Racial Integrity or `Race Suicide’: Virginia’s Eugenic Movement, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the Work of Walter A. Plecker

Racial Integrity or `Race Suicide’: Virginia’s Eugenic Movement, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the Work of Walter A. Plecker

Derryn E. Moten

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when key Virginia state officials and academics began to explore the subject of eugenics as a policy issue. On January 15, 1913, University of Virginia (UVA) professor Harvey Earnest Jordan delivered a lecture titled “Eugenics: Its Data, Scope and Promise.” Jordan defined eugenics as the “science of good birth” and noted that eugenics sought “to improve the [white] race by encouraging greater reproductivity among [its] racially fitter.” Alternatively, eugenics also would “prevent contamination and degeneration [of the white race] by prohibition of parenthood to the … grossly unfit.” Thirteen years later, a high ranking Virginia official reiterated Jordan’s premise and declared that “It is necessary for the State or Nation, by education and by law, to prevent the marriage or, illegitimate mating of feeble-minded, epileptic, criminal individuals of members of the white race with those of any other race. The preservation of the white race is a true eugenic measure.” These early beginnings point to a historical movement that involved leading Virginia intellectuals and public officials who became angst ridden over the issue of miscegenation. Historian Richard Sherman summed up the stance of white eugenicists and noted that “The race problem, they argued, was no longer political; it was biological.” The efforts of Virginia eugenic proponents culminated in 1924 when the state’s General Assembly passed Senate bill 219, An act to preserve racial integrity.(1)

This article examines Virginia’s eugenic movement by focusing on the 1924 racial integrity law. The locus of the investigation largely centers on the writings of Walter A. Plecker, M.D., State Registrar of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, and Virginia’s most prolific author and spokesman on this subject. Some colleagues attribute Plecker with giving the “study of vital statistics more attention than any [other] Southern registrar.” As this study reveals, Plecker’s efforts were aided by fellow theocrat, Ernest Sevier Cox, a self-appointed ethnologist who had spent years roving through the so-called dark continent, Africa.(2)

This article explores ways in which the category “white” was constituted by Plecker so that it represented all that was morally good, healthy, and culturally advanced. Similarly, it examines how “Negro” or “African” were defined or constructed so that they meant the very erasure of these qualities. I am also curious as to how “colored” was posited so that it meant better than black or Negro. Alternatively, “colored” also represented pseudo-white.

I also examine W. E. B. Du Bois’ notion of race, which I view as a reaction to and against racial biological conclusions about black inferiority. Since “white” never really meant the color white nor “black” the color black, this article inveighs the notion of a race codified by color. In his 1925, The Racial Integrity of the American Negro, A. H. Shannon makes the fictive argument that is the basis of my investigation here, “In seeking to determine the race of a people, or that of an individual, the most obvious and the most easily applied principle of division is that the color … The Caucasian is the white man; the Negro is the black man; the Mongolian is the yellow man; the Malay is the brown man; and the Indian is the red man. Racial prejudices and racial antagonisms invariably emphasize color.” According to this racial nomenclature or “instinctive Anglo Saxon conviction,” one drop of black blood made one “black;” the converse, whether one drop of white blood made one “white” was hardly debated.(3)

The 1924 racial integrity law made the falsification of one’s racial identity or “color” on a marriage license or birth certificate application a felony offense punishable for up to one year in prison. Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics clerks were to “withhold the granting of the license until satisfactory proof is produced that both applicants are `white persons.'” Assessments were primarily based on racial phenotype. In theory, the burden of proving one’s whiteness rested with the state. In practice however, the burden rested with the applicants; if one looked black to a Bureau clerk, one was classified as such. Little else mattered.(4)

Eugenics did not originate in the United States. In fact, eugenics or racial hygiene is an old world concept. During Europe’s “Age of Enlightenment,” certain philosophers imagined legislation that would overcome the “social, sexual, or racial differences separating women and men.” Nevertheless, these same philosophers did not believe in complete equality among sexes and races. Philosophers such as David Hume, for example, regarded Africans and Negroes for that matter, as unequals to whites. Moreover, in Europe, ethnocentrism abound. Hence at various historical moments, French, English, Jewish, and German Europeans were all pitted in variously arranged dichotomous vexed relationships. These groups couched their racial and ethic discrimination in terms of cultural purity and religious piety. By the late nineteenth century, biological explanations concerning intelligence, criminality, and sexuality began to take shape. Charles Darwin’s 1859 Origin of Species was a paradigm of the survivalist rule. Hence, the white superior race would survive over the inferior Negroid race because the white race was fitter in genes, culture, and civilization. One southern commentator wrote, “The black race will never be absorbed by the white race. The former may become attenuated and gradually die out as a result of disease, and the sterility of its hybrid stock.” Scientists such as Gregor Mendel argued that gene makeup determined one’s resilience or wherewithal and that genes constituted the brain and brawn of a race. This nee-Darwinist thinking assigned value not to individuals “or to the characteristics they showed, but to the genes they carried.”(5)

