White Virginians had long been concerned with carefully defining the legal rights of different races. Interracial relationships and thus mixed-race children were common from theamong whites, , and Indians, and especially under slavery, when female slaves were regularly subjected to forced relations with white men. Despite the close social connections between races, the legal system created separate racial categories in order to establish status and rights. In 1662, the General Assembly the key concept that a child followed the condition of the no matter the status of the father, both providing incentive for slaveholders to increase their slave property by impregnating enslaved women and also contributing to the concept that whiteness would be defined by the absence of blackness.
In 1705, the General Assembly articulated specific racial groups and restricted the rights of African Americans, Indians, and mulattoes,as anyone who was the child of an Indian or the child, grandchild, or great-grandchild of an African American. In 1785, that definition was simplified: a mulatto was anyone with one-fourth or more “negro blood.” In 1860, the definition . Six years later, however, “mulatto” was replaced by the word “colored,” and as being not colored and having one-fourth or more “Indian blood.” That definition in 1887 and 1910. But in the latter year, the assembly of a colored person to someone with one-sixteenth or more “negro blood.”
Such definitions were a function of white supremacy, or a way of organizing society in which whites used the law, social customs, andto maintain power over other racial groups. In time, some whites came to believe that their power was threatened by immigration and, especially, racial mixing. Although nonmarital relationships were commonplace, interracial marriages that legally recognized any such relationship had been since 1691, and since 1849; still, whites, blacks, and Indians in Virginia sometimes married. According to federal census reports, between 1890 and 1910 the number of mixed-race Virginians (or “mulattoes,” as they were referred to in the census) increased from 122,441 to 222,910. However, that number dropped drastically in 1920, to 164,171. Some white people wondered whether this change, along with a longer, more gradual decline in the number of black Virginians, was the result of African Americans “passing” as white.
Helping to fuel these concerns was the eugenics movement, which was based on the idea that humans can be selectively bred in similar ways to plants and animals. Using large statistical studies, eugenicists purported to scientifically demonstrate thatand criminal tendencies were inherited and should be specifically limited in the human population. They also argued that African Americans, Indians, poor people, criminals, prostitutes, and alcoholics all suffered from inferior genes. For this reason, many eugenicists maintained, it was critically important that whites not mix with supposedly inferior races. (Eugenics was later widely discredited as pseudoscience.)
In part in order to accomplish this separation of races, the state found it necessary to keep track of who was white, black, and Indian. From 1853 until 1896, Virginia required that all births and marriages be recorded, and that the race of all parties be noted. The practice was resumed in 1912 after the General Assemblythe Bureau of Vital Statistics, under the State Board of Health. Local registrars were required to report all births, deaths, and, beginning in 1918, marriages to the state registrar, along with people’s racial identification. The new state registrar, Walter A. Plecker, was a white supremacist and a believer in eugenics who recognized that his new position could be used to prevent the mixing of races.
In 1922, Plecker,, and the noted pianist and composer John Powell founded in Richmond the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America. According to Powell, the group was dedicated to finding the “fundamental and final solutions of our racial problems in general, most especially of the Negro problem.” Race-mixing was a priority concern for these men. Articles by Cox and Powell published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on July 22, 1923, wondered, “Is White America to Become a Negroid Nation?”
On August 4, Plecker released a statement arguing that his position at the Bureau of Vital Statistics “is perhaps the greatest force in the state today combating this condition,” because it was his power, specifically, to apply the state’s racial definitions and so. Indeed, Plecker admitted to applying a standard beyond the law when identifying people as African American. Whereas the General Assembly had defined “colored” in 1910 as someone with one-sixteenth or more “negro blood,” Plecker defined it as someone “with even a trace of negro blood on either side.” This included nearly all Virginia Indians, , because they had so thoroughly interbred with African Americans.
In 1923, the Anglo-Saxon Clubs suggested that a new racial integrity bill be enacted, and the group’s motivation, in part, was for the law to catch up with how government officials such as Plecker were already behaving with regard to race.
