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Walter Ashby Plecker (2 April 1861 – August 2, 1947) was a physician and public health advocate who was the first registrar of Virginia's Bureau of Vital Statistics, serving from 1912-1946. He was a leader of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America, a white supremacist organization founded in Richmond, Virginia in 1922. He drafted and lobbied for the passage of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 by the Virginia legislature; it institutionalized the one-drop rule.
Plecker was born in Augusta County, the son of a returned Confederate veteran. Sent to Staunton as a boy, he graduated from Hoover Military Academy in 1880 and obtained a medical degree from the University of Maryland in 1885. He was a devout Presbyterian, and throughout his life he supported the denomination's fundamentalist Southern branch, funding missionaries who believed like he later came to that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for racial intermixing.
Plecker settled in Hampton, Virginia in 1892, and before his mother's death in 1915 (his black nanny closing her eyes), worked with women of all races and became known for his active interest in obstetrics and public health issues. Plecker educated midwives, invented a home incubator, and prescribed home remedies for infants. His efforts are credited with an almost 50% decline in birthing deaths for black mothers. Plecker became the public health officer for Elizabeth City County in 1902.
In 1912 Plecker became the first registrar of Virginia's newly created Bureau of Vital Statistics, a position he held until 1946. An avowed white supremacist and advocate of eugenics, he became a leader of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America in 1922. He wanted to prevent miscegenation, or marriage between races, and thought that a decreasing number of mulattoes, as classified in the census, meant that more of them were passing as white.
With the help of John Powell and Earnest Sevier Cox, Plecker drafted and the state legislature passed the "Racial Integrity Act of 1924". It recognized only two races, "white" and "colored" (black). It essentially incorporated the one-drop rule, classifying as "colored" any individual with any African ancestry. This went beyond existing law, which had classified persons as white who had one-sixteenth (equivalent to one great-great-grandparent) or less black ancestry. In 1967, the United States Supreme Court invalidated the law in Loving v. Virginia.
Plecker in particular resented Negroes who passed as Indians, and came to firmly believe that the state's Native Americans had been "mongrelized" with its African American population. In fact, since shortly after the Civil War, Native Americans from all over the country had been brought to the Hampton area to be educated with blacks, and some had married, although that Indian school had closed as racial discrimination against Indians and this eugenics movement grew. Plecker refused to recognize that many mixed-race Virginia Indians had maintained their culture and identity as Indians over the centuries despite economic assimilation. Plecker ordered state agencies to reclassify most citizens who claimed American Indian identity as "colored," although many Virginia Indians had continued in their tribal practices and communities. Church records, for instance, continued to identify them as Indians. Specifically, Plecker ordered state agencies to reclassify certain families whom he identified by surname, as he had decided they were trying to pass and evade segregation. This remained legal in the South until federal legislation in the 1960s.
In addition, Plecker lobbied the US Census Bureau to drop the category of "mulatto" in the 1930 and later censuses. This deprived mixed-race people of recognition of their identity and contributed to a binary culture of hypodescent, in which mixed-race persons were often classified as the group with lower social status. Not until the 21st century did the census allow individuals to indicate more than one race or ethnic group in self-identification.
Plecker was hit by a car while crossing a Richmond street, and died on August 2, 1947, less than a year after his retirement. He is buried in Hollywood cemetery beside his wife, who died more than a decade earlier. They had no children, Plecker for years not seeking out friends, describing his hobbies as "books and birds," and even gaining a reputation for never smiling.
Plecker's racial polices continue to cause problems for descendants of what are now sometimes called the First Virginians. Members of eight Virginia-recognized tribes struggle to achieve federal recognition because they cannot prove their continuity of heritage through historic documentation, as federal laws require. Encountering European Americans first during the colonial period, the tribes had treaties mostly with the King of England rather than the United States government. Plecker's policies destroyed and altered records that individuals and families now need to show cultural continuity as Indians. In 2007, the House of Representatives passed a law to recognize the Virginia tribes at the Federal level, but the Senate has never yet passed it.