Francis Galton coined the term eugenics in his 1883 work, Human Faculty. Derived from Greek, eu means good and genus means race. Galton further defined eugenics in a paper published in the July 1905 American Journal of Sociology. Consequently, political regimes had the “pseudo-scientific” proof they needed to rationalize withholding rights from certain racial or ethnic groups. These “weak” members of society were deemed unfit and a “new kind of [racial] hygiene [emerged]; one that considered not just the good of the individual, but the good of the race.” A system of “hypodescent,” as described by Marvin Hams, “operated when individuals whose parents belonged to different `races’ were assigned to the one that was politically subordinate.” Harris asserts that “in America, individuals who have no known or acknowledged African ancestry constitute a politically and economically superordinate group.” In Virginia, “mulattos” or “coloreds,” by legislative fiat, became subordinate groups dominated by a “white” superordinate group.(6)

At the epoch of the twentieth century, the Commonwealth of Virginia followed this thinking chapter and verse. For the Commonwealth, African Americans were both morally and socially “unfit” and a threat to white racial integrity. On this question, Plecker wrote: “The negro as a laborer is valuable, and if it were possible to preserve the race in purity with him in our midst, he would be a great asset. Because this cannot be done, and because the mixed breeds are a menace and not an asset, we have them as the greatest problem and most destructive force which confronts the white race and American civilization.” Plecker argued that the African ancestry of African Americans “coupled with their lack of morals … constituted the real racial peril for whites.” He noted that young white Virginia men were too casual in their sexual liaisons with African American women. Plecker regarded such behavior with disdain and attributed this lechery to a lack of “self respect” and “duty to race.” He argued that many of these men considered fathering “mulatto children as a joke.” This “third race,” maintained Plecker, “regarded themselves as white, asserting the rights of same, and thought themselves superior to Negroes.” This aberrant activity was not just limited to men, however, and Plecker lamented that the “sickening and saddest feature [of interracial unions was] the considerable number of degenerate white women giving birth to mulatto children.”(7)

Plecker’s overarching concern had more to do with “mulattos” enjoying the same rights and privileges as whites than it did with race contamination. In a series of regional newspaper articles written by Plecker, the Vital Statistics Bureau chief tried to defend and justify the Commonwealth’s racial integrity law. In support of the legislation, Plecker argued that “This bill aims at correcting a condition which only the more thoughtful people of Virginia know the existence of … In the past it has been possible for these people [coloreds] to declared themselves as white or even to have the Court declare them. Then they have demanded the admittance of their children into the white schools.” In this same article, Plecker cited the case of a white Richmond school teacher who suspected some students of hers were [colored] because “of their features.” The teacher asked the parents to produce birth certificates. Plecker stressed that school authorities served as a defense between the safety and danger of the Commonwealth. School officials had a moral obligation to protect the racial integrity of Virginia’s white schools and white school children.(8)

Plecker often credited Earnest Sevier Cox in his writings and public speeches and referred to Cox as the “best authority now living on [race amalgamation].” In 1923, Cox wrote a race manifesto qua polemic titled White America. Plecker mentioned the work in every paper examined in this article. In a letter to Plecker before they met formally and became partners, Cox confessed, “I am in full sympathy with your Bureau in your attempt to check miscegenation. The book WHITE AMERICA [sic] deals with many attempts of the white race to remain white when in contact with the colored races. As a student of the negro problem and as a citizen of Virginia I feel a personal indebtedness to the General Assembly.” Published in Richmond by Virginia’s White America Society, the polemic argued that `The negro has never produced civilized culture and has never proved himself capable of sustaining it.” In the book, Cox further asserted: “Let us repeat that the “color problem” is not a problem of color, but of mentality. The difference between the white man, who has produced all civilizations, and the negro, who has no cultural possessions save those which he has received for the white man, is not a color difference merely. Pigmentation affects the skin only, while civilized culture is the product of the mind’s mastery over things material and spiritual.” Race became Cox’s virtual reality. History was not a means of explaining the past; instead, history was a means of creating a usable past.(9)

According to Cox, “The South is mainly responsible for implanting the Negro in the nation, for mixing with the Negro, and the South will justly bear most of the blame if the Negro is retained … Only the South … can prevent … a race devastation upon the entire white stock of the nation.” Those like Plecker and Cox had little patience for anyone who regarded miscegenation as innocuous or as an improvement upon the black race. They advocated either complete racial segregation or the return of all African Americans back to Africa. The latter proposal, however, met some opposition. In The Negro, R.W. Shufeldt objected to the “inconvenience” of repatriation and thought it a greater harm than the possible harm done to whites as a result of race intermingling. Cox retorted, “Such fanatical regard for the susceptibilities of a race, which, after all, is entitled to scant respect, becomes a crime against humanity [emphasis added] and, if persisted in, would end in national [race] suicide.”(10)

