1943 Plecker List “Letter Distributed to County Officials Listing Mixed-Race Surnames”
The head of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 to 1946, Walter Ashby Plecker, believed “there is a danger of the ultimate disappearance of the white race in Virginia, and the country, and the substitution therefore of another brown skin, as has occurred in every other country where the two races have lived together.” This “mongrelization,” in Plecker’s view, caused of the downfall of several earlier civilizations. He was determined to prevent this in America, or at least in Virginia.
While no modern anthropologist has been able to establish the existence of a “pure” Caucasian, the official position of the Commonwealth of Virginia was that its citizens, or at least those that mattered, were exactly that. For those of mixed racial heritage, as Helen Rountree writes, “It was now very difficult to be ‘white’ in Virginia and very easy to be ‘colored.’” Many of Virginia’s Indians had long been thought to have, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, “more negro than Indian blood in them.” By the 1920s, whites in Virginia assumed that nearly all Indians in the state had at least some degree of African ancestry. In the interest of racial purity, to prevent these mixed-race people from mixing with “pure” whites, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 categorized all non-whites as “colored.
In January of 1943, Plecker sent a circular to all public health and county officials in Virginia, listing, county by county, the surnames of all families suspected of having African ancestry. The cover letter stated that they were “mongrels” and were now trying to register as white. The names listed in the southwestern Virginia counties included Collins, Gibson, Moore, Goins, Bunch, Freeman, Bolin, Mullins, as well as other local area surnames.
|Commonwealth of Virginia
Department of Health
Bureau of Vital Statistics
Local Registrars, Physicians, Health
Our December 1942 letter to local registrars, also mailed to the clerks, set forth the determined effort to escape from the negro race of groups of “free issues,” or descendants of the “free mulattoes” of early days, so listed prior to 1865 in the United States census and various types of State records, as distinguished from slave negroes.
Now that these people are playing up the advantages gained by being permitted to give “Indian” as the race of the child’s parents on birth certificates, we see the great mistake made in not stopping earlier the organized propagation of this racial falsehood. They have been using the advantage thus gained as an aid to intermarriage into the white race and to attend white schoools, and now for some time, they have been refusing to register with war draft boards as negroes, as required by the boards which are faithfully performing their duties. Three of these negroes from Caroline County were sentenced to prison on January 12 in the United States Court at Richmond for refusing to obey the draft law unless permitted to classify themselves as “Indians.”
Some of these mongrels, finding that they have been able to sneak in their birth certificates unchallenged as Inidans are now making a rush to register as white. Upon investigation we find that a few local registrars have been permitting such certificates to pass through their hands unquestioned and without warning our office of the fraud. Those attempting this fraud should be warned that they are liable to a penalty of one year in the penitentiary (Section 5099 of the Code). Several clerks have likewise been actually granting them licenses to marry whites, or at least to marry amongst themselves as Indian or white. The danger of this error always confronts the clerk who does not inquire carefully as to the residence of the woman when he does not have positive information. The law is explicit that the license be issued by the clerk of the county or city in which the woman resides.
To aid all of you in determining just which are the mixed families, 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. A family has just been investigated which was always recorded as negro around Glade Springs, Washington County, but which changed to white and married as such in Roanoke County. This is going on constantly and can be prevented only by care on the part of local registrars, clerks, doctors, health workers, and school authorities.
Please report all known or suspicious cases to the Bureau of Vital Statistics, giving names, ages, parents, and as much other information as possible. 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
Very truly yours,
Page 2 – SURNAMES, BY COUNTIES AND CITIES [illegible] VIRGINIA FAMILIES STRIVING
Moon, Powell, Kidd, Pumphrey
Amherst: (Migrants to Allegheney and Campbell)
Rockbridge: (Migrants to Augusta)
Henrico and Richmond City:
Essex and King and Queen:
Elizabeth City & Newport News:
Norfolk County & Portsmouth:
Lee and Smyth: