Just . . . one . . . drop. That’s all it took to define if a person was white or Black under the Racial Integrity Act, signed into law by Governor E. Lee Trinkle on March 20, 1924. This act determined that anyone who had even one Black ancestor (thus “one drop” of Black blood) could not be considered white and “racially pure” and would be extended to include Virginia Indians. The Act is an integral introduction to Jamestown Settlement’s ongoing special exhibition, “FOCUSED: A Century of Virginia Indian Resilience.”
The social and political concept of racial purity was not new in 1924 in Virginia. Virginia’s colonial Assembly began legally separating the races in the late 17th century, bolstered by a set of well-known codes in 1705 that restricted the rights of Blacks, Indians and mulattoes. More such laws would follow in subsequent centuries in Virginia and other states. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896, establishing the “separate but equal” doctrine, upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities as long as the segregated facilities were equal in quality.
The one-drop concept evolved along with the rise of the “science” of eugenics and ideas of racial purity. Although the eugenics movement began with the presumption of bettering the human species, in the U.S. it quickly devolved into a way for middle and upper class white racists to claim supremacy over those they deemed “inferior.” Proponents provided dubious statistics to prove that non-white and mixed-blood people committed more crimes and had lower scores on intelligence tests due to their “inferior” heredity, and they prepared to turn the skewed data they collected into laws to keep the races separate and make it very difficult to be considered white and much easier to be considered “colored.”
Meanwhile, white Virginians struggled to create racial definitions. In 1785, a landmark Virginia law had defined a mixed-race or “mulatto” person as a person with at least one-fourth (equivalent to one grandparent) “Negro” blood. In 1866, legislators replaced the word “mulatto” with “colored.” This same law also defined as “Indian” any person who was not “colored” but had one-fourth or more Indian blood. In 1910, the legislature more tightly redefined a “Negro” as one who had one-sixteenth or more of “Negro” blood.
In 1912, Dr. Walter Plecker arrived on the scene in Virginia. Plecker, a white supremacist, became the state registrar of the Bureau of Vital Statistics (State Health Board) in Richmond, the agency tasked with recording births, deaths and marriages (today called the Office of Vital Records under the Virginia Department of Health). Born in 1861 in Augusta County, Va., Plecker graduated from the Maryland Medical School and did post-graduate work in obstetrics at New York Polyclinic. After practicing medicine in Virginia and Alabama for almost 25 years, he took a position at the Bureau of Vital Statistics. Plecker modernized the Bureau and required the systematic filing of birth, marriage and death certificates to include racial designations. Whereas the General Assembly had defined “colored” in 1910 as someone with one-sixteenth or more “negro blood,” Plecker personally considered a person “with even a trace of negro blood” to be “colored.” Plecker extended this definition to most Virginia Indians because he believed they had inbred with Blacks.
Walter Plecker held strong beliefs about predetermined categories for people. Becoming heavily involved in the eugenics movement in the United States in the 1920s, he saw only two races, white and Black (or “Negro”/“colored”) and believed the two should be segregated in all aspects of life. He also believed that whites were superior, and that people of “mixed” race would produce defective children. In 1924, Plecker wrote, “Two races as materially divergent as the White and Negro, in morals, mental powers, and cultural fitness, cannot live in close contact without injury to the higher.”
When the Virginia legislature passed the Racial Integrity Act in 1924, it flipped the legal definition for races to focus on whites. The law defined white as anyone “who has no trace whatsoever [not one drop] of any blood other than Caucasian.” The law reinforced racial segregation by prohibiting interracial marriage and required that all birth and marriage certificates include a person’s race as “white, colored or mixed” (in the decades from 1910 to 1930, nine southern states adopted “one-drop” statutes). The law’s proponents sought to find the “fundamental and final solutions of our racial problems . . . , most especially of the Negro problem.” Within a few decades Germany’s Adolf Hitler adopted this same reasoning when trying to create a pure “Aryan” master race, ultimately leading to his own extreme “final solution.”
Walter Plecker served as state registrar until 1946. During and after his years in the Bureau, Plecker and other segregationists encouraged racial purity by creating separate public facilities and schools, forcing “the other” into menial jobs, and forbidding interracial marriage. The decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court in the now familiar case of Loving v. Virginia in 1967 finally invalidated and declared unconstitutional any laws forbidding intermarriage of the races, including that section of Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act, finding such laws contrary to the guarantees of equal protection under the 14th amendment. In 1975, the Virginia Assembly repealed the remainder of the Act and, in 2001, passed a bill that denounced it, as well as eugenics, for promoting racism.
Read Part II of the blog about Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act and its impact on the Virginia Indian community.
Nancy D. Egloff
Historian, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
Selected Sources for Further Reading
Helen Rountree, Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries. University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.
Brendan Wolfe, Racial Integrity Laws (1924–1930). (2021, February 25). Encyclopedia Virginia.
The Library of Virginia, You Have No Right: Law & Justice in Virginia exhibition, “The 1924 Racial Integrity Act.”