In 1922, Cox co-founded the Richmond headquartered Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America, which listed among its goals, “the preservation and maintenance of Anglo-Saxon ideals and civilization, the intelligent selection and exclusion of immigrants, and the final solutions of our racial problems … most especially … the Negro problem.” The “final solution” also became the euphemism given to the Nazi Germany’s pogrom for Jews in Europe during World War II. While it is difficult to ascertain the percentage of the white Virginia populace who supported racial integrity, Cox and Plecker received support from high places including, surprisingly, one black leader. For instance, the Richmond Times-Dispatch endorsed Cox’s and Plecker’s ideas and reasoned that “Unless stringent measures are adopted to keep the races separate in the matter of marriage, amalgamation is inevitable … And history shows the more highly developed strand always is the one to go.” The Times further noted that it could not imagine how any “right minded Negro” would object to such policies since they endeavored to preserve the integrity of both races.(11)

The axiom that politics make for strange bedfellows was particularly true with respect to racial politics. This was evident in the peculiar alliance between Earnest Cox and the Anglo Saxon Clubs and Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.). The Jamaican born black nationalist’s coda of “Africa for Africans resonated world wide and was tailor-made for Cox’s propaganda campaign, which advocated the same. J. David Smith cautions against viewing the relationship between these two seemingly unlikely groups as one in which Garvey was naively complicitous and co-opted by Cox. A closer examination reveals that both men used each other’s influence to achieve partisan aims and invidious goals. Historian Kevin Gaines argues that “Garvey’s appeals for racial purity were praised by members of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan and Anglo-Saxon clubs. In a society structured by white dominance, the alliance between white supremacists and black separatists is the sort of interracial cooperation that occurs most effortlessly.” Nonetheless, Garvey was hardly an uncritical supporter as one letter written to Cox demonstrates: “I have just completed reading the book “White America”[sic]. It is wonderful. From the Whitman’s [sic] point of view, it is a masterpiece in history, ethnology and general race literature. It should be in the hand of very intelligent white person … as also in the hand of every intelligent Negro. I do not and cannot agree with much of the historic data in reference to the black man. As a Negro I have opinions of my own, but I fully appreciated the fact that you have written from the Whiteman’s [sic] viewpoint. If I were of your race I would have written with the same force and probably with prejudice.”(12)

Both the U.N.I.A. and the Anglo Saxon Clubs engaged in political subterfuge of which each group was no doubt aware. In a letter sent to Garvey’s The Negro World, the Anglo Saxon Clubs talked about the two groups’ compatible interests: “The Racial Integrity law which is proposed and which the General Assembly of Virginia enacted … is in absolute accord with the principles of the U.N.I.A. … The idea of racial integrity must appeal as strongly to self-respecting negroes as to self-respecting whites since amalgamation would bring about equally the death of both races.” Cox and Plecker found a comrade in Garvey as all three men advocated racial separation. Garvey’s compromise was no less galling or was no less perfidy. Cox even deduced Garvey’s precarious situation and assured the black leader, “I [will] endeavor to show white men that you [are] fighting the white man’s battle without the white man’s aid … I consider the activities of the NAACP a menace to the purity of both races and shall attack the mulattos and their white associates who constitute its membership.” In his subsequent reply, Garvey reiterated Cox’s two main premises, “The mulatto is the principal cause of nearly all the trouble of the poor Negro in America … The race enemy organization–The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is destructive to both races. They are seeking to build a mongrel America.” On this point, Plecker also concurred that “Two races as materially divergent as the white and the negro, in morals and mental powers, and cultural fitness, cannot live in close contact without injury to the higher … The lower never has been and never can be raised to the level of the higher.”(13)

Scholars should not minimize the impact Marcus Garvey had on the black proletariat. By the same token, scholars should not down play the rancor between the U.N.I.A. and the NAACP nor the tiff between Marcus Garvey and his chief nemesis, W. E. B. Du Bois. Garvey’s wide grassroots appeal and sense of negritude makes it difficult to explain away his association with Earnest Cox notwithstanding their shared and respective racial interests.

Some whites were even less duplicitous than Cox about the true intentions of these anti-miscegenation measures. During a panel discussion on Public Health at the eighteenth annual meeting of the Southern Medical Association, Carl F. Raver of West Virginia maintained that “Mulattos light enough in color, try to pass as white and marry into white families. Although the public opinion condones [this practice], a sterilization law might be adopted that eventually would eliminate the Negro.”(14)

Walter Plecker was less overtly nefarious in his written pronouncements about racial intermingling. Nonetheless, Plecker was very much a cultural purist and a white supremacist. He believed that the United States was the “last stronghold of the white race.” Immorality, according to Plecker, was a matter of heredity and “mixed negroes are nearly all the result of illegitimate intercourse.” Plecker admitted that during Virginia’s ante-helium period, some white slavers had black mistresses who bore biracial children and that in many such cases, the latter were manumitted upon the planter’s death and maintained their white identity by marrying further into white families. Plecker argued that it was “undesirable to retain these mulattos on the place [old estates] and bearing the family name.”(15)

