White Virginians had long been concerned with policing the color line. Virginia outlawed interracial marriage in 1691. In 1705 the colony defined a "mulatto" as "the child of an Indian and the child, grand child, or great grand child, of a negro," and in 1785 the commonwealth clarified that definition to apply to "every person who shall have one-fourth part or more of negro blood." After the American Civil War (1861–1865), a new statute defined a "colored person" as anyone having one-fourth or more of "negro blood" and an Indian as any person having one-fourth or more of Indian blood. In the first years of the twentieth century, with the emergence of scientific racism (the use of purportedly scientific methods to justify racial differences and hierarchies) and its attendant policies of segregation and disfranchisement, white Virginians sought to tighten racial definitions. In 1910, the Virginia General Assembly declared that anyone with one-sixteenth or more "black blood" was black. All other people were legally white.
Such quasi-scientific, genealogical measurements characterized many states' efforts to define race, but the Virginia General Assembly also enlisted the power of the state to enforce such racial categories. In 1912, the General Assembly created the Bureau of Vital Statistics to register all births, deaths, and marriages in the state, and all birth certificates had to state the race of the parents. Under the direction of Dr. Walter Plecker, the Bureau of Vital Statistics became an active agent in policing the color line. By the early 1920s, many white Virginians, including Plecker, believed the 1910 law had failed to defend their prerogatives.
The ASCOA's rhetoric decrying race-mixing angered powerful Virginia families that claimed descent from Pocahontas and John Rolfe. Thus, the ASCOA's racial integrity bill was amended to allow the marriage of whites with anyone having less than one-sixteenth Native American blood—a fraction of "Indian" heritage that preserved these families' whiteness. This became known as the "Pocahontas clause." Legislators passed the amended RIA to wide acclaim and Plecker began zealously enforcing the act.
The first two lawsuits challenging the RIA resulted in opposite decisions, drawing the law's constitutionality into question. The first case upheld the RIA. In the second case, however, the same judge ruled that since there was no discernable trace of non-white blood in either party, the couple should be allowed to marry.
Rather than appeal the ruling, and risk having the RIA declared unconstitutional, the ASCOA sought to tighten the law's racial classifications. Attempted revisions failed in 1926 and 1928, although a law mandating racial segregation at all public assemblages passed in 1926 with ASCOA support. Many whites believed that these measures, combined with Plecker's rigorous policing, unnecessarily inflamed racial tensions. Nevertheless, a threat to segregated public schooling precipitated further legislation.
To defend white privilege, the General Assembly passed another racial integrity law in 1930. Under this statute, people with one-quarter Indian blood and less than one-sixteenth black blood were classified as Indians—but only if they lived on a reservation, segregated from whites. Anyone else with even "one drop" of non-white blood was henceforth black—unless exempted by the RIA's "Pocahontas clause." This meant that the Indians of Amherst and Rockbridge counties became black by law.
Virginia's RIA remained in force until the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia (1967). Virginia's Monacan Indians have continued to battle their 1924 legislative reclassification as non-Indian, seeking tribal recognition from the federal government.
1691 - Virginians outlaw interracial marriage.
1910 - The Virginia General Assembly declares that anyone with one-sixteenth or more of "black blood" is black.
1912 - The Virginia General Assembly creates the Bureau of Vital Statistics to register all births, deaths, and marriages. Under the direction of Dr. Walter Plecker, the Bureau of Vital Statistics becomes an active agent in policing the color line.
September 1922 - The Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America s formed in Richmond and begins demanding legislation to prohibit marriage between a white person and anyone who has any amount of non-white heritage.
March 20, 1924 - Virginia passes the Racial Integrity Act, a law aimed at protecting whiteness on the state level. It prohibits interracial marriage, the only exception being a marriage between a white person and a person with one-sixteenth or less Indian blood.
March 22, 1926 - A law known as the Massenburg Bill, which mandates racial segregation at all public assemblies, goes into effect. The law requires "the separation of white and colored persons at public halls, theaters, opera houses, motion picture shows and places of public entertainment and public assemblages."
1930 - The General Assembly passes a law defining Virginia Indians as those possessing one-quarter or more of Indian blood and less than one-sixteenth of black blood. The law also stipulates that such people will be considered black unless they live on a segregated Indian reservation.
June 12, 1967 - In a unanimous ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, Virginia's antimiscegenation statutes are struck down and Loving v. Virginia establishes the legal basis for a cultural redefinition of marriage.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Dorr, G. M. Racial Integrity Laws of the 1920s. (2012, October 15). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Racial_Integrity_Laws_of_the_1920s.
- MLA Citation:
Dorr, Gregory Michael. "Racial Integrity Laws of the 1920s." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 15 Oct. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: February 17, 2009 | Last modified: October 15, 2012
Contributed by Gregory Michael Dorr, a visiting assistant professor at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He is the author of Segregation's Science: Eugenics and Society in Virginia (2008).