He built his career on the systematic oppression of blacks and Native Americans, becoming one of the country’s most influential white supremacists. For more than three decades, from 1912 until 1946, Walter Ashby Plecker used his position as head of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics to champion policies designed to protect what he considered a master white race.
He was the father of the state’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which designated every person in the state as either white or “colored” and criminalized interracial marriage. Plecker insisted that any person with a single drop of “Negro” blood couldn’t be classified as white, and he refused to even acknowledge that Native Americans existed in the commonwealth, effectively erasing their legal identities.
Then, on Aug. 2, 1947 — one year after his retirement — Plecker stepped into a road in the Confederacy’s former capital and was hit by a car. Blacks and Indians had good reason to celebrate.
“Dr. Plecker, 86, Rabid Racist, Killed by Auto,” read the headline of his obituary in the Richmond Afro-American.
“Dr. Plecker spent most of the years of his life in a vain effort to convince the nation and the world of the ‘dire effects’ of intermarriage between person of the colored and white races,” the story read. “He was still at it when the auto snuffed out his life Saturday.”
A separate column in the black newspaper described Plecker’s death this way: “We mention his passing here not to mourn him, but to applaud the fact that race haters of this type are disappearing from the scene.”
In an extensive profile of Plecker that was published in 2004, the Virginian-Pilot noted that it was long rumored he’d been killed by a bus.
“I know it’s kind of cruel to say this, but I hope the last thing he saw was an Indian driving that bus,” said the daughter of Lacy Branham Hearl, a Native American whose family had been torn apart by Plecker’s legislation. (The story noted it was a car, driven by a motorist whose race remains unknown, that actually killed him.)
“I thought Plecker was a devil,” Hearl added. “Still do.”
His efforts were so destructive that Indian tribes, unable to clearly trace their heritages, struggled for decades to receive federal recognition.
In a 2015 Washington Post story about the issue, Steve Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy tribe, smiled when he talked about Plecker’s death and said: “That was good for us.”
“He told us we had no right to exist as people,” said Powhatan Red Cloud-Owen, a Vietnam veteran who belongs to the 850-member Chickahominy tribe. “He tried to destroy a people like Hitler did. It was a genocide inside of this great country of ours.”
Plecker, a physician known among his colleagues for never smiling, might not have argued with that assessment. He admired aspects of the Nazis’ approach. From the Pilot story:
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.”
In fact, Virginia had its own sterilization law, the Eugenical Sterilization Act, that was enacted the same year as the Racial Integrity Act. It allowed the state to sterilize 7,000 people “afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity that are recurrent, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy.” In 2015, the Virginia General Assembly agreed to pay those who were forcibly sterilized $25,000 as compensation. Officials knew of only 11 victims who were still alive.
As deplorable as Plecker sounds in 2017, he was admired by many seven decades ago. Three days after his death, the Daily Press in Newport News published a fawning remembrance.
Virginians who had never met him “owe him a debt,” the story said, insisting that the statistics bureau had collected data “of inestimable medical and general value.”
“This work was carried on quietly and unobtrusively,” the story continued, commending Plecker for avoiding the “limelight.”
Plecker, it concluded without irony, “was content to do his duty and let the results speak for themselves.”
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