Racial Integrity Act
The Racial Integrity Act was introduced in the General Assembly as Senate Bill No. 219 on February 1, 1924, and House Bill No. 311 on February 15. In its original form, it required that all Virginians fill out a certificate of racial composition to be approved by the Bureau of Vital Statistics. This certificate would be necessary in order to marry in Virginia, and it would be against the law for a white person to marry anyone but a white person. Although interracial marriage had been banned previously in Virginia, this was the first time that marriage between whites and Asians—or other people who were legally neither “colored” nor white—was prohibited.
Another lawdefined a colored person as having one-sixteenth or more “negro blood” (the same as in 1910) and an Indian as having the same proportion of “Indian blood” (a broadening of the 1910 definition). The Racial Integrity Act went a step further and attempted a first for Virginia: defining a white person. According to the proposed law, to be white a person must have “no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian”—in other words, the standard already being applied by Walter Plecker. However, people who had less than one sixty-fourth part Indian and no African American heritage would still be considered white. This exception catered to those elite Virginians who counted themselves as descendants of and .
The historian J. Douglas Smith has noted that the African American press “remained relatively quiet” about the bill. “Aimed at those mixed-race persons who were no longer clearly identifiable as black,” he argued, “the proposed statute did not affect directly the vast majority of black Virginians who had no desire to pass as white.” In fact, in a letter to the Richmond News Leader, published on February 23, 1924,, a professor at Virginia Union University, wrote, “The negro is not demanding amalgamation … and he resents an implication that he [is].”
Not all whites were pleased with the bill, either. Senator Holman Willis, of Roanoke, called it an “insult to the white people of the state,” largely because of its requirement that all Virginians register their race. The Senate eventually amended the bill to make such certificates voluntary for all people born before June 14, 1912, or when the Bureau of Vital Statistics was established. The new version also allowed white people to have up to one-sixteenth “Indian blood.” Finally, the burden of proof regarding the veracity of a person’s racial certificate was placed not on the state but on the individual.
The Senate passed the modified bill on February 27 by a vote of 23 to 4. (The future governor,, and twelve other senators abstained.) After voting down the earlier version on February 21, the House followed the Senate’s lead, approving the bill on March 8 by a vote of 72 to 9. Governor signed the Racial Integrity Act into law on March 20.
Johns and Sorrells Cases
In September 1924, James Conner and Dorothy Johns applied for a marriage license in Rockbridge County. The clerk, A. T. Shields, determined that Connor was white but that Johns, in addition to being part white, was also part Indian and African American. Citing the Racial Integrity Act, he refused to issue a license and Johns immediately sued in the Circuit Court of Rockbridge County. Testifying before Judge Henry W. Holt, Walter Plecker presented birth records showing Johns’s “colored” ancestry in Amherst County, and Silas Coleman, a resident of Amherst County, provided anecdotal corroboration. Johns’s attorney argued that those family members referred to as “colored” were, in fact, Indian, an ambiguity common to nineteenth-century record keeping.
Judge Holt refused to issue the license, finding sufficient evidence that Johns was at least part African American. He did, however, note the ways in which the case suggested problems with the Racial Integrity Act. For one, there was no consistent definition of “Indian” in Virginia law, making it difficult to use historical records to determine ancestry. For another, he foresaw problems related to the burden of proof laid out by the law. Would it always be possible for a legally white person to satisfactorily prove that he or she had no non-white ancestors? He suspected not.
Another case raised similar questions. A few weeks later, the same clerk in Rockbridge County refused a marriage certificate to Robert Painter and Atha Sorrells for exactly the same reason he had refused one to Connor and Johns. Sorrells, he claimed, was part white, part African American, and part Virginia Indian. Sorrells also sued. On November 14, 1924, Plecker testified once more before Judge Holt and was joined this time by John Powell. Silas Coleman was asked to present evidence again, as well, but declined out of fear of community retribution. This time, Holt ruled in favor of Sorrells. While suggesting that he generally supported the intent of the Racial Integrity Act, he again raised concerns about the burden of proof the law placed on individuals. And because testimony in the Sorrells case had demonstrated “no strain present in the applicant of any blood other than white, except Indian, and there is not enough of that to come within the statute,” he had no choice but to grant a license.
