This entry is a part of a series.
To clearly understand the material below in context,
you may wish to begin at the beginning with
the introduction to the series.
In an earlier entry in this blog series, we met Walter Ashby Plecker, a man who was exceptionally zealous in the fulfillment of his job responsibilities.
That earlier entry included some correspondence from Plecker, the State Registrar for the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics in 1924 when Virginia instituted its “Racial Integrity Act,” the most rigid statute in the country prohibiting interracial marriage. Under this new law, anyone with even “one drop of Negro blood” was to be classified as Negro, and forbidden from marriage with any white person. They could not use “white” drinking fountains or bathrooms, their children could not attend “white” schools. Misrepresenting an infant on a birth certificate as being “white,” if the parents (or reporting midwife) had ANY knowledge—or even a suspicion —of ANY “person of color” in their ancestry going back to colonial times, was a legal offense punishable by a year in prison.
As State Registrar, Walter Plecker was the one responsible for enforcement of this Act. And he pursued his mandate with a vengeance. Let’s learn just a bit more about Walter’s background, before we establish how he “fits” in the world of the eugenics movement of the time.
Plecker was born April 2, 1861, 10 days before the cannons fired on Ft. Sumter. He remembered some details of his early life in a letter to a magazine editor in the 1920s:
He remembered “being largely under the control” of a “faithful” slave named Delia. When the war ended, she stayed on as a servant. The Pleckers were so fond of her that they let her get married in their house. When Plecker’s mother died in 1915, it was Delia “who closed her eyes,” he wrote.
Then Plecker got to his point. “As much as we held in esteem individual negroes this esteem was not of a character that would tolerate marriage with them, though as we know now to our sorrow much illegitimate mixture has occurred.” Plecker added, “If you desire to do the correct thing for the negro race … inspire (them) with the thought that the birth of mulatto children is a standing disgrace.”
Early on, Plecker no doubt had little understanding about the “why” of his obviously “popular racism.” You might say it was just…in his blood.
…Plecker saw everything in black and white. There were no other races. There was no such thing as a Virginia Indian. The tribes, he said, had become a “mongrel” mixture of black and American Indian blood.
Their existence greatly disturbed Plecker. He was convinced that mulatto offspring would slowly seep into the white race. “Like rats when you’re not watching,” they “have been sneaking in their birth certificates through their own midwives, giving either Indian or white racial classification,” Plecker wrote.
He called them “the breach in the dike.” They had to be stopped.
Many who came into Plecker’s cross hairs were acting with pure intentions. They registered as white or Indian because that’s how their parents identified themselves. Plecker seemed to delight in informing them they were “colored,” citing genealogical records dating back to the early 1800s that he said his office possessed. His tone was cold and final. [“The Black and White World of Walter Plecker,” Richmond Style Weekly online article]
Yes, Walter’s prejudices were at one time just plain old red-necked racism. But at some point Walter Plecker came under the influence of…you guessed it if you’ve been reading this series…the Chief Prophet of Eugenics, Madison Grant.
In the early 1920s, [avid eugenicist] Earnest Sevier Cox, author of White America, told Madison Grant: “I stand ready to offer any assistance in my power if you could use me here in Richmond.” Grant had been expecting such an offer, and he knew exactly how he wanted to use Cox. [from: Spiro, Jonathan. Defending the Master Race. University Press of New England, 2009. Kindle Edition. This book is the source of much of the information about Madison Grant in this blog series. I will just use the name of the author, Spiro, in subsequent citations in this entry.]
In the 1700s, Virginia law had insisted anyone less than ¾ white was a Negro. This was later raised to anyone less than 7/8 white, and in 1910, the law was tightened to make anyone less than 15/16 white officially a “Negro.”
In other words, if “only” fourteen of a person’s sixteen great-great-grandparents were white, the person was a Negro. He or she was not allowed to marry other whites, could not attend white schools, and was subject to all the other restrictions of Jim Crow. But Madison Grant thought it was “absurd” that someone who was fifteen-sixteenths white was considered to be white. He was determined that the state legislature revise the law so that only those with 100 percent pure white blood could claim to be white, and be allowed to mate with other whites. [Spiro]
But Grant wasn’t a citizen of Virginia, he was a New Yorker, head of the Bronx Zoo. What business was it of his who married whom in Virginia? (Of course, from his point of view it WAS his business, since his most important business was to halt the Passing of the Great Race. The only way to assure the purity of Nordic blood in the USA, to preserve Nordic civilization on this continent, was to institute anti-miscegenation—race -mixing—laws throughout the whole country.)
