Author: Tori Talbot

assistant editor for Encyclopedia Virginia

Walter Ashby Plecker (1861–1947)

Walter Ashby Plecker was a physician and the first Virginia state registrar of vital statistics, a position he served in from 1912 to 1946. He was a staunch promoter of eugenics, a discredited movement aimed at scientifically proving white racial superiority and thereby justifying the marginalizing of non-white people. Employing Virginia’s Act to Preserve Racial Integrity (1924), Plecker effectively separated Virginia citizens into two simplified racial categories: white and colored. The law, which remained in effect until 1967, when it was overturned by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Loving v. Virginia , required that a racial description of every person be recorded at birth, while criminalizing marriages between whites and non-whites. Plecker’s policies used deceptive scientific evidence to deem Blacks a lesser class of human beings, but they also targeted poor whites and anyone he or other eugenicists considered “feebleminded.” Asserting that Virginia Indians were, in fact, “mixed-blooded negroes,” Plecker also pressured state agencies into reclassifying Indians as “colored.” The policy’s legacy was effectively to erase “Indian” as an identity and has made it difficult for Virginia Indians to gain state and federal recognition.