Powell was outraged. “If this decision is to stand, any negroid in the state can go before a court and say, ‘My ancestors are recorded as colored, but that does not mean negro, they were Indians.’ He may then be declared white and may marry a white woman.” He predicted that the state would soon be bursting with Indians.
In an editorial published on November 20, 1924, the Richmond Times-Dispatch urged the state to appeal the Sorrells decision, but the attorney general decided against it. Plecker, meanwhile, decided to target Virginia Indians, seeing them as obstacles to a pure white race. He made efforts to prove that all Indians were actually African Americans and attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade the director of the federal census to not recognize Indians in Virginia., chief of the , wrote a strongly worded defense of the Virginia tribes to the Richmond News Leader on July 8, 1925, and in a letter dated December 1, Governor Trinkle admonished Plecker “to be conservative and reasonable and not create any ill feeling if it can be avoided between the Indians and the State government.”
Revising the Racial Integrity Act
On January 14, 1926, Robert O. Norris Jr., of Lancaster County, introduced in the House of Delegates a revision of the Racial Integrity Act. It redefined a white person in Virginia as someone “whose blood is entirely white, having no known, demonstrable or ascertainable admixture of the blood of another race.” In other words, it did away with the so-called Pocahontas Exception and made it impossible for people like Dorothy Johns and Atha Sorrells to argue successfully that they are white. It also responded to Judge Holt’s concerns by making it easier for courts to deal with the uncertainties inherent in nineteenth-century records.
Still, the concerns that had led to the Pocahontas Exception in the first place had not gone away. Some estimated that as many as 20,000 white Virginians possessed small amounts of “Indian blood,” which would, under this revision, make them legally “colored.” In response to these fears, on February 12 the House amended Norris’s proposed revision, allowing the definition of a white person to include one-eighth or less “Indian blood”—as opposed to one-sixteenth in the 1924 act—as long as the person has no other “demonstrable admixture of the blood of any non-white race.”
On March 5, 1926, the House passed the amended revision of the Racial Integrity Act by a vote of 52 to 18, but one week later, the Senate voted 20 to 9 to indefinitely postpone its consideration.
Public Assemblages Act
While the General Assembly considered the revised Racial Integrity Act, another controversy raged. It began when Grace Copeland, a childhood friend of John Powell, attended a concert at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University), a private school founded in 1868 to train black teachers. Copeland, who arrived late, was forced to sit next to African Americans, a fact that angered her husband,, the editor of the Newport News Daily Press. In an editorial published on March 15, 1925, he accused Hampton of practicing “social equality between the white and negro races.”
Hampton’s principal, James E. Gregg, responded cautiously, while the prominent black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois defended the school more vigorously in Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). An editorial in the black-owned Norfolk Journal and Guide, published on July 25, 1925, asked why Hampton, which employed white teachers and administrators, such as Gregg, was being singled out for criticism, especially when many institutions in Richmond did the same. “Is it because at Hampton, Negroes are treated as human beings and at other places they are treated as inferior human beings?”
The Anglo-Saxon Clubs, however, sided with Copeland and demanded a new law. On January 20, 1926, George Alvin Massenburg, of Elizabeth City County and Hampton, introduced House Bill No. 30, which required “the separation of white and colored persons at public halls, theaters, opera houses, motion picture shows and places of public entertainment and public assemblages.”
The bill was opposed by the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and its editor,, as well as the Richmond News Leader and the Richmond Chamber of Commerce. Baptist missionary groups worried that the law would force them to provide separate seating at events for visiting Chinese and Japanese students, a concern mocked by J. A. Rogers, a mixed-race journalist from the North. “One would have thought they [the foreign students] were the citizens and the Negro the alien,” he wrote in the Norfolk Journal and Guide.
