The Middle Potomac History Research group finished it 2010 season at the Josephine School Museum with a presentation by Dr. Laura Feller about ways Native Americans in tidewater Virginia maintained and retained, invented and re-invented their identities in the face of the Virginia Jim Crow regime. Feller’s presentation focused on the Virginia miscegenation law of 1924 which unleashed a campaign to deny that there were any real Native communities in Virginia, and to enforce the view that no one in Virginia should be able to avoid segregation by claiming to be red, rather than black or white.
“There were many native American people in Virginia’s Tidewater region” Dr. Feller told the group of nearly twenty historians, genealogists and community members that gathered to hear her presentation at Berryville’s historic Josephine City School Museum and Cultural Center. “There were many more than most people might think.”
Feller, who is a curator for the National Park Service in Washington DC, said that she became interested in the issue of how native Americans in the Tidewater region maintained their cultural identities in the face of pressure from the Commonwealth on citizens to identify as either “black” or “white”. Many Virginia politicians were adamant about enforcement of the Commonwealth’s Jim Crow segregation laws and resisted observing the classification of “American Indian” as a potential loophole for avoiding “whites only” restrictions for marriage, housing, transportation and other social institutions.
“In 1924 Virginia passed a law the restricted who could marry based on race” Feller said. “It was a matter of law that if a person had just one drop of African American blood they were consider legally black. However, a person with one-sixteenth native American blood was still considered white.”
Feller said that the native American allowance, also referred to as the “Pocahontas Exception”, stemmed from the fact that some of Virginia’s oldest families claimed descent from Pocahontas and would have been subject to segregation laws.
Then Walter Ashby Plecker came along.
From 1912 to 1946, Plecker served as the first registrar of Virginia’s newly-created Bureau of Vital Statistics. An avowed white supremacist and advocate of eugenics, Plecker believed that the state’s Native Americans had been “mongrelized” with its African American population. The General Assembly’s 1924 “Racial Integrity Act” recognized only two races, “white” and “colored.”
Because Plecker believed that “colored” people were attempting to pass as “Indian” he ordered state agencies to reclassify most citizens’ claiming Indian identity as “colored.” Specifically, he ordered them to reclassify certain families whom he identified by surname, as trying to pass and evade segregation.
Plecker’s policy, which Feller termed “administrative genocide”, has left a modern-day legacy where today’s Virginia tribes struggle to achieve federal recognition because they cannot prove their heritage through historic documentation, as required by Federal laws.
“It wasn’t until the 1980’s that Virginia officially recognized eight native American groups” Feller said.
“Native American tribes, like the Chickahominy, formed tribal organizations. Others developed their own churches and separate schools” Feller said. “Some tribes even went so far as to engage anthropologists in the 1920’s to certify that they were really native Americans.”
Although Jim Crow laws impacted a relatively small number of native American Virginians, Feller said that their story is still important because it sheds light on how the nation developed and thought of itself in a racialized way.
“In the broadest sense I hope that my research will help people understand that “race” is an artificial concept” Feller said. “Race has been artificially created for economic, political and social reasons and is an enormously slippery concept. My hope is that if people better understand this they will be less likely to make blanket statements or hateful comments about other groups.”
The Middle Potomac History Researchers” focuses on local history and genealogy research in the North Central Potomac River watershed and meets every third Tuesday at Josephine School Community Museum from 4:00 – 6:00 PM. The group has a particular interest in African American history and strives to share knowledge and enthusiasm and to learn more from one another.
Clarke County African American heritage and history is preserved at the restored Josephine City School Museum and Cultural Center. The school has been part of a self-contained community situated on the outskirts of Berryville, Virginia for over 100 years. The one-story, two-room frame building was originally constructed in 1882.