baptism of Pocahontas in 1614
Source: Library of Congress, America as a Religious Refuge: The Seventeenth Century
The original inhabitants of Virginia looked very different from the European immigrants who started arriving after Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. The Africans brought to Virginia in colonial times were easily distinguished from both Europeans and Native Americans - initially. However, once people of different races produced mixed offspring with a range of skin colors and facial features, the ability to distinguish someone's "race" just from appearance became more challenging.
Offspring of whites and blacks ended up being categorized based on the status of the mother. All children of female slaves inherited the status of slavery, no matter what the status of the father. Children of a free black mother gained status as a free person of color. Mixed-race children with a white mother faced discrimination, but were not consigned to slavery. Native Americans used different criteria, and considered a child of a Native American father or mother to be "Indian."
The existence of a category other than white or black caused great difficulty during the era of government-enforced segregation, when racial status defined one's right to eat in a restaurant, sit on a bus, or attend school. In 1924, Virginia officials sought to cut through the confusion and eliminate the potential for light-skinned blacks to "pass" as whites, by categorizing any child with one drop of black ancestry as a black person.
As modern society has come to appreciate diversity, it has also become more realistic to consider whether any family or community is of any pure race. After all, every human alive today can trace their ancestry back to migrants who moved out of Africa some 60,000 years (roughly 2,000 generations) ago.1
There's a modern anthropology term, tri-racial isolate, for people whose racial origins are not clear and who may be a blend of white, black, and Indian ancestry. The Melungeon families in southwestern Virginia and Tennessee are often chatergorized by scientists as a mixed community, with genes from various races - though some members of those families strenuously argue that their true heritage is from Portuguese or Turkish sailors and Native Americans, and there is little or no intermixing with black ancestors.
For centuries, Virginia law defined race in just a handful of categories - white, black, free people of color, Indian. Legal and social discrimination has provided strong incentives for various groups to minimize or obscure any genetic relationship with blacks in particular.
Dr. Walter Plecker served as the first registrar of Virginia's Bureau of Vital Statistics, which was created in 1912. In the most egregious example of racial stereotyping, he sought to define "pure" whites based on the theory of eugenics. By his standards, codified by the General Assembly in the 1924 Racial Integrity Act, any black ancestor - no matter how many generations ago - would disqualify someone from being white. One drop of Negro blood would cause a person to be categorized as black.
According to Plecker, those who might be described as mulattor or Indian were non-white, and anyone who was not classified as white had to be classified as black. There was no middle ground, no mixed-race status authorized by the 1924 law, with just one exception made for some "white" descendants of Pocahontas. The fear of the eugenic racists was that the 10,000-20,000 Virginians who were "near white" but had one drop of Negro blood would behave differently, and:2
as registrar of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, Dr. Plecker emphasized that everyone in Virginia should be classified as colored or white, not as Indian
Source: Library of Virginia, Registration of Birth and Color, 1924
Dr. Plecker sought to categorize many of the Indians in Virginia as black in order to stop light-skinned people with black ancestry from passing as white people and thus avoiding the Jim Crow discrimination laws. However, he was unable to use the equivalent of "one drop" of Native American blood categorize someone automatically as Indian:3
Plecker's one-drop rule was constrained by so-called First Families of Virginia (FFV's). They traced their ancestry back to Thomas Rolfe, the son of Pocahontas and John Rolfe, and were proud of their connection to what they considered to be Native American royalty. As described by one member of the Virginia elite:4
As a result, Virginians whose ancestry was one-sixteenth Native American or less were declared to be "white" in the Racial Integrity Law of 1924. Whites could not have one drop of black blood, but they could have a Native American grandparent.
Plecker served as Virginia's registrar of the Bureau of Vital Statistics between 1912-1946. As decribed in one review of his career:5
Plecker retired in 1946, when he was 85 years old. He was hit by a car while crossing a street in Richmond and died on August 2, 1947. The race of the driver is unknown. Obituaries in the major newspapers highlighted his life with positive comments. In papers with an African-American readership, the obituaries were far less complimentary.