…so he convinced Earnest Sevier Cox to spearhead the effort for him.
Cox then turned for assistance to a number of Richmond racists, the two most important being W. A. Plecker and John Powell. Dr. Walter Ashby Plecker had been the Virginia State registrar of vital statistics (the official in charge of recording births, deaths, and marriages) since 1912. He was a very thorough public servant, and was especially vigilant about catching light-colored Negroes who tried to register their babies as white, even though they were less than fifteen-sixteenths white.
When Plecker read The Passing of the Great Race, he was greatly pleased to discover that his popular racism could be rationalized by “indisputable scientific fact.” He immediately converted to eugenics, and took it upon himself to spread the gospel that American society could save itself from ruin only by “turning a deaf ear to those who would interpret Christian brotherhood to mean racial equality.”
He expressed the hope “that the people of the whole country are becoming ready to accept the guidance of Madison Grant, Lothrop Stoddard, [and] Earnest Sevier Cox,” and he began “strongly” recommending Grant’s Passing of the Great Race, Stoddard’s Rising Tide of Color, and Cox’s White America in all his official correspondence.
Plecker gave speeches and wrote articles that were extended paraphrases of the writings of Grant, and declared in an address to the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in Detroit that the antimiscegenation effort was “a struggle more titanic, and of far greater importance” than even the Great War [World War I]. It was, in fact, “the struggle which means the life or death of our civilization.” [Spiro]
So Plecker’s “racial integrity” bill, eventually passed in 1924, was actually inspired directly by Madison Grant and other eugenicists. And Plecker consulted with Grant and Cox on just what details needed to be in the law.
Plecker and Cox now asked John Powell to organize public support for the “one-drop” measure.
Powell, an aristocratic native of Richmond, was a fanatical white supremacist (and according to some sources a former member of the Ku Klux Klan) who was particularly obsessed with racial purity. Powell eagerly absorbed Grant’s eugenic teachings and, like W. A. Plecker, he began recommending the writings of the prophet to all his correspondents.
Powell also read Cox’s White America and labeled it “the most important contribution ever made to the study of the Negro Problem.”
…At the end of 1922, Cox helped Powell create the all-male Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America to lobby for the Racial Integrity Bill. Powell was a forceful lecturer and efficient organizer, and within months thirty-one chapters of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs had been established throughout Virginia,
… For years to come, the three northern scientific racists (Grant, Stoddard, and Laughlin) provided advice and acted as mentors to the three southern popular racists (Cox, Plecker, and Powell). [Spiro]
Plecker ended up with virtually dictatorial power over all reproductive rights of Virginians, and he wielded it with an iron fist for the rest of his life…active in his personally-declared war on every drop of Negro blood until his death at 85 after World War II.
And he wasn’t satisfied with just ensuring the purity of White Virginia.
Plecker’s office mailed literature to the legislators of all the states, appealing to them to join Virginia “in a united move to preserve America as a White nation,” and Governor Trinkle of Virginia sent a copy of the Racial Integrity Act to his fellow governors for their consideration.
More importantly, Madison Grant pledged to his southern friends the aid of the interlocking directorate [the inter-connected leadership of numerous eugenic organizations] in the national antimiscegenation campaign; under his prodding the AES [American Eugenics Society] supported antimiscegenation bills in a number of states, and Grant intervened personally in several midwestern legislatures.
The effort soon bore fruit, and by World War II thirty U.S. states—from Georgia to California—had passed (or beaten back attempts to rescind) legislation banning marriages between whites and Negroes. [Spiro]
And those laws stayed in place much longer in more places than I’ve ever realized until recently. I had of course known that inter-racial couples were despised in many areas of the country in my youth in the 1950s. But I didn’t know that they were actually breaking the law in so many states clear up until those laws were overturned during the Civil Rights movement of the 60s/70s.
Walter Plecker no doubt went to his grave proud of the fact that he personally had such a strong influence on racial policies in the US—and that he influenced and was supportive of similar efforts far beyond our borders…
…In 1932, Plecker gave a keynote speech at the Third International Conference on Eugenics in New York. Among those in attendance was Ernst Rudin of Germany who, 11 months later, would help write Hitler’s eugenics law.
