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A HERITAGE DENIED: Virginia Indian Resilience and the Racial Integrity Act, Part II

I know other races . . . have a hard time. But fortunately nobody ever tried to deny them their heritage. Nobody ever tried to deny they existed. — Bernard Beverly, Monacan Indian Nation

FOCUSED exhibition logo

In 1924, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Racial Integrity Act, which determined that anyone who had even one Black ancestor (thus “one drop” of Black blood) could not be considered white and “racially pure.” The Act would be extended to include Virginia Indians, Virginia’s first people, and is an introduction to Jamestown Settlement’s special exhibition, “FOCUSED: A Century of Virginia Indian Resilience.” This photographic exhibition, presented in collaboration with Virginia Indian tribal communities, honors the resolve of Virginia’s Indian population over a century of change, from the passage of the Racial Integrity Act to state and federal recognition today.

Young Chickahominy girl, 1919, Frank Speck photograph collection, N12623.  National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution.

Many prominent white Virginians wanted to claim descent from Pocahontas but did not want to be classified as “colored” under the 1924 Racial Integrity Act. Young Chickahominy girl, 1919. Frank Speck photograph collection, N12623. National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution.

The chief proponent of the 1924 Act, Walter Plecker, served as registrar of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 to 1946. He acknowledged only two races in Virginia, white and Black (or “Negro”/“colored”) and believed the two should be segregated in all aspects of life. The 1924 law specifically reinforced racial segregation by prohibiting interracial marriage. Plecker, a white supremacist who personally considered an individual “with even a trace of negro blood” to be “colored,” extended this definition to most Virginia Indians, because he believed they had intermarried with Blacks.

While the Virginia legislature debated passing the new law, some prominent and influential white Virginians realized a dilemma. Those specifically of mixed-race white and Indian who proudly claimed descent from Virginia’s most famous Indian, Pocahontas, were obviously not pure Caucasian. The new law wriggled around this issue by creating the “Pocahontas exception” — “persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the Native American and have no other non-Caucasic blood shall be deemed white persons.” This exception benefited whites who descended from Pocahontas’s prestigious bloodline — they then could have it both ways.

In 1930, the Virginia legislature refined its racial definitions. Although under the 1924 law anyone with “any ascertainable degree of negro blood” was considered “colored,” Virginia Indians, led by Pamunkey Chief George Cook, opposed classification as “colored.” The new 1930 law redefined “Indianness” as referring to a person who had no “colored” blood and one-fourth or more of Indian blood. Further, those Indians who lived on the two state reservations and had one-fourth or more of Indian blood and less than one-sixteenth of “Negro” blood, were given special consideration as tribal Indians as long as they remained on their reservations (only the Pamunkey and Mattaponi people have reservations in Virginia). George Cook and other leaders opposed this reservation exemption because it did not protect Indians who did not live on reservations. He pointedly commented: “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.”

Pamunkey Chief George Cook lobbied and testified before state legislative committees on behalf of Virginia Indians. Photo shows George M. Cook and Bob Nelson, Indian Neck, Virginia, 1920. Frank Speck photograph collection, N12692. National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution.

Pamunkey Chief George Cook lobbied and testified before state legislative committees on behalf of Virginia Indians. Photo shows George M. Cook and Bob Nelson, Indian Neck, Virginia, 1920. Frank Speck photograph collection, N12692. National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution.

Virginia Indians fought hard to maintain their identity as “Indian.” Like whites, Indians vehemently did not want to be considered “colored.” But, proud of their indigenous heritage, they did not want to be classified “white” either. They did want access to facilities, privileges and freedoms that came with being white. Walter Plecker thought they were trying to pass as white since he expected non-whites to jump through the loophole created by the “Pocahontas exception.” Consequently, he methodically began collecting old county and census records to create a “Racial Integrity File” in which he noted people’s ancestry.

Plecker next made a list of surnames of people he considered to be “Indian” (and therefore not white) and then instructed clerks of court, hospital personnel and school administrators to prevent persons with these names from association with whites and admittance to white facilities. Some county and state officials complied with his directives while others disapproved. He could not affect the Indians on the state reservations who were wards of the state, but he set out to establish that other Virginians who claimed to be Indian were not.

Chickahominy man and son holding splint basket, 1918

Chickahominy man and son holding a splint basket, 1918. Frank Speck photograph collection, N12644. National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution.

Plecker’s offices then actually began changing vital records, such as birth certificates, by reclassifying certain families as “colored” who had self-identified as “Indian.” His actions split family members by color line. Many Indian families lost the necessary documentation to prove their continuity over time as American Indians. By deciding that there were no “pure” Indians in Virginia, Plecker committed “paper genocide.”