Plecker and Cox both understood the potential political dimensions of such unions and feared how influential mulattos could erode white political autonomy. The specter of Reconstruction, highlighted by black enfranchisement and so-called Negro domination was still a recent memory for many racists in 1924. Cox argued that the “Reconstruction plan for solving the Negro problem [was] amalgamation.” He further surmised, “As three millions, or about one-fourth of the negroes in the country, are mulattos or near whites, they constitute a strong political faction.” Some whites alleged that the most capable black leaders were in fact biracial. In other words, black leaders were more intelligent if infused with white blood. Their white fathers accounted for their abilities not their black mothers.(16)

“Mulattos,” therefore, represented an erasure of “Negroness,” and while the term “Negro” denoted color, it also connoted condition and status. In British North America and later in the United States, Negroes were slaves and only slaves were Negroes. In this peculiar institution, it was imperative for whites to be able to recognize a slave when they saw one. A similar axiom applied to Jim Crow; in a society bifurcated into “white” and “black,” whites needed to know if the person drinking from the “white” water fountain was authentically white. Race represented a power differential and a custom of behavior in which whites subjugated blacks. As Howard University professor Kelly Miller noted in 1926, “The color line constituted the deepest and most easily distinguishable line of cleavage” in Virginian society, and white racial consciousness was “solidified by appeal to the antithetic colored race.” The term “colored” signified an assumed black/white gentry for status, which many southerners protested. One Mississippi governor declared, “We have all the room in the world for what we know as `niggers,’ but none whatever for colored ladies and gentlemen.” W. E.B. Du Bois made a similar finding when he wrote about his conundrum as a “colored” man in a white world: “I lived in an environment which I came to call the white world. I was not an American; I was not a man; I was by long education and continual compulsion and daily reminder, a colored man in a white world; and that white world often existed primarily, so far as I was concerned, to see with sleepless vigilance that I was kept within bounds.”(17)

Plecker couched his rhetoric about interracial marriages in epidemiological terms. Race was his red herring. He contended that “many deformities are passed on from one parent to child, but will not show in every offspring unless both parents have by inheritance the same peculiarity.” Moreover, Plecker argued that “insanity, tendency to crime, and immorality are almost surely transmitted to their children, especially when both parents are of the same class. The worst forms of undesirables born amongst us are those whose parents are of different races.” Birthrate disparities also figured into this concern. Plecker complained about the paucity of births among white middle class Virginians as compared to the “six, eight, ten, twelve children” of Virginia’s mulatto underclass: When we consider … that the white birth-rate includes those who add no real strength to our population, we can easily realize that the loss in the country as well as in the city is from the class of well-to-do families to which we look for future leaders.” Race suicide described what Plecker regarded as race annihilation. UVA biology professor Ivey F. Lewis Miller supported this stance in a lecture titled “What Biology Says to the Man of Today”: “There is no such thing as a melting pot. The qualities of the mind and body … do no fuse and melt in the mixed breed. They may be shuffled and recombined, but they all come out in the wash unchanged.”(18)

While Walter Plecker and Earnest Cox attempted to make enforcement of the law appear simple, Virginia’s eugenic experiment was not an uncomplicated process. One case in particular proved how knotty a legal issue race was. In November 1924, Atha Sorrels was not permitted to legally marry her white fiance, Robert

Painter. The Bureau of Vital Statistics discerned from its records that Sorrels’ grandmother was a free person of color. Although the grandmother was born in 1856, and Sorrels applied for a marriage license in 1924, the Bureau concluded that while Sorrels looked white and had no other blacks traceable in her family, she was legally, a Negro. Rockbridge County, Judge Henry S. Holt ruled against the Commonwealth citing insufficient evidence to prove Sorrels’ Negroness. “The question,” as one Virginia paper noted, “seems to be whether each trial judge in Virginia shall decide what proportion of negro blood constitutes a negro, under the law. This is certainly not the intent of the racial integrity law.” However unintended this onus, another paper correctly surmised, “There can be no doubt as to the intent of the law, to classify as negroes all citizens of Virginia in whose family tree a person of negro blood can be found.” Senate Bill 219 ostensibly prevented the marriage between whites and non-whites, but as J. David Smith notes, “The law in reality provided only for the `racial integrity’ of white people.”(19)