The Richmond Afro-American observed:6
Long before Plecker, the Native American tribes had rejected the idea of just two races existing in Virginia, and sought to maintain their distinctive status as "Indians." After the Nat Turner insurrection in 1831, white Virginians increased suppression of free people of color.
That motivated the Chickahominies to obtain county-issued certificates of free birth, while the Nansemonds got a new state law passed allowing them to get certificates as persons of mixed blood, not being free negroes or mulattoes. Some Pamunkeys documented their status with "certificates of freedom," and in 1843 successfully rebuffed an effort to abolish what are today the Pamunkey and Mattaponi reservations because intermarriage with Negroes supposedly had eliminated their Indian character.7
Helen Rountree notes that after 1865, when inter-racial worship largely ended, the Pamunkeys established their own Baptist church separate from both white and black churches. When Virginia established a free public school system starting in 1870, separate schools were built and staffed for blacks and whites (with the white schools being far better funded).
White county officials steered the Pamunkeys, Chickahomonies, and other Native Americans to the black schools. However, Native Americans struggled to gain access to the white schools, or to create a third set of schools separate from both blacks and whites. Rountree states:8
As noted in the 1890 Census regarding the Pamunkey tribe:9
Civil rights laws passed by the Federal government after World War Two finally eliminated the overt segregation laws of Virginia. In 1967, the US Supreme Court ruled in Loving vs. Virginia that the state could no longer bar marriage between members of different races.
Dr. Helen Roundtree's assessment of the civil rights struggle distinguises the activist role of blacks vs. Native Americans:10
Modern Native American leaders in Virginia consider Plecker to be a villain. He was working to extinguish a group's identity, to deny their existence, following the same eugenics and racist philosophies used by Hitler in his effort to exterminate minorities in Europe. Commenting on the day Plecker was hit by a car, the chief of the Chickahominy stated in 2015:11
Race is a socially constructed concept rather than a biologically-based distinction. Racial classifications are redefined for different purposes by different generations. Virginia's Jim Crow laws establishing segregation were designed in large part to minimize the potential for inter-racial socializing, especially the sort that could lead to children. The post-Civil War Readjuster coalition between blacks and whites was broken in 1883 when opponents were able to scare white voters into thinking black political power was just a precursor to demands for social equality and miscegenation.12
Times have obviously changed. If race is based on continental ancestry and genetic isolation, then groupings like African, Caucasian (Europe and Middle East), Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native American make less and less sense as massive migrations result in genetic mixing.
After the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 in Brown vs. Board of Education that segregated schools violated the US Constitution, efforts by segregationists to stir race mixing fears lacked the political impact of 1883, and ultimately failed to block school desegregation even in Prince Edward County. During the Massive Resistance debate on how to respond to that Supreme Court decision, a focus on the doctrine of "interposition" allowed Virginia's political leaders to oppose integration based on philosophical grounds without having to justify state-sponsored social inequalities.
In Virginia, government controls to define and maintain racial purity have largely been replaced by officially-sponsored celebrations of diversity, though some Native American groups are still using "blood quantum" to help determine who will be classified as a tribal member. In the 2010 Census, individuals could choose multiple racial categories for themselves. "Hispanic" was an ethnic category separate from race.
By 2010, approximately 15% of first marriages in the United States were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity, doubling the percentage since 1980. Virginia was the #1 state for new white/black marriages (3.3%).13
the monument honoring World War I veterans at Suffolk's Cedar Hill Cemetery identified those who died in the war by race
by the time the monument honoring World War II veterans was installed at Suffolk's Cedar Hill Cemetery, it was no longer considered appropriate to segregate war dead by race
1890 Census report on Virginia Indians
Volume 10: Report on Indians Taxed and Indians Not Taxed in the United States (except Alaska)