In 1940 Virginia’s Department of Vital Statistics, which housed all VA marriage licenses and birth and death certificates, was under the direction of a very remarkable and remarkably awful man, Walter Ashby Plecker.
Born in Virginia, trained as a medical doctor, Plecker worked first as a public health official. In this capacity Plecker was a strong southern progressive: he did important work on public health and sanitation, and embarked on a an extremely aggressive program of inspections, cautioning Virginians about the importance of vaccination and the dangers of contaminated drinking water. He gave speeches, he wrote articles in national journals and newspapers. He explained where to build latrines and outhouses, and how to properly wash and cook to prevent disease.
Plecker’s commitment to hygiene extended to racial hygiene as well. He was an absolutely hard-core racist with a deep commitment to eugenics, the science of “racial hygiene.” Plecker believed absolutely in the natural, genetic superiority of the the Anglo Saxon race; though he only a vague understanding of genetics, he insisted that any “amalgamation,” or mingling of the races, would have disastrous effects on general public health. It would undermine the nation itself, by destroying its natural leaders.
The problem, for men like Plecker, came from persons who looked white but possessed “black blood.” Such persons could pass for white but they carried a hereditary taint that would inevitably return.
Plecker played a major role in the passage, in 1924, of Virginia’s “Racial Integrity Act,” which required that the race of every newborn be recorded at birth. The law further forbid racial “intermarriage” and made it legal to “sexually sterilize” the inmates of state institutions, to prevent them from passing on bad genes.
“In the past,” the public health bulletin says, “it has been possible for these people to declare themselves white.” Thus emboldened, “they have demanded admittance or their children into the white schools” and have even, in a few cases, “intermarried with white people.”
Plecker’s allies in this battle for racial integrity included the Virginia composer John Powell. Trained in Europe as a concert pianist, Powell made a name for himself as a composer. He had a sharp interest in American musical forms, and his Negro Rhapsody of 1918 quoted from Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. But by 1924 Powell too had become obsessed with racial purity. He called the immigrant “melting pot” a “witches cauldron” and began insisting that “negro melodies” were actually stolen from German folksongs: that they represented the musical genius of the Anglo Saxon race. Powell later became a major folklorist, arguing that Appalachian folk songs represented the true musical expression of the pure Anglo Saxon race. He and Plecker corresponded frequently: together they founded a group of organizations known as the “National Anglo Saxon Clubs.”
Virginia’s new law gave Plecker the power to prevent the racially suspect from marrying. He set about the job with obsessive zeal.