In 1935, Plecker wrote to Walter Gross, the director of Germany’s Bureau of Human Betterment and Eugenics. He outlined Virginia’s racial purity laws and asked to be put on a mailing list for bulletins from Gross’ department. Plecker complimented the Third Reich for sterilizing 600 children in Algeria who were born to German women and black men. “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.” [Spiro]
But even with all the anti-miscegenation laws in place, Madison Grant and his associates in the eugenics movement were not satisfied. There were too many ways the blood-line “dike” could “leak” … as long as the two races were in such close proximity in the US. There needed to be a more permanent solution.
Why? Because Negroes and whites were not just a “different race,” along the lines of two breeds of cows. No, Negroes literally belonged to a completely separate species than white men. In fact by the 1930s Grant had begun insisting that whites and Negroes belonged to different “subgenera.” In other words, a white woman interbreeding with a Negro man was no different from a white woman attempting to breed with a chimpanzee!
In Passing of the Great Race, Grant had informed his readers that “in the modern and scientific study of race we have long since discarded the Adamic theory that man is descended from a single pair, created a few thousand years ago in a mythical Garden of Eden.”
Yes, in Grant’s eugenic universe only whites belonged to the species Homo Sapiens. Negroes had evolved independently down another evolutionary path. And just think of the horrible implications of this…
…Grant held that when blacks and whites mated, their genes did not blend together. Rather, since the blacks were the lower, more primitive type, their traits were dominant over those of the more refined whites. As he explained to William Howard Taft: “A cross between two races partakes always of the character of the more ancient, more generalized or lower type.”
In other words, the mulatto was not some sort of intermediate form, halfway between black and white, but rather a full-fledged Negro. As Grant put it in his famous phrase from The Passing of the Great Race that was reproduced in hundreds of books and pamphlets throughout the South: “The cross between a white man and a negro is a negro.”
Furthermore, Grant preached (in an argument that would be taken up by many eugenicists) that miscegenation was dangerous because it led to “disharmony in the offspring.” It was a “biological fact” that the mingling of widely divergent stocks caused both physical and mental aberrations. Thus, a child that inherited the large brain of its Nordic mother but the small skull of its Negro father would be condemned to a life of excruciating pain if not early death.
Similarly, a mulatto who inherited the ambition of his Nordic father but the laziness of his Negro mother would suffer from years of emotional turmoil and conflict. …Hence, aside from any unfortunate social or cultural ramifications, for biological reasons alone miscegenation was “a frightful disgrace” that societies permitted at their evolutionary peril. [Spiro]
Why chance this AT ALL?? The “final solution” would be to get rid of the Negro from the US totally.
Earnest Sevier Cox, author of White America and good buddy of Grant and Plecker, had his own strong opinion of how this could be accomplished, which he shared in his book.
Throughout 1917, he devoted every minute of his spare time (of which he had plenty) to working on the manuscript of White America, the book that would make him immortal among southern racists. The …thesis of White America, presented in the introduction and then repeated continually over the next 389 pages, was threefold:
1. The white race has founded all civilizations.
2. The white race remaining white has not lost civilization.
3. The white race become hybrid has not retained civilization.
Cox concluded that the mulatto was “a cancer that will eat deeper and deeper into the heart of the white race,” and the lesson for the Nordics in the United States was plain: they must protect their purity by gathering the Negroes in concentration camps along the coast, whence they could be deported to Africa (although Cox would permit Negroes who were too old to breed to remain in the United States until they eventually died off).
Cox then began an extensive search for a publisher. But over the next three years he was rejected by every major firm in the United States, including Grant’s own publisher, Charles Scribner’s Sons. While the content of White America was no less egregious than that of The Passing of the Great Race, Madison Grant always couched his racism in a scholarly style that convinced publishers and readers alike that they were encountering a reputable work of science. Cox, on the other hand, was not clever enough to appear as anything other than what he was: a half-educated bigot.” [Spiro]
Cox was also a lousy writer, and even among publishers that were enthusiastic about eugenics, he couldn’t get a publishing deal. Even after Madison Grant himself helped edit the manuscript. So Cox ended up “self-publishing” it. At that point, Grant and some of the other eugenicists did give the book some positive reviews, but even then it didn’t take off in the usual “scientific racism” circles. Not to worry. It sold well among the “popular racists” of the south, and continued to for many years. The last regular edition was published in 1966, just in time to bolster the efforts of those fighting against the Civil Rights movement.