Some Virginia Indians tried to get the federal government to assist them, with little success. Ironically, in the same year that Virginia passed the oppressive Racial Integrity Act, the U.S. government passed the Snyder Act (Indian Citizenship Act), declaring American Indians to be citizens with the right to vote (and to be taxed and drafted); unfortunately, discrepancies allowed some states, including Virginia, to disenfranchise Indians for the next 40 years. In 1930, some sympathetic federal Census Bureau officials in Virginia allowed Indians to be entered as “Indian” in that census.

Friends and advocates spoke for Virginia Indians, including anthropologist Frank Speck, who periodically visited Virginia tribes from 1919 through the 1940s. Speck recorded the peoples’ traditional ways of life through his writings and innumerable photographs, some of which appear in Jamestown Settlement’s “FOCUSED” exhibition. Another friend of the Indians, James Coates of Norfolk, lobbied for them as well. Coates’s Virginia Indian artifact collection is now owned and curated by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

Draft Card for Robert Purcell Byrd, 1940

Robert Percell Byrd’s 1940 draft card, front and back. Even though he self-identified as Indian, it was noted on the back that “[Caroline] County does not recognize Indians” and he was drafted as “colored.” World War II Selective Draft Registration Card.

The 1924 Act and its consequences angered, embarrassed and oppressed Virginia Indians. Some felt they had to keep their Indian heritage secret; others left Virginia. Still others challenged Plecker’s policy through legal means. In 1942, several Monacan people questioned his right to change their birth certificates, and he was forced to admit that no evidence supported his actions. The race issue arose with the military draft in World War II. The 1924 U.S. law declaring all American Indians to be citizens also qualified them for the draft. At the start of World War II, the draft board segregated the armed forces into “white” and “colored” units and placed Virginia Indians, willing to serve their country, in one or the other. Men from most Virginia Indian groups served with whites, some through a great deal of effort. In 1943, two Monacan men, Roy and Winston Branham, challenged their classification as “colored” and won their case. When several Rappahannock men, Robert Percell Byrd, Oliver W. Fortune and Edward Arnell Nelson were drafted as “colored,” they refused to serve and were convicted and jailed. Upon release and classification as conscientious objectors, they served in the military as medics.

During the Civil Rights era, Virginia Indians continued their fight for justice. A 1967 Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, finally declared unconstitutional any laws forbidding intermarriage of the races, invalidating the section of Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act that addressed intermarriage. Yet, Virginia Indian birth certificates and other public documents still indicated their status as either “white” or “colored.” In 1987, the Vital Records office, at the request of Virginia Indians, agreed to change the race to “Indian” (if individuals provided documentary evidence that they were descendants of Virginia Indians at least back to the late 19th century); 10 years later the office dropped the fee to make this change.

Five Mattaponi boys, 1918

Five young Mattaponi boys, 1918. Frank Speck photograph collection, N12805. National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution.

After Virginia Indians suffered decades of invisibility, the Commonwealth of Virginia began acknowledging tribal organizations in the 1980s and today recognizes 11 tribes and their members. More recently the U.S. government officially recognized seven of these. However, the scarring effects of decades of misclassified birth, marriage and death records under Walter Plecker’s oversight are still felt by Virginia Indians today. The Racial Integrity Act (1924) intended to essentially write Virginia Indians out of history. Their resilience and determination, however, has ensured cultural continuity over generations. As ethnohistorian Dr. Helen Rountree has written, “if any one person can be said to be responsible for the enduring strength of the Indian identity among . . . [Virginia Indian] core people in those years, Plecker, ironically, is the man.”

Nancy D. Egloff
Historian, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

Selected Sources for Further Reading

Keith Egloff and Deborah Woodward, First People: The Early Indians of Virginia. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 1992, 2006.

Helen Rountree, Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries. University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.

The Virginia Indian Heritage Trail, 3rd edition, ed. Karenne Wood. Charlottesville, Va.: The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2009.

Sandra F. Waugaman and Danielle Moretti-Langholtz, We’re Still Here: Contemporary Virginia Indians Tell Their Stories. Richmond, Va.: Palari Publishing, 2006.

Brendan Wolfe, Racial Integrity Laws (1924–1930). (2021, February 25). In Encyclopedia Virginia.

Karenne Wood and Diane Shields, The Monacan Indians: Our Story. Office of Historical Research, Monacan Indian Nation, 1999.

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