On February 5, the House passed Massenburg’s bill 63 to 3 and the Senate followed suit on March 9, by a vote of 30 to 5. Harry F. Byrd, now governor, felt pressure to exercise his veto, but he let the Public Assemblages Act become law on March 22 without his signature. Privately, he called the legislation “extremely regrettable,” but he did not publicly oppose it. Hampton’s board of trustees, meanwhile, under the leadership of Chief Justice William Howard Taft, declined to either protest publicly or sue. Rather than comply with the law, however, the school stopped opening to the public events such as the concert attended by Grace Copeland.
During the same session of the General Assembly, bills to criminalize interracial sex and to seek support from Congress for colonizing all of the state’s African Americans failed to pass. In a letter to Byrd, dated October 17, 1927, Grace Copeland suggested how far, perhaps, she and her allies in the Anglo-Saxon Clubs had come from strictly scientific claims about the mixing of genes. She wrote “that it was impossible to reason with a negro—that the only way to keep him in his place was to keep him under fear.”
In 1928, the General Assembly attempted to fix a problem with its racial definitions. According to the law, a “colored” person was someone with one-sixteenth or more “negro blood,” while a white person had no trace of non-white blood. So how should the law define someone who was part African American, but less than one-sixteenth?
Rather than create a new category, House Bill No. 2, introduced by, of Richmond, on January 18, redefined “colored.” The term now would be applicable to anyone having “any ascertainable degree of negro blood, or who is descended on the part of the father or mother from negro ancestors, without reference to or limit of time or number of generations removed …” This concept became popularly known as the “one drop rule.”
Virginia Indians vigorously opposed the bill, fearing that such language would lead to their being legally identified as “colored,” and, by extension, to their legal and cultural identity being erased. “I will tie a stone around my neck and jump in the James River rather than be classed as a Negro,” Cook, of the Pamunkey Indians, said at a Senate hearing on February 3. The black press in Virginia took issue with Cook’s statements for their perceived insult to African Americans. In the Richmond Planet,responded sarcastically: “Certain it is that Negroes join with him in his effort to maintain the racial integrity of his tribe and they do not want any of its mongrel members thrown over to their side of the contention.” While the House passed the Price bill by a vote of 68 to 9 on January 30, the Senate rejected it on February 13, 26 to 13.
Two years later, though, the issue arose again. The Richmond Times-Dispatch had reported that white schools in Essex and King and Queen counties were being forced to educate young people who fit neither the legal definition of white nor “colored.” A new bill was introduced with language similar to Price’s, defining as “colored” “any person in whom there is ascertainable any negro blood.” It was again opposed by Virginia Indians. In a hearing on February 1, Cook told the assembly: “You have taken our land, taken our forests, taken our fishing grounds—and now with one last stroke of the pen you are trying to take our very name.”
The amended Senate bill passed on February 13, 1930, by a vote of 36 to 0. The House passed it one week later, 81 to 3. Governorsigned it into law on March 4.
Race relations in Virginia were harmed for more than a generation by the Racial Integrity Act and the Public Assemblages Act, which prevented whites and non-whites from marrying or gathering together in public. “Throughout the 1920s the leaders of the campaign for racial integrity warned repeatedly that Virginia faced a bleak future, indeed, the utter collapse of its civilization, unless the most extreme measures were taken,” the historian Richard B. Sherman has written. “Somehow the state managed to survive …”
Still, Walter Plecker remained the state registrar until 1946, despite admitting privately, in 1940, that there was no test “to determine the race of an individual.” And the law he helped write remained in effect until 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in, ruled that the prohibition of interracial marriages was unconstitutional. For Virginia Indians, the wait for justice lasted longer. Beginning in the 1980s, the state recognized a number of Virginia Indian tribes, only then helping to mitigate the legal and cultural damage done by the various laws’ racial classification. In 1997, Governor George Allen simplified the process for Virginia Indians of correcting their birth certificates.
In 2001, the General Assemblythe Racial Integrity Act of 1924 for its “use as a respectable, ‘scientific’ veneer to cover the activities of those who held blatantly racist views.”