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100 years ago, Virginia authorized forced sterilizations and a ‘paper genocide’

It’s taken nearly a century to undo the legacies of these two measures.

Many of the state's forced sterilizations were performed at what was then called the Virginia State Colony For Epileptics and Feebleminded. Public domain.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of two of the most shameful laws Virginia ever passed. 

The Sterilization Act of 1924 authorized state officials to forcibly sterilize an estimated 8,000 people before the practice finally ceased in 1979.

The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 prohibited interracial marriage and denied the existence of Virginia’s Native American tribes, resulting in what’s become known as a “paper genocide” that complicated official recognition of those tribes long after the act had gone away.

These two laws shared the same start, and that was not by accident. In the aftermath of Reconstruction there was a brief window where Virginia flirted with what for the time passed as a progressive approach to racial matters, led by the short-lived Readjuster Party that controlled Virginia government in the early 1880s. The Readjusters’ relative open-mindedness provoked a voter backlash that culminated with the Constitution of 1902, which disenfranchised virtually all Black voters, and some white ones, as well. At least, that’s the way it’s usually written.

That was not the end of a rising tide of racism, however — in Virginia or elsewhere. World War I accelerated more social trends, the Great Migration of Black Southerners to Northern white cities, and Black veterans returning home from the war expecting better treatment after their military service. Instead, what they found was growing white resistance, which played out in the Red Summer of white-led race riots in 1919, the Tulsa massacre of 1921 and a revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

Nationally, the 1920s saw the rise of political isolationism and the passage of the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 (which some economists believe helped contribute to the Great Depression). In Virginia, 1924 saw the General Assembly pass the sterilization act and the racial integrity act. In hindsight, 1924 stands out as a pivotal year in American history for all the wrong reasons.

A Virginia health bulletin in 1924.

Both Virginia laws sprang from the since-discredited eugenics movement that was in vogue at the time and sought to improve the human gene pool by weeding out “undesirables.” If you step back far enough, you’ll see how all these trends were connected.

In Virginia, one fierce advocate of eugenics was an otherwise obscure state bureaucrat who came to wield great power: Walter Plecker, the registrar of the Bureau of Vital Statistics.

Plecker was a son of Augusta County who became a doctor in Hampton. In 1902, the same year that Virginia imposed — without a vote — a new constitution that sought to purge the voter rolls of Black voters, Plecker became the public health officer in what was then still Elizabeth City County, a county that’s since been subsumed into Hampton. His initial activities might mark him as quite the medical reformer. Encyclopedia Virginia says of him: “He took a special interest in delivering babies; educating midwives; developing a simple, use-at-home incubator; and working to reduce by half the 5 percent birth-mortality rates among the poor. Plecker distributed silver nitrate to be administered to the eyes of newborns, a procedure that helped reduce incidences of syphilitic blindness. He also kept records to search for ways to improve birthing, a goal made more difficult by the fact that most people were born (and died) at home.”

Plecker’s laudatory work made him a natural in 1912 to head Virginia’s newly created Bureau of Vital Statistics. For the first time, Virginia would issue birth certificates. Those birth certificates also designated the race of the newborn, and that’s where Plecker’s eyes turned.

Plecker was a humorless man. “I don’t know of anyone who ever saw him smile,” a former coworker once told The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk. His lunch consisted only of an apple. The Pilot reported that “Plecker scraped glue pots, mixed the gunk with water and sent it back to employees for use.” When he crossed the street, he never looked to see whether traffic was coming. “He just expected the cars to stop for him,” that former coworker said. “One time a woman grabbed him just as he was about to be hit, and he laid her out like she’d just touched God.” 

Plecker also believed that God had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of interracial marriage and, in his new role, he set out to put a stop to it. “Let us turn a deaf ear to those who would interpret Christian brotherhood as racial equality,” he wrote.

Plecker had compatriots. One of them was John Powell, a pianist and world-renowned composer from Richmond — and, like Plecker, an avowed white supremacist. In 1922, Powell and Earnest Seveier Cox, a minister from Richmond who had spent five years touring Africa in hopes of “finding out how other people control their negroes,” founded the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America to promote white supremacy. Some have since called those clubs “an elitist version of the Ku Klux Klan.” By the following year, the club had 31 “posts” across Virginia, and the lobbying for new laws had begun.

(A side note about Powell: He was fascinated by Appalachian music, believing it was a purely white musical form — he obviously ignored the African origins of the banjo — and founded an Appalachian music festival in White Top in Grayson County.)

Dr. Albert Priddy. Public domain.

The push for forced sterilization had its own separate lobbying effort, led by Albert Priddy, superintendent of what was then called the Lynchburg Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in Amherst County, and Joseph DeJarnette, superintendent of the Western State psychiatric hospital in Staunton. 

In 1924, the General Assembly passed both the sterilization act and the racial integrity act. The state’s five psychiatric institutions performed the operations: Western State in Staunton, Eastern State in Williamsburg, Southwestern State in Marion, Central State in Petersburg, and the Lynchburg Colony in Amherst. Given the role that their superintendents played in passing the law, it should be no surprise that the two facilities that performed the most sterilizations were the ones in Amherst and Staunton.

