Plecker wasn’t a lone wolf with his racial purity notions—eugenics had many supporters.

White Supremacists from 1920s Still Thwarting Virginia Tribes

Tanya Lee

Congress is once again considering legislation that would grant federal recognition to six of Virginia’s 11 state-recognized American Indian tribes—the Chickahominy, Chickahominy Eastern Division, Nansemond, Rappahannock and Upper Mattaponi tribes and the Monacan Indian Nation. Chief Gene Adkins of the Eastern Chickahominy Tribe said, “We have been working on federal recognition for about 10 years. It is hard for me to understand why it has not gone through like we hoped.”

Virginia Democrat Rep. Jim Moran, sponsor of the House bill that would recognize the tribes, said he introduced the legislation to correct a “travesty of justice. The Virginia Indian tribes have been treated as unjustly as any tribe in the country, and that’s saying a lot. These are the tribes that helped the first English settlers in North America survive. Of all the tribes, they should have been recognized.”

There are three routes to federal recognition—administrative, judicial and legislative, explained Wayne Adkins, president of the Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life and second assistant chief of the Chickahominy Tribe. “The administrative route is very expensive. It’s a long process. Tribes gather documents, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) reviews them and tells tribes what other documents they need, then it’s get in line behind all the other tribes seeking recognition. It could take 30 years and cost $1 million per tribe. Most tribes going for recognition just don’t have that kind of money.”

Walter Ashby Plecker, said Wayne Adkins, is another big reason why going through the BIA process would be difficult for the Virginia tribes. “When Native Americans were given the right to vote [in 1924], Virginia adopted racially hostile laws,” Moran explained. The laws targeted blacks—and, by a quirk of logic—American Indians. Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 was one of the most restrictive in the nation, but it was not the only one—30 states passed similar legislation.

Plecker, registrar of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912-1946, was instrumental in crafting that state’s law. He argued that there were no full-blooded Indians left in the state by the early 20th century; therefore, all who claimed Indian heritage were part something else, and he decided the best thing to do would be to lump them in with blacks, since, by his mandate as registrar, a person could claim only one of two racial backgrounds in Virginia: Caucasian or “Negro.” People claiming to be Indians, Plecker said, were r­eally blacks trying to move their families into a position where they could “pass,” or claim to be Caucasian.

Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 outlawed miscegenation, and its intent, quite simply, was to keep Anglo-Saxon blood pure. Wrote Plecker: “For the purpose of this act, the term ‘white person’ shall apply only to the person who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian.… The [terms] ‘Mixed,’ ‘Issue,’ and perhaps one or two others, will be understood to mean a mixture of white and black r­aces, with the white predominating. That is the class that should be reported with the greatest care, as many of these are on the borderline, and constitute the real danger of race intermixture.”

The notion of thinking of human beings as “purebred” or “mixed” came out of Social Darwinism, which was championed by 19th century English philosopher Herbert Spencer. The t­heory holds that the principles of natural selection developed by English naturalist Charles Darwin could be applied to social, political and economic issues. Social Darwinism uses the “survival of the fittest” premise to promote the idea that White Europeans (Anglo-Saxons) are superior to all others and should therefore rule the world.

In 1883, Francis Galton, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin, coined the word eugenics from the Greek eugenes: eu, “well” or “good” + genesis, “birth.” Its opposite is dysgenics. Eugenics posited that the human species could be improved by preventing people with undesirable characteristics from reproducing, and encouraging those with desirable characteristics to have children. Undesirable characteristics included “feeble-mindedness,” criminality, poverty, physical disabilities and mental illness. One way to prevent people with unwanted characteristics from reproducing was forced sterilization, and one way to keep “undesirables” away from the “better-bred” people was to limit immigration. That’s a large part of the reason the U.S. Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 put strict quotas on immigration of “biologically inferior” people such as southern Europeans.

Though Social Darwinism and eugenics originated in England, their real champions at the beginning of the 20th century were Americans. Plecker was a zealous eugenicist, advocating both a­nti-miscegenation laws and sterilization of the “unfit,” while also proselytizing that Caucasians and non-Caucasians should be kept separated. As part of his work in the Virginia Statistics Office, he eradicated records of Indian births and marriages in order to support his directive that all Indians were to be categorized as blacks. These are the very records that Virginia’s Indian tribes now need in order to receive federal recognition. Other records of tribal significance were destroyed in fires.