The 1924 racial integrity law specified that whites in Virginia who had no more than one sixteenth Indian blood were “white” under the law and, therefore, able to marry another white person. Nevertheless, persons possessing both Native American and African American blood were considered non-white. It is unclear how Virginia officials discerned this so-called Negro taint or how these same officials ascertained a one-sixteenth Negro blood strand. Even if DNA testing had been available in 1924, the costs likely would have been prohibitive for the purposes of this law. South Carolina, for example, used generation measurements. Anyone who had “one black ancestor five generations back had 1/32nd degree of Black `blood'” and was considered black irrespective of phenotype. The “Indian and Negro admixture” was also complicated by the argument that all Virginia Native Americans had some admixture of Negro blood. In other words, there were no pure Native American tribes. In fact, when a subsequent amendment to the racial integrity law attempted to classify any white person “with any known demonstrable or ascertainable admixture of Indian and negro blood as colored,” a virulent ground swell erupted. In the wake of the General Assembly’s approval of S.B. 49, a Virgina historian remarked that “Passage of this bill would classify no less than 20,000 of Virginia’s most distinguished citizens or First Families of Virginia (F.F.V.) as colored.” The measure amended and reenacted the 1877 Code of Virginia that defined colored and Indian persons as persons “in whom there is ascertainable negro blood.” Various American Indian representatives clearly understood the implications of such a definition and assailed the legislature. As a compromise, another bill allowed “members of Indian tribes living on reservations … having one-fourth or more of Indian blood and less than one sixteenth of Negro blood shall be deemed tribal Indians so long as they are domiciled on said reservations.”(20)

Inasmuch as the constitutionality of Virginia’s racial integrity law did not go unchallenged in state courts, as a matter of law, federal courts were convinced of the efficacy of eugenic science. In 1923, one legal commentator wrote that “Recent legislation limiting the right to marry is based not on historic rules or race feeling but on scientific facts. It is directed against two evils, the brining into the world of children with hereditary taints and the protection of the public health by preventing the spread of disease through marriage.” Hence, Virginia’s racial integrity law and anti-miscegenation laws nationwide were viewed by federal courts as a bonafide use of state police power. Just the same, federal courts must have recognized the tyranny of such legislation. If white judges refused to see, African Americans certainly understood the impact and intent of these laws.(21)

Most African American leaders were less sanguine about Virginia’s attempt at racial integrity, and many of these leaders knew that the law violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. Among those leaders, Du Bois became a chief opponent of scientific racism. He assailed men like Plecker as cultural imperialists and criticized the racial integrity law as racist. Ironically, Du Bois had previously and sarcastically denounced the theories of the erstwhile Earnest Cox in a 1916 editorial that appeared in The Crisis: “Hundreds of men of Negro blood have had their achievements lost to the race because the matter of their color has been conveniently forgotten since their death. In this way one easily sees what a certain E. S. Cox, a `graduate student’ of Vanderbilt University means when he announces jauntily that all human culture has risen from white folk; the colored races have contributed nothing to civilization and when white races become mixed with colored blood they `decline.'” Cox’s premise later served as the basis for his White America. In either case, Du Bois dismissed Cox’s sophomoric drivel as “nonsense.”(22) Officially, the NAACP declared Plecker an “avowed anti-Negro propagandist who is continually expressing views that are of insult and injury to a large number of colored American citizens.” The national office pronounced Plecker an enemy of colored people and solicited Richmond NAACP branch president Maggie L. Walker to identify “decent white people in Virginia to take steps to get Dr. Plecker dismissed.” As chair of Atlanta University’s sociology department where he earned the title, “father of Negro sociology,” Du Bois was unsparing in his repartee: “We know that our America is a White America … And the overwhelming weight of both historical and scientific evidence shows that only so long as the American people remain white will its institutions, ideals and culture continue to fit the temperament of its inhabitants–and hence continue to endure.” These scientists, claimed Du Bois, were not “seekers of the truth, but biased whites who suppressed evidence which did not support their prejudices.”(23)

On the question of amalgamation, Du Bois did not mince words: “We have not asked for amalgamation; we have resisted it. It has been forced on us by brute strength, ignorance, poverty, degradation and fraud. It is the white race, roaming the world, that has left its trail of bastards and outraged women … It is not because we are unworthy of intermarriage–either physically or mentally or morally … It is because no real men accept any alliance except on terms of absolute equal regard and because we are abundantly satisfied with our race and blood.” Du Bois was no less forgiving with regard to accommodating black suppliants: “For nearly twenty years we have made of ourselves mudsills for the feet of this Western world. We have echoed and applauded every shameful accusation made against 10,000,000 victims of slavery. Did they call us inferior half-beasts? We nodded our simple heads and whispered: `We is.’ Did they call our women prostitutes and our children bastards? … Did they accuse of laziness 4,000,000 sweating, struggling laborers? We shrieked: `Ain’t it so?’ We laughed with them at our color, we joked at our sad past and we told them chicken stories to get alms.” Du Bois knew that “the admixture of races [took] place despite prevailing social polity, and [despite its occurrence] outside the vows of marriage.” White male sexual transgressors compromised white race pride “by [their] lustful indulgences at night.”(24)

