The Campaign for Racial Purity and the Erosion of Paternalism in Virginia, 1922-1930: "Nominally White, Biologically Mixed, and Legally Negro"

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IN SEPTEMBER 1922 JOHN POWELL, A RICHMOND NATIVE AND WORLD-renowned pianist and composer, and Earnest Sevier Cox, a self-proclaimed explorer and ethnographer, organized Post No. 1 of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America. By the following June the organization claimed four hundred members in Richmond alone and had added new groups throughout the state, all dedicated to "the preservation and maintenance of Anglo-Saxon ideals and civilization." For the next ten years Powell and his supporters dominated racial discourse in the Old Dominion; successfully challenged the legislature to redefine blacks, whites, and Indians; used the power of a state agency to enforce the law with impunity and without mercy; fundamentally altered the lives of hundreds of mixed-race Virginians; and threatened the essence of the state's devotion to paternalistic race relations. (1)

The racial extremism and histrionics of the leaders of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs have attracted the attention of both legal scholars and southern historians, particularly those interested in the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, the major legislative achievement of the organization, and Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed three centuries of miscegenation statutes in the United States. (2) Historian Richard B. Sherman, for instance, has focused on the organization's leaders, "a small but determined group of racial zealots," who rejected the contention of most southern whites in the 1920s that the "race question was settled." Sherman, who has written the most detailed account of the legislative efforts of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs, has argued in the pages of the Journal of Southern History that the leaders of the organization constituted a "dedicated coterie of extremists who played effectively on the fears and prejudices of many whites." Convinced that increasing numbers of persons with traces of black blood were passing as white, they made a "Last Stand" against racial amalgamation. (3)

While Sherman is certainly correct that the Anglo-Saxon Clubs owed their success to the commitment of their leaders, their views and policies resonated with a much broader swath of the white population. The Anglo-Saxon Clubs did not merely manipulate the racial fears and prejudices of whites but also tapped into the same assumptions that undergirded the entire foundation of white supremacy and championed segregation as a system of racial hierarchy and control. The call for racial integrity appealed especially to elite whites in Virginia who were obsessed with genealogy and their pristine bloodlines. Lady Astor, for instance, reportedly informed her English friends that they lacked the purity of the white inhabitants of the Virginia Piedmont. "We are undiluted," she proclaimed. Author Emily Clark satirized this prevailing view in Richmond when one of her characters remarked, "for here alone, in all America, flourished the Anglo-Saxon race, untainted, pure, and perfect." White elites across Virginia gave their support to the Anglo-Saxon Clubs and allowed Powell's message a hearing: state senators and delegates approved legislation; governors publicly advocated the aims of the organization; some of the most socially prominent women in Richmond joined the ladies auxiliary; and influential newspapers offered editorial support and provided a public platform for the dissemination of the organization's extreme views. (4)

Although Sherman himself does not suggest that the "[race] question was settled" in the 1920s, he does follow the lead of George Brown Tindall and other historians in accepting that most white southerners at the time believed this to be the case. On the one hand, this argument is persuasive: leading whites in the South did not debate the wisdom of segregation. But at the same time, white elites in Virginia struggled on a daily basis to figure out how best to manage white supremacy. In this sense, they knew that the race question was not, nor was likely ever to be, settled. …