Plecker was not just the eccentric, lone-wolf evil person he is sometimes portrayed as—though he may have been both eccentric and evil. Among the many advocates of eugenics in America back then were Alexander Graham Bell, Harvard professor Charles B. Davenport, Madison Grant, a founder of the New York Zoological Society, President Theodore Roosevelt, MIT geneticist Frederick Adams Woods and virtually every geneticist in the country, as well as a raft of wealthy patrons who supported the spread of eugenics and paid for research to substantiate its premises. President Calvin Coolidge, who signed the 1924 immigration law, had said when serving as vice president, “America should be kept American.… Biological laws show that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races.” Writing for the majority in the Supreme Court’s 1927 ruling in Buck v. Bell, Virginia’s landmark test case on forced sterilization, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said: “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.… Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

(In 1932, Plecker gave the keynote speech at the Third International Conference on Eugenics in New York at the American Museum of Natural History under the auspices of the International Federation of Eugenics Societies. Ernst Rudin, who had come over from Germany for the conference, was unanimously elected president of the International Federation of Eugenics Societies. A year later, he became one of the architects of the racial policies of Nazi Germany that led to the Holocaust.)

The “science” of eugenics had its heyday in the U.S. from about 1910 to 1930, but by the time Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, many educated people in the U.S. were beginning to question its principles. In 1967, three years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, the Supreme Court overturned Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 in its decision in Loving v. Virginia. That ruling effectively invalidated the anti-miscegenation laws of the other 16 states that had not yet repealed them. But the harm had

already been done for the Virginia tribes. Wayne Adkins explained that the BIA knows what happened in Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics in the early part of the 20th century and knows that many of the earlier records for the tribes were burned during the Civil War, but still, he said, “I’m not sure the BIA would give us the benefit of the doubt. The BIA is not lenient in its interpretation of the criteria that must be met for recognition. It’s not likely to rule in favor of the tribes.”

With the administrative road to recognition blocked, and the judicial road unlikely to bear better results and cost just as much, the Virginia tribes have gone to Congress to ask for recognition. “Federal recognition brings status and access to certain benefits,” said Gene Adkins. “And it is a matter of pride to do something for our grandparents and parents who suffered so many prejudices.”

Gene Adkins said the promise of educational benefits looms large: “Federal recognition would help us out with housing and health, and we would see more young people going to college, or if not college then community colleges and technical schools. That’s important to me.”

Steve Branham of the Monacan Indian Nation said, “Recognition would open so many doors—grants, scholarships, education, health care for our elders. It wouldn’t have to happen overnight.”

In 2003, the National Congress of American Indians passed Resolution #ABQ-03-070 in support of federal recognition for the Virginia tribes. Wayne Adkins and Moran agree that other tribes are in favor of the effort. Wayne Adkins said, “So far other tribes have been supportive. I haven’t heard anyone opposed to it.” Virginia’s congressional delegation, having been reassured that the tribes have no intention of opening casinos should they get federal recognition (there’s even a provision in the legislation stating that position), backs the bills.

The problems involved in getting the legislation passed are threefold.

First, many in Congress believe that only the BIA should grant federal recognition, despite the fact that the BIA process was put in place only in 1978 and that most tribes that have recognition were granted it by Congress.

Second, there is a misunderstanding that granting the Virginia tribes recognition would cost taxpayers money, even though no spending would be authorized by the bills. Branham said, “The federal budget for tribes is the way it is. There is a certain amount of money set aside for federally recognized tribes that doesn’t change. Recognizing us would make a little change for the other federally recognized tribes themselves, but they support us being recognized.”

Third, there remains the racial prejudice that has plagued the U.S. since before it even became a nation and that informed, and informs, the principles of white supremacy. “I think there’s a racial component here,” said Branham. “I hate to say this, but I think it’s when they do this [refuse recognition] it all comes to control. They are keeping people down and hurting our communities.”

Moran said it, too: “The dominant white society doesn’t want to give an inch. It’s a racially divided society and economy.” On the legislation’s chances in this Congress, Moran said, “my prediction is that it doesn’t have a chance in hell.”

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vandn's picture
Submitted by vandn on
Thank you for this very informative and factual article. We need all the support we can muster for our federal recognition bid. We are still facing prejudice,as Senator Coburn of Oklahoma, placed a hold on our bill last year. He was the only objector! One person prevented righting 400 years of injustice. Please, as many as possible, write your Senators and Representatives in support of our recognition. Thank you!