Du Bois understood that American racism precluded the acceptance of African Americans as Americans. Dubious racist scholarship argued over the ability of African Americans to fully acculturate and assimilate. Earnest Cox underscored this point in his argument against black social amelioration: “You may breed a superior type of negro by selective mating, just as you may breed a superior type of Caucasian by the same process; but no amount of imitation will instill a creative instinct or capacity into the negro, nor will education or sympathetic aid of any kind.” Similarly, eugenic arguments did not acknowledge the degree to which one’s environment shaped one’s world view and one’s success or failure in the world. Under such circumstances, it was moot to argue one’s self-worth when its very possibility was taken away by bogus science. Plecker and Cox emphasized nature over nurture.(25)

Nevertheless, several black social scientists refuted the idea of biological determinism in favor of a theory of assimilation and environment. W. I. Thomas, for example, argued that “Negro `inferiority’ [was] a product of social and historical experience.” He also contended that “assimilation was a process not a conversion” and that the folk beliefs and customs individual groups were a part of America’s rich heritage. Similarly, University of Chicago sociologist, Robert Park, another key thinker among these academics, theorized that blacks had a more difficult task integrating into mainstream society because their skin color served as a “racial mark.”(26)

Thus, the social construction of race was to maintain white cultural hegemony. Skin color became the passport through which one ingressed and egressed out of a privileged white world. “The Negro in America,” Kelly Miller wrote, “will either be bleached by bastardy or destroyed through debauchery unless it develops a amor propre predicated on a race consciousness. A concept of race was sine qua non to race thinking and race prejudice. Du Bois recognized race as a way to align with others of a similar experience: “I felt myself African by “race” and by that token was African and an integral member of the group of dark Americans … called Negroes.” He developed this conundrum into his famous “Double-Consciousness” theory. Du Bois not only understood this vexed identity as a problem for African Americans, he also understood the difficulty it posed for whites. Du Bois asserted that “We are the fist fruits of this new nation … which is yet destined to soften Teutonic whiteness.” This so-called softening of Teutonic whiteness is exactly what Walter Plecker and Earnest Cox feared, and it was exactly this amalgamation that they were determined to halt.(27)

Many of Du Bois’ writings acknowledged the common brotherhood of man and the common fatherhood of God. In his essay, “Credo,” Du Bois professed, “I believe in God who made of one blood all races that dwell on the earth. I believe that all men are brothers … I believe in Service of the Master who summoned all that labor and are heavy laden, making no distinction between the black sweating cotton-hands of Georgia and the First Families of Virginia.” Plecker and Cox debunked such egalitarian ideas and declared, “Let us turn a deaf ear to those who would interpret Christian brotherhood to mean racial equality.”(28)

Virginia’s eugenic movement is a troubling historical marker in early twentieth century America. It evidences a period when law makers developed pernicious social policies that primarily targeted poor and racialized citizens under the false pretense that these citizens represented a threat to the State. Virginia’s eugenic laws represented a world-wide phenomenon in which manipulated science to establish a racial discourse based on racial stereotypes, erroneous assumptions, and public prejudice rather than measured empirical evidence. This movement also portrays an attempt by some to establish a unitary American character and cultural hegemony that subsumed all other ethnic or, rather, “uncivilized” cultures. Law professor Paul Lombardo is indeed correct that “Laws against miscegenation were part of the fabric of discrimination in the United States from the early Colonial Period until the 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia … The 1924 Racial Integrity Law was just one folkway of racism.”(29)

For African Americans in general and for Afro-Virginians in particular, the early twentieth century represented a harrowing episode. Most African Americans lived in the South and witnessed their political and social gains eroded by vindictive white southerners and capitulating white northerners. Peonage labor, a few steps removed from slavery, was all that many blacks could expect. Poverty and illiteracy held sway. Mob violence and legal and social injustices compounded these inequities. Black women and men were harassed by day and haunted by night. Middle-class African American leaders and groups stalled over the best course of action to attain full citizenship for all black people. Meanwhile, racist caricatures of working class African Americans as slothful, ignorant, lascivious, and vulgar legitimated eugenic sterilization laws and eugenic marriage laws. Affluence and acculturation were irrelevant to Jim Crow for few blacks were immune from racial caste. Some African American leaders reasoned that proper comportment and education were panaceas to Jim Crow. Others advocated such nostrums as business development and personal sobriety and thrift. Despite the best efforts of black uplift, whites such as Plecker and Cox continued to cast aspersions.