(And of course old racist books never really die…they just go to PDF versions. Digital copies of the text of White America can be downloaded from a variety of websites, from Barnes and Noble and Amazon to various White Supremacist and “Christian Identity” sites.)
But back to the heyday of eugenics…
On March 18, 1924, one week after Virginia enacted the Racial Integrity Act, Madison Grant sent a letter to Earnest Sevier Cox signaling that it was time to implement the permanent solution to the Negro problem. The two men were in full agreement that this meant deporting the Negroes to Africa, but they differed over means.
Cox was more than willing to use force, and pointed to the example of the Trail of Tears, when those Indians who were “in the way of the advancement of civilization [but] who did not wish to move were made to move.” Cox’s analogy suggested that he envisioned using the U.S. Army to round up millions of Negroes and send them in chains across the Atlantic, a prospect that did not appeal to Madison Grant. It is true that Grant had once told Cox, “I am interested in seeing the revival of the Ku Klux Klan all over the country.”But temperamentally, Grant was a peaceful man, and he recognized that the only way to remove the Negroes without bloodshed was to gain the cooperation of the Negroes themselves.
But how on earth was that to be done??
Accordingly, he sent Cox a clipping from the New York Herald about a black leader named Marcus Garvey who had just given a fiery speech in Madison Square Garden condemning miscegenation and calling on the government to solve the country’s race problem by helping the Negroes establish their own nation in Africa. “If I were you,” Grant calmly told Cox, “I should get in touch with Garvey as it might be worthwhile to back his proposition.” [Spiro]
Yes, dynamic, charismatic Marcus Garvey from Jamaica had come to America to promote his various plans and projects for improvement of the Negro race, with the ultimate goal of persuading the white colonial powers to leave Africa and return it to Negro leadership. And for large numbers of Negroes from all over the world to return to their ancestral homelands and “redeem” the lands for their own race.
Over the next decade he had gathered many enthusiastic followers and supporters. But the most surprising of those supporters were Earnest Sevier Cox and John Powell of Virginia.
Shortly after the passage of the Racial Integrity Act, Garvey showed up to give a speech in Richmond, and the only white man in the audience was Earnest Cox. Cox immediately sensed that he and Garvey actually had a common goal, and concluded Garvey was like a “Black Moses” who could lead his people back to Africa.
After the meeting…
Cox introduced himself to Garvey, gave him a copy of White America, and offered to help him in his crusade for repatriation. [Spiro]
Strangely enough, Garvey was impressed by the possibility that this rabidly racist white man could be very useful, and by the next year, Garvey published a new volume of his own writings…and included at no cost to Cox a full-page ad for White America! “Garveyites” in Detroit asked for copies of the Cox book and sold them to other UNIA supporters. Eventually they sold 17,000 copies!
And Cox wrote a racist pamphlet that year titled “Let My People Go”…including a dedication to Marcus Garvey and an endorsement of his efforts. Garvey’s wife purchased a thousand copies of the Cox pamphlet and passed them out.
Cox then introduced Garvey to John Powell, who also saw that Garvey’s goals and his own were the same. Powell promptly talked his own Anglo-Saxon Clubs into raising money for Garvey’s efforts. And Garvey arranged for both Cox and Powell to speak at UNIA events. UNIA members were encouraged to read White America, Lothrop Stoddard’s Rising Tide of Color, and Grant’s Passing of the Great Race.
Unfortunately for both Garveyism and the plans of the eugenicists to encourage repatriation of virtually all Negroes back to Africa, Garvey was convicted of mail fraud in 1925 and was sent to serve five years in federal prison in Atlanta, Georgia. Without the charismatic leader’s direct involvement, the movement that he had started crumbled. Powell visited him in jail, and Powell, Cox, and even Walter Plecker all tried to comfort and support Garvey’s wife Amy in her attempts to hold together his “movement” during his incarceration.
President Coolidge pardoned Garvey at the end of 1927, but as an alien felon he had to be deported back to his native Jamaica. Garveyism never recovered from the setback.
And thus the plans of Grant and Friends to find an easy solution to the Negro Problem came to a screeching halt. They were forced to going back to relying on sterilization and marriage laws to try to save the Great Race from oblivion.
More on their efforts in the next entry in this series: