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Thu, 03.20.1924

Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act is Passed

*On this date in 1924, The Racial Integrity Act was passed in Virginia.  

The state’s General Assembly passed two laws arising from white concerns about eugenics and race.  This was influenced by the Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924 due to the number of cases reported by doctors where they found genetic traits in whites that are also found in African Americans and Native Americans.   There were no other laws in the State of Virginia or other states that had formally legislated this issue, thus its importance as the first such law in United States history.

The Racial Integrity Act required a racial description of every resident in the State of Virginia to be recorded at birth into two primary classifications: white and colored (essentially all others, which included numerous Native Americans). It defined race by the eminent "one-drop rule," in which any nonwhite ancestry rendered the subject a "colored" person.   The Racial Integrity Act was subject to the Pocahontas Clause (or Pocahontas Exception), which allowed people with claims of less than 1/16th American Indian ancestry to be still considered white, despite the otherwise unyielding climate of One-drop rule politics. The exception regarding Native blood quantum was included as an amendment to the original Act in response to concerns of Virginia elites, including many of the First Families of Virginia, who had always claimed descent from Pocahontas with pride, but now worried that the new legislation would jeopardize their status.  

The combined effect of these two laws adversely affected the continuity of Virginia's American Indian tribes. The Racial Integrity Act called for only two racial categories to be recorded on birth certificates, rather than the traditional six: "white" and "colored" (which now included Indian and all discernible mixed-race persons.) The effects were quickly seen. In 1930, the US Census for Virginia recorded 779 Indians; by 1940, that number had been reduced to 198. In effect, Indians were being erased as a group from official records. 

In addition, as  Walter Plecker admitted, he enforced the Racial Integrity Act extending far beyond his jurisdiction in the segregated society. For instance, he pressured school superintendents to exclude mixed-race (then called Mulatto) children from white schools. Plecker ordered the exhumation of dead people of "questionable ancestry" from white cemeteries to be reinterred elsewhere.  As a registrar, he directed the reclassification of nearly all Virginia Indians as colored on their birth and marriage certificates. He was convinced that most Indians had African heritage and were trying to "pass" as Indian to evade segregation. Consequently, two or three generations of Virginia Indians had their ethnic identity altered on these public documents.

Fiske reported that Plecker's tampering with the vital records of the Virginia Indian tribes made it impossible for descendants of six of the eight tribes recognized by the state to gain federal recognition because they could no longer prove their American Indian ancestry by documented historical continuity.  Historians have not estimated the impact of the miscegenation laws. There are records of the number of people involuntarily sterilized during the years these two laws were in effect. Of the involuntary sterilizations reported in the United States before 1957, Virginia was second, having sterilized a total of 6,683 persons. Many more women than men were sterilized: 4,043 to 2,640. Of those, 2,095 women were sterilized under the category of "Mentally Ill"; and 1,875 under the category "Mentally Deficient."

The remainder were for "Other" reasons. (California was first, having sterilized 19,985 people without their consent.) Other states reported involuntary sterilizations of similar numbers of people as Virginia. In 1967, the United States Supreme Court officially overturned this Act and the Virginia Sterilization Act in their ruling "Loving v. Virginia."   That the portion of the Racial Integrity Act that criminalized marriages between "whites" and "nonwhites" was found to be contrary to the guarantees of equal protection of citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  

In 1975, Virginia's Assembly repealed the remainder of the Racial Integrity Act. In 1979, it repealed its whole state Sterilization Act. In 2001, the legislature passed a bill (HJ607ER)to express the assembly's profound regret for its role in the eugenics movement. On May 2, 2002, Governor Mark R. Warner issued a statement also expressing "profound regret for the commonwealth's role in the eugenics movement," specifically naming Virginia's 1924 compulsory sterilization legislation. 

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