The Nazis' laws on race were amazingly like those of the commonwealth. 

The Eugenic Dominion

In the midst of the Lee Floodwall banner fiasco, Councilman Sa'ad El-Amin made some remarks comparing the old Confederacy to Nazi Germany. Amin was almost immediately attacked for the comments, and in addition to being somewhat intemperate, they were historically inaccurate, or at least anachronistic. The commonwealth certainly had a connection to Nazi Germany, but it was later, and much more direct and insidious than I suspect Mr. El-Amin and many others know.

Long after the Civil War, the comparisons with Nazi Germany become even more odious and apt. After Hitler's rise to power, the Nazi government went on a campaign to "purify the race" and rid Germany of "undesirable elements." The Nazi racial purity laws forbade the intermarriage of "pure" Aryans (Germans) with "inferior" races (read Jews and Gypsies). Moreover, they made laws allowing for the sterilization of "unfit parents," and the "euthanizing" of "unfit" children. Horrific laws indeed, and, yes, the ideology was drawn straight from Adolph Hitler's prison diatribe "Mein Kampf." But when the German government — the legally constituted German government — wanted the wording for these laws, where did it turn? To Mein Kampf? No, the preponderance of evidence indicates that the Nazi government turned to the laws of Virginia.

On 24 March 1924, the General Assembly of Virginia passed "An ACT to preserve racial integrity," which intended to register "the racial composition of any individual … Caucasian, Negro, Mongolian, American Indian, Asiatic Indian, Malay, or any mixture thereof, or any other non-Caucasic strains, and if there be any mixture, then, the racial composition of the parents and other ancestors ..." The point was to have everyone in the state registered by race in order to stop interracial marriage: "It shall hereafter be unlawful for any white person in this State to marry any save a white person, or a person with no other admixture of blood than white and American Indian. For the purpose of this act, the term 'white person' shall apply only to the person who has no trace of blood other than Caucasian; but persons who have one-sixteenth or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasic blood shall be deemed to be white persons." In addition to outlawing marriage across races, the law made it a felony to falsely register one's race.

The man who was given charge of the effort to "preserve the racial integrity" of the state was Dr. W.A. Plecker of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics, a virulent racist and a follower of the "race science" of eugenics, which, by the way, was taught at the University of Virginia by Ivey Foreman Lewis from 1915-1953. Plecker was tireless in his duties, warning local registrars, court clerks and private citizens alike that "under the new law it is a penitentiary offense to make a willfully false statement as to color. The law has put the duty of enforcing this upon me, and I am endeavoring to see that it is obeyed." The Bureau of Vital Statistics put out pamphlets, including one entitled "Eugenics in relation the New Family and the law on Racial Integrity," written by Plecker. This tract was sent to educators throughout Virginia to help in the fight against racial mixing. Why? Because "the mental and moral characteristics of a black man cannot even under the best environments and educational advantages become the same as those of a white man ... Neither can the descendants of the union of the two races if left to the own resources, be expected to develop or maintain the highest civilization. Virginia has therefore acted wisely when through her legislature she has declared that no white person shall intermarry with one containing a trace of any other blood than white blood." "Mongrelization" of the white race was something Plecker was determined to fight, and he did so to his dying day. Indeed, interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia until 1967.

But the legislature did not stop there. In order to "improve" the race in Virginia even more, on the same day on which the Assembly approved the law to preserve racial integrity, the same body passed "An ACT to provide for the sexual sterilization of inmates of State institutions in certain cases." The legislators noted that "human experience has demonstrated that heredity plays an important part in the transmission of insanity, idiocy, imbecility, epilepsy and crime." To counter such threats to civilization in Virginia, the Assembly authorized the superintendents of the various mental institutions in Virginia, including the State Colony for Epileptics and the Feeble-Minded to "perform, or cause to be performed by some capable physician or surgeon, the operation of sterilization on any such patient confined in such institution afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity that are recurrent, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy." Infants, too, could be sterilized as long as a parent was notified. It was the hope of the General Assembly that the "welfare of the inmate and of society will be promoted by such sterilization."

Presumably, the legislators believed that one who was "insane" or "idiotic" would not challenge the law. They were wrong, for it was challenged almost immediately by a young, 18-year-old woman named Carrie Buck. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which, in opinion by Oliver Wendell Holmes, upheld the law. The court declared Buck "[was] the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring ... and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization ... We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices (sterilization) in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind." To this day the exact number of those sterilized in Virginia remains unknown.

So the next time you hear a "wild" comparison of the South to Nazi Germany, don't be in such a rush to discount it. After all, Hitler and the Nazis learned their eugenics laws from us in Virginia.

James D. Watkinson is a historian who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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