, was not that profound natural divisions between people existed: it was precisely the opposite. These divisions did not exist in any real way. Virginians “intermarried:” they crossed Plecker’s lines all the time.
Plecker’s work was self-subverting–his insistence that people who looked white were actually mixed shows that he knew how flimsy a reed the idea of “racial purity” actually was. Plecker actually created, by administrative fiat, the thing he claimed to loath.
Virginia’s Racial Integrity law was overturned by the Supreme Court in the beautifully named case of Loving vs. Virginia (1967). Mildred Jeter grew up in Virginia believing she was an Indian: the State of Virginia regarded her as “colored,” meaning non-white and subject to segregation. After she married Richard Loving in Washington DC, the State of Virginia sentenced them both to a year in prison. Loving vs Virginia overturned that law, and convincingly established marriage as a civil right open equally to all consenting adults.