Colored Me, Part 5

So to return to the marriage license of Patrick O’Malley and Hester Holland:  a few years ago I gave a talk in Norfolk, and took a day to drive out to the Suffolk County courthouse to find Patrick and Hester’s original marriage license. The form has a space for “color,” in the left hand column: it says simply “white.”

This is the form Plecker or one of his clerks would have seen, and I assume “refiled,” in 1940. I can reasonably conclude that Plecker or one of his clerks simply decided that Patrick O’Malley, being Irish, was not white, and that Hester (my Father knew her as “Esther”) Holland must have been the product of some tangled skein of intermarriage that made her also non-white in the State’s eyes.

Rail crossing where Patrick and Hester lived

While in Suffolk County I drove out to the address given for Patrick O’Malley and Hester Holland. I asked around in the small town near this crossroads, and people told me there were lots of Hollands still living there, both colored and white. Perhaps Plecker regarded Patrick as white, but wanted to make doubly sure no child of the mongrel Hester’s marriage could ever claim white identity. Perhaps he thought that a woman degraded enough to marry an Irishman off the boat had forfeited the claim to whiteness.

Plecker supported the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which virtually halted immigration to the US from countries, mostly southern and eastern European, then regarded as genetically inferior. Ireland was not among them: by 1924 there were too many Irish Americans in positions of political power to make that possible. I have not been able to find any evidence of specifically anti-Irish animus in Plecker, but I have not done much hard research yet.

Racial theorist regarded the Irish as a “celtic,” not an “anglo saxon” people: if anglo saxon equaled “white,” then the Irish did not quite qualify, and neither did the Jews, the Italians, the Russians and Poles and Greeks. I plan to do further research on Plecker and his compadre, Powell, to see if I can find a better-documented answer.

But one sense it hardly matters: Plecker failed completely. Patrick O’Malley’s descendants left Virginia, after a series of railroad-related land speculations apparently failed: no one ever questioned their whiteness again, and while his children felt themselves, as Irish Americans, to be somewhat apart, no one ever doubted their white credentials. We live today in the  very “mongrel” America Plecker was most frightened of.

Wal­ter Plecker retired in 1946, at the age of eighty four; he died a year later. There  is no evi­dence that the rev­e­la­tion of the Nazi death camps–the rot­ten fruit of eugen­ics, the log­i­cal cul­mi­na­tion of eugenic theories–affected him in any way.