Colored Me

This is the marriage license of my great-great grandfather,  born in Ireland in 1854 and married to a Virginia native in 1884. His race, you’ll notice, is given as “colored.” Since when are Irishmen colored?

My father found this when he started doing family history after he retired. We mostly laughed, a lot, when he revealed it at a family Christmas party: that year he sent us all Kwanza cards as a joke.

But being a historian I couldn’t help but be fascinated. I’d read some of the literature on “whiteness,” notably Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White, and I’d been HIGHLY skeptical. It seemed to me to be sort of related to the kind of whining white college kids did about how they were discriminated against because they did not have a “white studies program” on campus. That’s not what Ignatiev had in mind, but I thought the “Irish were not white” bit was wildly overstated.

I was clearly not quite right, and looking into it a little more resulted in a whole class lesson around the image of the Irish in the 19th century and the range of anti-Irish nativism. It focused on the malleability of stereotypes, and how what seems “natural” and obvious in one era seems odd in the next.

But still how to explain this document? It was his marriage certificate: surely even the greenest Irish immigrant knew enough to avoid being classed as “colored.”

If you take a close look at it, it gets more and more interesting.

Here is the full scan:

Right away there are some oddities–his wife Hester Holland, a Virginia native, is also listed as colored. Perhaps she was known to be colored, and they could not legally marry unless they were both considered colored?

Seems very unlikely–here’s the loving couple on or about their wedding day.  Hard to place them as anything other than “white.”

And it’s hard to believe that any white person living in southern Virginia in 1884, would knowingly or willingly reclassify themselves as “colored:” the disadvantages would be significant, to put it mildly, although not as significant as they would be after about 1895, when formal legal segregation began to appear.

Nansemond County was merged into Suffolk County in 1972: that explains the non-existent Virginia County. The document is a copy issued in 1998. But what about that notation on the bottom line of text, reading “Date Record FiIed: July 1940?” That’s odd.  Surely the original license was filed in 1884: otherwise they could not have married and the document could not have been retrieved.

Something funky happened in 1940.

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.

Walter Plecker at the Bureau of Vital Statistics

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.

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.

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.

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.


  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jodi Schneider and Martin H. Olsson, Ellen Noonan. Ellen Noonan said: Check out "Colored Me," Mike O'Malley's tale of family history, eugenics, and Virginia civil servants run amok […]

  • […] of his­tor­i­cal writ­ing, shorter forms with less schol­arly appa­ra­tus. For exam­ple, I made a post about Wal­ter Plecker, the Vir­ginia eugeni­cist who set about reclas­si­fy­ing peo­ple as white or “col­ored” […]

  • Mike,
    can’t find an email contact so I’ll post this here, maybe you’ll see it currently.

    Interested in controversy, or maybe its interested in revealing our common misperceptions? … you might consider opening some dialogues by presenting this over at this call for papers:


    concerns among other topics what affect diasporic identities …

  • Saw your article on Colored Me.

    I was kind of amused. I am pretty sure that the “colored” assignation was due to the Holland side of the mixture, not the O’Malley.

    Whatever animus the White supremacists had, they were usually not so lame as to label the Irish as colored. Too many Irish have blue eyes (about 50% or more). And since your ancestor was from North Ireland, Donegal, he almost certainly had blue eyes.

    Now, since General Robert E. Lee had black hair and brown eyes, it would be make Ol’ Marse Robert less white than your ancestor.
    I doubt that the issue was your ancestors’ Irishness.

    Half or more of the South, though pretending to be Anglo-Saxon is of Irish, Scots-Irish (who have more Irish in them than they care to admit) or Scottish ancestry. You can hear it in their music. The term Irish is sloppily used by them.

    But to get a sense of this, one has to go to the Granddaddy of Nordic Supremacism, Madison Grant who wrote a ridiculous book called THE PASSING OF THE GREAT RACE (1916). No doubt, Plecker read it.

    Even such a racial supremacist as Madison Grant, no lover of the Irish, said that while the Irish (and South German Catholics) were not culturally beneficial (his view not mine), they were NOT racially damaging.

    Grant’s generalized map shows the Ireland almost as Nordic as England, and even more Nordic than most of France and Germany.


    Grant had a cultural bias against the Irish, but even Grant, one of the bulwarks of Nordic Supremacy, had to admit the Irish were reasonably Nordic or close enough to Nordic as to be of no racial concern.

    BTW: The term Celtic was used by the racists to signify cultural or linguistic affiliation, not racial phenotype. To their view, a Scottish Highland Gaelic speaker was culturally Gaelic, but phenotypically Nordic. A blond blue eyed Italian might be culturally Latin, but phenotypically Nordic. They viewed Nordicity as a trait, extant throughout all of Europe, but more common in the Northern Countries. Yet, they said, Nordics had penetrated in lesser numbers to the South of Europe.

    Oddly enough, even the Nordic Supremacists has to admit that the Mediterranean peoples might surpass the Nordics in Intellect.

