Doctor’s quest to engineer a ‘master race’ in the early 1900s still hurting Virginia’s Indian tribes

Posted at 12:30 PM, Aug 11, 2011
and last updated 2012-04-29 12:30:45-04

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - Richmond's famous Hollywood Cemetery serves as the final resting place of presidents, statesmen and generals.

Few have had the impact of Dr. Walter Plecker. His stormy legacy continues today, 150 years after his birth.

"My parents always made sure we knew the story of what Walter Plecker had done and how it had affected our people," said Wayne Adkins, president of the Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance For Life.

"Plecker was a menace to Virginia Indians over many years," said Stephen R. Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy Tribe. "My mom and dad, for instance, had to go to Washington DC in 1935 to get married as Indians. It was illegal to do so in Virginia under penalty of up to a year in jail."

"Dr. Plecker was convinced that there was a need to purify the white race," said Paul Lombardo, a law professor at Georgia State University and formerly a eugenics expert at the University of Virginia. "He thought that he was preserving the Commonwealth of Virginia, that he was maintaining the United States of America and, most importantly to him, that he was protecting the white race."

For 34 years, starting in 1912, Dr. Plecker served as the director of Virginia's Bureau of Vital Statistics, carefully compiling birth, death and marriage records.

For Plecker, a native of Augusta County, there were only two races: white and non-white. Anyone who had what he thought was one drop of other than white blood was listed as "colored." They were mongrels, in his view.

Plecker was a complex man who saved the lives of countless babies, including those of blacks and Indians, with updated birthing and midwife techniques, along with simple, homemade incubators for premature babies, according to historic profiles.

He was relentless. With great energy he compiled lists and wrote letters chastising whites who applied for marriage licenses with those Plecker thought were impure. Those letters are part of the extensive correspondence that are part of the vast Plecker record.

"There's no question that Plecker was incredibly aggressive using the few prerogatives the law gave him to register people," Lombardo said. "He used those prerogatives really to threaten people, to coerce them . . . Dr. Plecker once boasted that he had a list of people, by race, that rivaled the list that was kept by Hitler of the Jews."

If he even just suspected someone had any African-American blood, they would go on his mongrel list.

Virginia's Native Americans particularly felt his wrath. He was certain the tribes had interbred with blacks. "Like rats, when you're not watching, they've been sneaking in their birth certificates though their own midwives," Plecker wrote.

"We couldn't claim we were Indian, it was against the law to say we were Indian," said Kenneth Branham, chief of the Monacan Tribe. "What do we claim? We're not black. And we're not white."

"That whole idea that you're not what you believe yourself to be," said Sharon Bryant, the newly elected Monacan chief. "That an entire community would tell you that, it becomes very oppressive to the people."

"Whole groups of people who formerly were recognized among the tribes of Virginia simply disappeared from the records," Lombardo said. "They were no longer considered to be Native Americans or Indians as they were called. Their children were not recognized as members of the tribes, and they're living with that legacy right now."

Plecker and his many supporters believed not only that the races should never intermarry, they shouldn't even mingle. Strict segregation would last for generations.

Blacks had to have their own schools and neighborhoods. So did Indians.

Chief Branham said he was one of the first of his tribe to leave their log cabin school and attend Amherst County's public schools. "1962 when we went into public schools. I graduated in '72, so it's not ancient history." He remembers more than a few fights because of his heritage.

"We blame Plecker, but he gave it to a very hungry audience," said Chief Adkins. "They ate it up. They loved it."

Indeed, Plecker was seen as a heroic figure in an era when genetic engineering was becoming mainstream. Headlines in the Richmond Times-Dispatch heralded his efficiency and "pioneering" work.

The supporters of the eugenics movement were many and influential, from academics at the University of Virginia, where Plecker studied for a time, to wealthy industrialists like Andrew Carnegie. The Times-Dispatch was on board, editorializing about the dangers of racial intermingling.

"We have to remember, in the 1920s most people lived on farms," Lombardo said. "So people knew about livestock, they knew about growing corn, they knew about culling the herd and getting rid of the ones that weren't any good and keeping the ones that were the most sound. And so these ideas of animal husbandry were useful to people making biological arguments about society."

There was a lot of cross-pollination between Virginia's movement and Hitler's quest for a master race in Germany. At one point, Plecker wrote to one of the Nazi leaders, congratulating them on their sterilization efforts.

In 1924, at Plecker's urging and with the support of many Virginians, the General Assembly passed the Racial Integrity Act, which narrowly defined race and made it illegal to for whites to marry anyone of any other race. Plecker wrote to the governors of the rest of the states, urging them to pass similar laws to save the white race.

Also, that year, Lombardo said, "there's a sterilization law that's passed in Virginia, upheld later in the United States Supreme Court, allowing some 60,000-plus people to be sterilized in institutions in 32 states all over the country."

There was also a strict immigration law passed then.

The Racial Integrity Act stood until 1967, when the Loving case about an interracial couple led to a Supreme Court reversal.

But the damage to Virginia's Indian tribes continues. There are more than 560 federally recognized Indian tribes in the country. But none of Virginia's tribes, the ones that helped the settlers survive, have that crucial recognition that gives them, in essence, sovereign status and entitles them to nation-building assistance.

The U.S. Department of the Interior requires that tribes be able to show an unbroken bloodline. And Walter Plecker carved a hole – decades long - in their heritage.

This injustice has led many Virginia politicians to champion their cause, including current Gov. Bob McDonnell.

Congress has come very close in the past to getting recognition for Virginia's tribes. U.S. Senator Jim Webb welcomed CBS-6 to Washington to talk about the issue.

"I've spent a good bit of time researching it," Webb said. "There's a unique situation, historically, in Virginia, because of the miscegenation laws and the inability to have documentation." Adding to the confusion, Webb added, is the fact that Virginia's Indians had agreements with Great Britain "because they took place while Virginia was a colony . . . I think they do have a case to be made outside of the normal process that has taken place at the Department of the Interior."

Webb said he doesn't believe this is an issue that falls along party lines. "This is a very unusual situation."

Couldn't President Obama sort this out with a presidential decree?

"You'd have to ask him," Webb replied.

The long struggle has been a frustration for Virginia's tribes. Some members find it galling that governmental bodies call on them for historic ceremonies requiring Indians or Native American culture, but official recognition remains elusive.

Still, tribal leaders preach patience.

"I don't know if you can ever atone for all the bad things that have been done," said Monacan Chief Bryant. "We are a people who believe in forgiveness and humanity and brotherhood. And so, let's make today a new day."

Walter Plecker died a childless widower in 1947. He was famed for his single-minded haste that saw him walk across busy streets without looking. In August of that year he was struck and fatally injured by a car while crossing Chamberlayne Avenue downtown.