Virginia’s racial integrity law created an oxymoron. White Virginians were never racially pure, and “race suicide” was a misnomer. White advocates of eugenics had as much to fear from their own as they did from “Negroes.” What it meant to be “white” was just as much of a social construction or fabrication as what it meant to be black, Negro, or colored. Each racial topology was imbued with cultural signifiers, and how they were read depended upon who did the signifying. Given this ethos, it is not at all surprising that some blacks attempted to diffuse their “Negroness” through intermarriage. For example, the two hundred member Manassas Club of St. Paul, Minnesota required “negroes seeking admission have white wives.” Similarly, there is the more contemporary “Blau’s Theory,” which purports that “lower rates of intermarriage are associated with greater inequality between whites and nonwhites.” The converse is also purportedly true; “greater heterogeneity in national origin, mother tongue, ethnic background, region of birth, industry … is related to higher rates of intermarriage,” and equality In other words, in a completely “white” world, racial prejudice simply would not exist.(30)

Such notions intimate the folly that African Americans who have “white blood” are somehow more intelligent and creative and have a better chance to succeed in American society. Such notions do irreparable harm to their adherents. In 1918, E. B. Reuter wrote about this racial quagmire in The Mulatto in the United States: “Many people recognized that mixed bloods were represented disproportionately in positions of leadership in Negro organizations … [Many] believed that this dominance was best explained as a result of the infusion of white blood into the lower race or, alternatively, to the fact that whites had intermixed with the most intelligent Negroes.” Reuter rejected any idea that biology made mulattos superior; he repeatedly argued that their superiority was due to culture. And while Reuter’s findings were not in the same spirit as Plecker’s and Cox’s, they still smack of cultural arrogance because in either case, cultural refinement denotes white culture. Reuter’s conclusion begs the question. The word “white” represented a particular world view that was legitimated by white controlled social, political, and legal apparatuses. As Frances Cress Welsing offers, “the system of white supremacy is not for anything other than the establishment, maintenance, expansion and refinement of world domination by members of the group which classifies itself as the white `race.'”(31)

Virginia’s eugenic movement demonstrates that “in a world of color, we shall be duped if our first loyalty goes to the abstraction known as race … The issue is not whether this child or that man is blue- or almond-eyed, slow-or quick-witted. The issue is whether each person [finds] his … unique place in the orchestra of living.”(32) Fortunately, Virginia’s eugenic movement failed.


(1.) Harvey Earnest Jordan, “Eugenics: Its Data, Scope and Promise: As Seen by the Anatomist,” in Morton A. Aldrich et al, eds., Eugenics: Twelve University Lectures (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1914), 108, 110; W. A. Plecker, “Eugenics or Race Deterioration–Which?” Virginia Medical Monthly (August 1925): 283; Richard B. Sherman, “`The Last Stand’: The Fight for Racial Integrity in Virginia in the 1920s,” Journal of Southern History (February 1988): 69.

(2.) W. A. Plecker, “Shall America Remain White,” Southern Medical Journal (February 1925): 138.

(3.) A.H. Shannon, The Racial Integrity of the American Negro (Richmond: Lamar & Barton, 1925), 9; Paul A. Lombardo, “Miscegenation, Eugenics, and Racism: Historical Footnotes to Loving v. Virginia 87 S. Ct. 1817 (1967),” 21 U. C. Davis L. Rev. 421, 445 (1988).

(4.) 1924 Va. Acts 534; Robert N. Proctor, Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis (Cambridge: Harvard Univ., 1988), 10-12.

(5.) “The Marriage of Whites and Blacks,” Virginia Medical Semi-Monthly (January 12, 1912): 489; Unesco, Racism, Science and Pseudo-Science: Proceedings of the Symposium to Examine Pseudo-Scientific Theories Invoked to Justify Racism and Racial Discrimination, Athens, 30 March to 3 April 1981 (Paris: United Nations, 1983), 39.

(6.) Third Annual Report of the State Board of Charities and Corrections, 19-20, 15; Gloria A. Marshall, “Racial Classifications: Popular and Scientific,” in Sandra Harding, ed., The “Racial” Economy of Science: Toward a Democratic Future (Bloomington: Indiana Univ., 1993), 118.

(7.) Plecker, “Shall America Remain White,” 134; W. A. Plecker, “Racial Improvement,” Virginia Medical Monthly (November 1925): 487; Plecker, “Eugenics or Race Deterioration,” 287.

(8.) “Virginia Has New Color Law,” Dallas Express, 29 March 1924, Reel 20, “Amalgamation–1924: Virginia” The Tuskegee Institute News Clipping File (Division of Behavioral Science Research, Tuskegee Institute, 1976); Lombardo, “Miscegenation, Eugenics, and Racism,” 438.

(9.) Plecker, “Racial Improvement,” 487-88; Earnest S. Cox, Letter to Dr. W. A. Plecker [1924?] Earnest Sevier Cox Papers, Box 31, Universal Negro Improvement Association, Special Collections, Perkins Library, Duke University; Earnest S. Cox, White America (Richmond: White America Society, 1925), 310.

(10.) Earnest S. Cox, The South’s Part in Mongrelizing the Nation (Richmond: White America Society, 1926), 89; Cox, White America, 320.

(11.) J. David Smith, The Eugenic Assault on America: Scenes in Red, White, and Black (Fairfax, VA: George Mason Univ., 1993), 17, 19.

