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

By Moten, Derryn E. | Negro History Bulletin, April-September 1999 | Go to article overview

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


Moten, Derryn E., Negro History Bulletin


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. …

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