Colored Me, Part 4

Plecker’s zeal for Eugenics was extreme, but not unusual. Throughout the nation, the American Eugenics Society sponsored “Fitter Families” contests, in which teams of experts selected the family with the best and purest bloodlines.

From Popular Science Monthly, August 1923

“Fitter Family” contests, accompanied by educational demonstrations on the dangers of impure blood and racial intermarriage, appeared at state and county fairs all over the country in the 1920s. The American Eugenics Society pushed to have its materials included in high school and college classrooms.

Eugenics was never uncritically accepted. The quest for “fitter families” was sometimes mocked. But Eugenics enjoyed a national and international vogue. This clipping, from the New York Times, May 28, 1926, seems fairly chilling, particularly the last line: “this is the first real test of the Eugenics theory to be tried out in Germany.” The first, but certainly not the last.

When Nazi scientists looked for evidence to support their eugenic theories, they generally turned to the advanced work Americans were doing on the subject. American eugenicists would often use the phrase “final solution” when talking about the problem of the unfit. They meant the elimination of the genetically inferior, through educational campaigns, restrictive laws or by programs of involuntary sterilization.

Plecker saw his role as policing who could and could not count as white., and giving Virginia a reliable racial map.  The letter from Plecker below is quoted in Edward Black’s excellent book War Against the Weak:

This astonishing piece of bullying, Plecker felt, was justified by the necessity of racial purity. In this letter, Plecker far exceeded his actual authority. By the end of his career, he had been sued several times by Virginians who resented his willingness to appoint himself judge and jury and executioner in deciding the citizen’s racial destiny.

Historians know Plecker best through his campaign against Virginia’s Indians. Mongrel Virginians, published in 1926, argued that there were no Indians in Virginia: the original Indians had so intermarried with negros and low whites that they no longer fit the name. The book invented a new term, the “Win” tribe, to describe. this degraded intermixture.

Plecker used this book, and his own intuition and judgment, to erase the record of Virginia Indian tribes. When he came across  persons who called themselves “Indian,” or who named themselves as members of a specific tribe, he would reclassify them as colored. Fearing that African Americans were trying to escape segregation by calling themselves Indians, and believing that no “racially pure” Indians remained, he ordered state agencies to rewrite the historical record.

Letter from Plecker to VA state officials, 1943.

In 1943, for example,. Plecker wrote to “Local Registrars, Physicians, Health Officers, Nurses, School Super-intendents, and Clerks of the Courts” in Virginia, warning that “mongrels, finding that they have been able to sneak in their birth certificates un- challenged as Indians are now making a rush to register as white… Those attempting this fraud should be warned that they are liable to a penalty of one year in the penitentiary (Section 5099a of the Code).”

“To aid all of you in determining just which are the mixed families,” Plecker continued, “we have made a list of their surnames by counties and cities, as complete as possible at this time. This list should be preserved by all, even by those in counties and cities not included, as these people are moving around over the State and changing race at the new place.”

Plecker continued: “all certificates of these people showing “Indian” or “white” are now being rejected and returned to the physician or midwife, but local registrars hereafter must not permit them to pass their hands uncorrected or unchallenged and without a note of warning to us. One hundred and fifty thousand other mulattoes in Virginia are watching eagerly the attempt of their pseudo-Indian brethren, ready to follow in a rush when the first have made a break in the dike.”

Plecker rewrote the documentary record of history to suit his own arbitrary prejudices, and to keep the “dike” of racial segregation intact.

Next Page