War Against the Weak

A pair of letters from Walter A. Plecker, State Registrar for the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics, for your consideration (bolding and underline are added in some quotations in this blog entry for emphasis):


pleckerApril 30, 1924
Mrs. Robert H. Cheatham
Lynchburg, Virginia

We have a report of the birth of your child, July 30th, 1923, signed by Mary Gildon, midwife. She says that you are white and that the father of the child is white. We have a correction to this certificate sent to us from the City Health Department at Lynchburg, in which they say that the father of this child is a negro. 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 this 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.

Yours very truly,
WA. Plecker

Plecker followed this with a short note to the midwife, Mary Gildon.

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?

Yours very truly,

WA. Plecker

I was astonished when I first read these letters. I had always known since my youth in the 1950s that “prejudice” against African Americans was a common feature in some parts of American society, particularly in the southern states. I knew that there were laws in some places clear up until the late 1960s that kept “negroes” or “colored people” segregated from white people in schools, in the use of public drinking fountains, in movie theaters and the like. But until I read the book from which I am quoting these letters, I had no idea of just HOW deep the legal system went that imposed such laws. And I had no idea that they were based, in the minds of those who drafted the laws, not on the whimsy of blind prejudice, but on what they believed to be unassailable “scientific facts.”

Walter Plecker and thousands of “public servants” like him, from local boards and bureaus to state and federal senators and congressmen, were guided by the principles and propaganda of an allegedly scientific national (and ultimately world-wide) movement called Eugenics. (Eugenics was a broad term covering a variety of related theories and practices, and not every person who supported the idea in general agreed with every aspect of the movement.) Laws against what were deemed “interracial marriages” were only one aspect, but a significant one, of a vast program of “needed change” to society envisioned by the inner circle of Eugenicists in America.


Leading up to March 1924, politicians and voters in Virginia were deeply involved in drafting and voting in what came to be known as the Racial Integrity Act. The editorial page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch on February 18 clarified ominously for Virginia citizens what was at stake:

…America is headed toward mongrelism; only … measures to retain racial integrity can stop the country from becoming negroid in population …. Thousands of men and women who pass for white persons in this state have in their veins negro blood … it will sound the death knell of the white man. Once a drop of inferior blood gets in his veins, he descends lower and lower in the mongrel scale.”

The newspaper need not have worried. The RI Act became law on March 8.


And once it was in place, the state of Virginia rushed into print a publication titled “Eugenics and the New Family” that clarified for everyone “what it was all about.”

The variation in races is not simply a matter of color of skin, eyes, and hair and facial and bodily contour, but goes through every cell of the body. The mental and moral characteristics of a black man cannot even under the best environments and educational advantages become the same as those of a white man. But even if the negro’s attainments should be considerable, these could not be transmitted to his offspring since personally acquired qualities are not inheritable. Neither can the descendants of the union of the two races if left to their own resources, be expected to develop or maintain the highest type of civilization.

And as the law itself insisted, this effect was true even for the person who had only “one drop” of negro blood in their family history. This was “scientific fact,” don’tcha know! Because the Eugenics experts of the US said so. And those experts were not uneducated redneck racists drawn from the KKK. They came from the finest educational institutions…such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and the University of California—Berkley. They worked for the most prestigious organizations—such as the Carnegie Institute, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the American Museum of Natural History. They had the ear—and approval—of many famous men of the early to mid-1900s…such as Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, John Harvey Kellogg, Alexander Graham Bell, Luther Burbank, and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Yes, promotion of laws prohibiting interracial marriage/sexual relations (miscegenation) was a vital part of the Eugenics program, but so were many other projects.

Throughout the first six decades of the twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of Americans and untold numbers of others were not permitted to continue their families by reproducing. Selected because of their ancestry, national origin, race or religion, they were forcibly sterilized, wrongly committed to mental institutions where they died in great numbers, prohibited from marrying, and sometimes even unmarried by state bureaucrats. In America, this battle to wipe out whole ethnic groups was fought not by armies with guns nor by hate sects at the margins. Rather, this pernicious white-gloved war was prosecuted by esteemed professors, elite universities, wealthy industrialists and government officials colluding in a racist, pseudoscientific movement called eugenics. The purpose: create a superior Nordic race. [War Against the Weak]

Those words are in the introductory material for a book titled War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race by Edwin Black, an investigative journalist.