Joseph DeJarnette. Public domain.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Virginia’s forced sterilizations by a vote of 8-1, setting the stage for more than 30 other states to follow suit. Only California performed more sterilizations than Virginia, Encyclopedia Virginia says. Even so, DeJarnette, who personally performed many of the 1,200 operations at his facility, was disappointed because he felt Virginia was moving too slowly. In 1934, after Adolf Hitler had come to power in Nazi Germany and instituted a sterilization program, DeJarnette complained to the General Assembly: “The Germans are beating us at our own game and are more progressive than we are.” Long after the Holocaust had been exposed, DeJarnette still attached to his publications a poem he had written in praise of eugenics that said, in part:

Oh, why do we allow these people

To breed back to the monkey’s nest,

To increase our country’s burdens

When we should only breed the best?

While the sterilization act was more straightforward and better-known, the racial classification bill was just as insidious. Plecker called the new law “the most perfect expression of the white ideal, and the most important eugenical effort that has been made in 4,000 years.” He administered it zealously. He directed his staff to withhold birth certificates declaring a child to be white until both parents could prove that they were white, and he often sent personal letters of condemnation to mothers who bore mixed-race children. Encyclopedia Virginia reprints one such letter, to a white woman in Lynchburg who had declared her child to be white. Plecker informed her that he had received information to the contrary from the city’s health department: 

“This is to give you warning that this is a mulatto child and you cannot pass it off as white. A new law passed by the last legislature says that if a child has one drop of negro blood in it, it cannot be counted as white. You will have to do something about this matter and see that the child is not allowed to mix with white children, it cannot go to white schools and can never marry a white person in Virginia. 

“It is an awful thing.”

He also sent a letter to the midwife who had certified the birth:

“This is to notify you that it is a penitentiary offense to willfully state that a child is white when it is colored. You have made yourself liable to very serious trouble by doing this thing. What have you got to say about it?”

Other times, Plecker referred to mixed-race people as “mongrels” and “rats.”

Plecker did not stop there. The Virginian-Pilot reported: “He pressured superintendents to remove children from white schools based on complaints that they had ‘negro’ features. ‘As to deciding the point of race, you and the sheriff, and any other intelligent citizen of your community, are as capable of judging from the appearance of the child as the most learned scientist,’ Plecker wrote one superintendent. ‘There is absolutely no blood or other test to determine the question.’”

The dead were not safe, either. The Norfolk newspaper reported: “Plecker demanded the removal of bodies from white cemeteries.”

Plecker used his power to eliminate an entire race — a “paperwork genocide,” it’s been called. He denied there were any Native Americans in Virginia and reclassified them all as “Negro.” This created a problem that lived on long after Plecker did, by making it difficult for Virginia’s tribes to earn federal recognition when there was no state paperwork to attest to their true ancestry. 

In 1943, three men in Caroline County said they’d happily register for the draft but only if the state reclassified them from Black to Native Americans. This outraged Plecker, who called it a “racial falsehood.” He then compiled a list of surnames he believed most identified with the Native Americans who he insisted didn’t exist and sent it to court clerks, hospitals and schools across the state. “This list should be preserved by all, even by those in counties and cities not included, as these people are moving around over the State and changing race at the new place,” he wrote. (To Plecker’s dismay, the racial integrity law allowed a small exception for people with 1/16th Native American ancestry; this was done to assuage some leading families who proudly claimed some lineage to Pocahontas).

Plecker, like DeJarnette, admired the Nazis. In 1935, he wrote to the director of Germany’s Bureau of Human Betterment and Eugenics, outlined Virginia’s policies, asked to be put on the bureau’s mailing list and congratulated Germany for sterilizing 600 mixed-race children. “I hope this work is complete and not one has been missed,” he wrote. “I sometimes regret that we have not the authority to put some measures in practice in Virginia.” 

Plecker retired in 1946. A year later, while crossing a street in Richmond — remember, he never looked — he was struck by a car and killed. The headline in the Richmond Afro-American newspaper read: “Dr. Plecker, Rabid Racist, Killed By Auto.”

The legacies of these men did not end with their retirements, or even their deaths. The Racial Integrity Act stood until 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck it down in Loving v. Virginia, although it took until 1997, and an order from Gov. George Allen, to deal with fixes to birth certificates. Virginia continued performing forced sterilizations until 1979. In 2001, Virginia changed the name of the DeJarnette Center in Staunton to the Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents. In 2002, the General Assembly passed an official “statement of regret” for those forced sterilizations and in 2005 set up a compensation fund for surviving victims. In 2010, Radford University removed Powell’s name from its arts and music building. Not until 2018 did Congress pass an act recognizing six Native American tribes in Virginia whose legal existence had been wiped away through Plecker’s paperwork: the Monacan, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Nansemond, Rappahannock and Upper Mattaponi. That means it took just shy of a century to undo the lingering work of those two laws passed in 1924, although we all know that some things can never be undone. That raises a question: What might we be doing today that will take the next century to undo?


(c) Cardinal News 2024

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