(12.) Kevin K. Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina, 1996), 240; Marcus Garvey, Letter to Earnest S. Cox, 8 August 1925, Earnest Sevier Cox Papers, Box 2, Correspondence, 1921-1925.

(13.) Smith, 25, 23-35; Earnest S. Cox, Letter to Mr. Marcus Garvey, 8 June 1925, Earnest Sevier Cox Papers, Box 2, Correspondence 1921-1925; Marcus Garvey, Letter to Earnest S. Cox, 10 June 1925, Earnest Sevier Cox Papers, Box 2, Correspondence 1921-1925; W. A. Plecker, “Virginia’s Attempt to Adjust the Color Problem,” American Journal of Public Health (February 25, 1925): 111.

(14.) Plecker, “Shall America Remain White?” 137.

(15.) Plecker, “Eugenics or Race Deterioration,” 287; Plecker, “Virginia’s Attempt to Adjust the Color Problem,” 112-13.

(16.) Cox, South’s Part in Mongrelizing the Nation, 94; Plecker, “Racial Improvement,” 488.

(17.) Kelly Miller, “Is the American Negro to Remain Black or Become Bleached?” South Atlantic Quarterly (July 1926): 245-6; Allan A. Hunter, Social Perplexities (New York: Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, 1932), 80; W. E. B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race (New York: Schocken, 1968, 1940), 135.

(18.) W. A. Plecker, Eugenics in Relation to the New Family and the Law on Racial Integrity (Richmond: D. Bottom, Superintendent Public Printing, 1924), 6; Plecker, “Racial Improvement,” 489; “Biologist Supports Curb on Immigrants; Dr. Lewis Calls Johnson Bill a `Reasonable Attempt’ to Bar Inferior Racial Stock; Discusses Negro Question,” New York Times, 6 April 1924, II, 3:3.

(19.) “Grandma Negro Virginian Weds Just the Same,” Afro-American, 29 November 1924; “Saunders May Appeal Marriage Permit Case,” Papers of the NAACP, Part 11: Special Subject Files, 1912-1939, Series B: Harding, Warren G. through the YWCA, Reel 3 (Frederick, MD: Univ. Publications of America, 1982); J. David Smith, 59.

(20.) Marvin Zuckerman, “Some Dubious Premises in Research and Theory on Racial Differences: Scientific, Social, and Ethical Issues,” American Psychologist (December 1990): 1298; Plecker, “Racial Improvement,” 487; “Bill Characterizes F.F.V.’S as `Colored’: Patriotic Bodies Plan to Thwart Virginia Measure to Define `Racial Integrity.'” New York Times, 9 February 1925: 13: 3; Va. Code Ann. p67 (1936); Sherman, “Last Stand,” 90.

(21.) J. P. Chamberlain, “Eugenics and Limitations of Marriage,” American Bar Association Journal (July 1923): 429.

(22.) W.E.B. Du Bois, “Lies Agreed Upon,” Crisis (February 1916): 187.

(23.) “Negroes Ask Secretary Davis for Dismissal of Dr. Plecker from Labor Department,” 25 March 1925, Papers of the NAACP Part 11: Special Subject Files, 1912-1939, Series B: Harding, Warren G through YWCA, Reel 3; James W. Johnson, Letter to Mrs. Maggie L. Walker, 22 April 1925, Papers of the NAACP Part 11: Special Subject Files, 1912-1939, Series B: Harding, Warren G. through YWCA Reel 3; Carol M. Taylor, “W. E. B. Du Bois’ Challenge to Scientific Racism,” Journal of Black Studies (June 1981): 449, 458-59.

(24.) W. E. B. Du Bois, “Amalgamation,” Crisis (December 1921): 55-56; W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Philosophy of Mr. Dole,” Crisis (May 1914): 24; Miller, “Is the American Negro to Remain Black,” 240, 242-3, 246.

(25.) White America, 314.

(26.) R. Fred Wacker, Ethnicity, Pluralism, and Race: Race Relations Theory in America Before Myrdal (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982), 19-20, 4.

(27.) Miller, “Is the American Negro to Remain Black,” 248. Du Bois, “The Concept of Race,” in Dusk of Dawn, 115, 81.

(28.) Du Bois, W.E.B. Du Bois Speaks, 142-143; Plecker, “Shall America Remain White?” 137.

(29.) Zuckerman, “Some Dubious Premises,” 1297; Lombardo, “Miscegenation, Eugenics, and Racism,” 422, 427.

(30.) Plecker, Eugenics in Relation, 7; Terry C. Blum, “Racial Inequality and Salience: An Examination of Blau’s Theory of Social Structure,” Social Forces 62 (March 1984): 609-11.

(31.) Wacker, 54; Francis Cress Welsing, “The Cress Theory of Color-Confrontation,” Black Scholar (May 1974): 33.

(32.) Hunter, 89.

Derryn E. Moten, Assistant Professor of Humanities, Alabama State University

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