war book
Much of the incredibly extensive documentation in the book is “jaw-dropping.” And has led me to many other books and online sources that corroborate Black’s evidence and conclusions. This is a story that should not—must not—be ignored.
Black continues his summary of what is covered in the book:

To perpetuate the campaign, widespread academic fraud combined with almost unlimited corporate philanthropy to establish the biological rationales for persecution. Employing a hazy amalgam of guesswork, gossip, falsified information and polysyllabic academic arrogance, the eugenics movement slowly constructed a national bureaucratic and juridical infrastructure to cleanse America of its “unfit.” Specious intelligence tests, colloquially known as IQ tests, were invented to justify incarceration of a group labeled “feebleminded.” Often the so-called feebleminded were just shy, too good-natured to be taken seriously, or simply spoke the wrong language or were the wrong color. Mandatory sterilization laws were enacted in some twenty-seven states to prevent targeted individuals from reproducing more of their kind. Marriage prohibition laws proliferated throughout the country to stop race mixing. Collusive litigation was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sanctified eugenics and its tactics.

… Psychologists persecuted their patients. Teachers stigmatized their students. Charitable associations clamored to send those in need of help to lethal chambers they hoped would be constructed. Immigration assistance bureaus connived to send the most needy to sterilization mills. Leaders of the ophthalmology profession conducted a long and chilling political campaign to round up and coercively sterilize every relative of every American with a vision problem. All of this churned throughout America years before the Third Reich rose in Germany.

I realize that most of the folks who read my blog will not be inclined to invest the time and money to read this book. So it is my intent to condense and summarize the most significant concepts and documentation that are covered in the book, pulling in information from many other sources at the same time to give a broad view of this astonishing story. It is a story that is not just about an “odd era” in our nation’s past…the influence of Eugenics has had a lasting set of ramifications applicable to the present, as well as the future.

While reading books on aspects of this topic, I often underlined passages and put stars next to important points, as I always do in books. But every so often a quote would jump out at me that “deserved” more than a star. I found myself compelled to write the word “GAG!” next to some paragraphs. And after a while I found I had to occasionally add an extra exclamation point or two. Or sometimes five.

While you are waiting for the next installment of this series to be available, I invite you to peruse a few of these choice GAGgy quotations.

Mistaken regard for what are believed to be divine laws and a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life tend to prevent both the elimination of defective infants and the sterilization of such adults as are themselves of no value to the community. The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race. [Madison Grant—American author— The Passing of the Great Race, 1916…a favorite book in Eugenics circles that is still enthusiastically promoted by modern racists. It was published just months after the “denial of care” death of the “Bollinger Baby,” the incident that led to the production of the Black Stork movie described in earlier entries in this series.]

A rigid system of selection through the elimination of those who are weak or unfit — in other words social failures — would solve the whole question in one hundred years, as well as enable us to get rid of the undesirables who crowd our jails, hospitals, and insane asylums. The individual himself can be nourished, educated and protected by the community during his lifetime, but the state through sterilization must see to it that his line stops with him, or else future generations will be cursed with an ever increasing load of misguided sentimentalism. This is a practical, merciful, and inevitable solution of the whole problem, and can be applied to an ever widening circle of social discards, beginning always with the criminal, the diseased, and the insane, and extending gradually to types which may be called weaklings rather than defectives, and perhaps ultimately to worthless race types. [Madison again…]

The cross between a white man and an Indian is an Indian; the cross between a white man and a Negro is a Negro; the cross between a white man and a Hindu is a Hindu; and the cross between any of the three European races [“Nordic,” “Alpine,” “Mediterranean”] and a Jew is a Jew. [Yup…Madison again.]

This is a capital [“splendid”] book—in purpose, in vision, in grasp of the facts our people must realize it shows an extraordinary range of reading and a wide scholarship. It shows a habit of singular serious thought on subjects of most commanding importance. It shows a fine fearlessness in assailing the popular and mischievous sentimentalities and attractive and corroding falsehoods which few men dare assail. It is the work of an American scholar and gentleman; and all Americans should be sincerely grateful to you for writing it. [Theodore Roosevelt—letter of admiration written to Madison Grant for the book quoted above.]

Of course, laws against intermarriage cannot solve the negro problem in any of its aspects-industrial, economic, political, social, biological or eugenical. They can, however, delay the evil day and give time for the evolvement of an effective solution … a real and final solution. [John Powell, buddy of Walter Plecker of Virginia, commenting on the new Virginia RIA law.]


Continue to the next entry in this series:



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