Virginia’s Brush with Eugenics

Peter and Mildred Loving.

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed
them on separate continents… The fact that he separated the races shows that
he did not intend for the races to mix.”

-Judge Leon M. Bazile, ruling on the marriage of Richard and Mildred Loving in 1965.


This week, we dive into the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who defied Virginia’s racist marriage laws and, in the process, overturned interracial marriage bans across the country.

At the time of Richard and Mildred Loving’s marriage in Washington, D.C., Virginia had some of the strictest anti-miscegenation laws in the country, defined by what came to be known as the “one-drop” rule. Under the leadership of Walter A. Plecker and with pressure from “Anglo Saxon Clubs” supporting racial segregation, Virginia came to define “colored” as any non-white ancestry — black, Native American, Asian, or otherwise — despite centuries of documented racial intermingling.

A bulletin from the Virginia Department of Health advising registrars on how to categorize “whites” and “coloreds”.

Plecker and the Anglo Saxon Clubs were adherents of a debunked scientific discipline known as “eugenics”, which sought to improve or perfect the human form through selective breeding. Though its aims were lofty — a society free from disease, disability, criminality, and ignorance — it was invariably rooted in racist views of non-white people, and even subgroups of white Europeans, like Irish and Italians. Many eugenicists even advocated for the extermination of “lesser races” through forced sterilization.

Indeed, the Racial Integrity Act banning interracial marriage was not the only law tabled on its day in 1924. It was submitted alongside another law, called the “Sterilization Act”, demanding the forced sterilization of state inmates with mental disabilities or other impairments.

The laws would lead to the sterilization of over 8000 individuals in Virginia, but even then, many of the racists atop Virginia’s state health system were not satisfied. They wanted to turn the tools of eugenics on minority populations, and actively exterminate blacks and Indians in Virginia.

Dr. Joseph DeJarnette, a prominent hospital director in Virginia, carried on an active correspondence with the engineers of Nazi eugenic programs, lamenting that the United States was not more aggressive in forcibly sterilizing its “12,000,000 defectives.” He even wrote a charmless ode to his brutal, racist views:

Oh, why do we allow these people

To breed back to the monkey’s nest,

To increase our country’s burdens

When we should only breed the best?

Oh, you wise men take up the burden,

And make this you(r) loudest creed,

Sterilize the misfits promptly—

All are not fit to breed!

Then our race will be strengthened and bettered,

And our men and our women be blest,

Not apish, repulsive and foolish,

For the best will breed the best.

Unlike the anti-miscegenation laws that prevented Richard and Mildred Loving from legally marrying, the Sterilization Act was never declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The State of Virginia officially apologized for its experiment with eugenics in 2001, saying, “In practice, the eugenics laws were used to target virtually any human shortcoming or malady… [and became] a respectable, ‘scientific’ veneer to cover activities of those who held blatantly racist views.”

You can read the text of the apology, expressing “profound regret” for the “incalculable human damage done in the name of eugenics,” here. And if you want a chilling blast from the past, you can get a lot on the original eugenics laws from our friends at Encyclopedia Virginia.


Need a palette cleanser after those unsavory politics? Watch the trailer for the Academy Award-nominated movie Loving, based on the story of Peter and Mildred Loving.

 


Corrections: An earlier version of this piece referred to Mildred’s husband as “Peter Loving”, not Richard. It also mistakenly dated the Racial Integrity Act to 1927 and referred to Judge Brazile’s ruling as taking place in the State Supreme Court — he delivered it not in the supreme court, but as circuit court judge for Caroline County.