    Madison Grant made this amazing concession:

    “The mental characteristics of the Mediterranean race are well known, and this race, while
    inferior in bodily stamina to both the Nordic and the Alpine, is probably the superior of both, certainly of the Alpines, in intellectual attainments. In the field of art its superiority to both the
    other European races is unquestioned.”
    page 101 Source:

    So, to Grant’s mind, a (Mediterranean) Spaniard was less of threat than an (Alpine)Slav; not that Grant was fond of either.

    The idiocy of this is apparent. Large sections of Slavic Russia, Slavic Poland and the Baltic states are far more Nordic than even Northern Germany.

    Here is what I think most likely happened.

    You ancester, Hester Holland, had a surname common to a group of people who were “suspected” of mixing.

    Whether or not she was of mixed blood was unimportant. There was a suspicion.

    She married an Irish laborer; not exactly as high social station. This confirmed their suspicion.

    If the mulattos were seen ones who aspired to whiteness, the Irish, especially the lower class Irish, were seen as “white trash” prone to miscegenating. If the blacks sought to improve their station, the shanty Irish were seen to degrade their situation.

    In Plecker’s myopic world view, “Why take a chance?”

    The Irish – and German Catholics – were not liked. Their religion and drinking habits were suspect, but they were not seen as black. They were viewed more as white trash, liable to mix with black elements, willing to disapate their white heritage in a fit of drunken excess.

    The problem almost certainly came from his Laborer status and the Status of the Hollands.

    What I am most interested in is this; Did any of this cause your family trouble in the 50s, which racial laws still abounded?

    Were your parents or uncles ever accused of being colored in the segregated South?

    The sad thing is that Plecker was acting illegally and when sued usually backed down. How many lives were destroyed by Pleacker when a mere letter from a lawyer (only a few bucks) could have stopped him in his tracks. When pressed, Plecker often backed down.

    A good portion of the hillbillies of the South are descended from Scots Protestants who mixed with Irish Catholic in Ulster before coming to America (amazingly, this culture persists in Ulster where neither sides wants to admit the quite obvious blending). Many hillbillies were Irish Catholics who converted to Protestantism in America, since no Catholic Churches were to be found. (The names alone are quite Gaelic). The culture of moonshining is very Gaelic. The music is all but identical to Gaelic tunes.

    By the 1920s, ironically, these Gaels (whether Scots, Irish, or Scots-Irish) were now forming Anglo-Saxon Clubs; an irony which must have set their dead ancestors spinning.

    I seriously doubt the Irish were seen as black. They were seen more as white trash, willing to “breed down.” Add in a very white women, but with a suspect surname, and you have a re-classification.

    The saddest group of all were the Melungeons of the area. Many had green or blue eyes, and were classified as colored by Plecker. New evidence shows that many Melungeons often had NO BLACK in them at all. Their swarthy complexion came from their ancestors who were Turkish servants, on a Portuguese Barque, which was captured by Francis Drake and offloaded on the coast. They moved inland and mixed with the whites and some with Indians. Too dark to be considered white, even though they called themselves Portyghee. Centuries later they were reclassified as black, by Plecker.

    The Portuguese Turk connection.

    The whole thing is hysterical; especially when you consider that two of the Souths greatest generals had black hair and brown eyes. General Robert E. Lee and Gen. Beauregard.

    Even more ironic, the large amount of those claiming Anglo-Saxon purity may not have had one one drop of Anglo-Saxon in them.

    The cause for this may have been the pecking order. When beaten on, one group will beat on those even further down.

    The transported Irish in Tasmania (brutalized by the English) would then vent on the natives of Tasmania until they were exterminated.

    I have noticed swarthy Italians are often more racist than Nordic types. Probably to assert their whiteness.

    The Ulster Irish – though they claim to be British – were often given great grief by the British. The logical thing would have been to make common cause with the Irish, but they preferred to beat on the Irish.

    There is a new version of this based on suspect genetic analysis, where the Irish and Scots are now being re-classified as Basque.

    When they came to America, they beat on anyone, in order to prove they were top class.

    You see the same phenomenom with “high tone coloreds” looking down on blacks.

    I guess it is just human nature.

    Plecker was a quack, but until the 1940s, his quackery was backed up by medical literature.

  • […] ambigu­ous than Amer­i­cans gen­er­ally real­ize. My favorite exam­ple is very per­sonal. Accord­ing to Vir­ginia, the state in which I now reside, I am a black man. Had my fam­ily stayed in VA, my father could not have attended white schools and my par­ents […]

  • Fascinating! Love this stuff. _How the Irish Became White_ is one of my favorite books and best remembered books from school. I recommend it to people all the time. Glad my Irish-American dad is from CT or he would have been imprisoned for marrying my Korean mom. Though in my dad’s very Irish community it would have been more controversial if he had married English.

  • […] The Aporetic looks at how his Irish ancestors got classified as ‘colored’ in early 20th-…. […]

  • […] racial past of Americans is far more complicated and ambiguous than Americans generally realize. My favorite example is very personal. According to Virginia, the state in which I now reside, I am a black man. Had my […]

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