Death of a ‘devil’: When white su­prem­a­cist got hit by a car, his vic­tims cheered

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - JOHN WOODROW COX john.cox@wash­post.com

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 850mem­ber 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’s 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, which 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, fee­ble­mind­ed­ness 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.”

RICH­MOND TIMES-DIS­PATCH

ABOVE: Wal­ter Plecker, the long­time head of the Va. Bureau of Vi­tal Sta­tis­tics. RIGHT: Chick­a­hominy chief Steve Ad­kins, whose tribe was af­fected by Plecker’s poli­cies.

TI­MOTHY C. WRIGHT FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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