The “One-Drop” History Rule and Racial Identification By Whites,

The “One-Drop” Rule and Racial Identification By Whites, 

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.

1890 Census report on Virginia Indians
Volume 10: Report on Indians Taxed and Indians Not Taxed in the United States (except Alaska)

1890 Census report on Virginia Indians Volume 10: Report on Indians Taxed and Indians Not Taxed in the United States (except Alaska) 

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 Tenneseee 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.

In the most egregious example of racial stereotyping, the first registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, Dr. Walter Plecker, 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.

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:2

For the purpose of this act, the term “white person” shall apply only to the person who has no trace whatsoever of any 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

Plecker’s one-drop rule was constrained by so-called First Families of Virginia (FFV’s). They traced their ancestry back to 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:3

Of the Carys of Virginia, a noteworthy one was Colonel Archibald Cary, of Ampthill, near Richmond, on the James, known as “Old Iron” in the American Revolution. He married a Miss Randolph of the Curls branch of that numerous family. Through these Curls Randolphs we have received a dash of Pocahontas blood, and I have found no reason to decry this attenuated strain of descent from the long-gone little Indian princess whose high fidelity and noble unselfishness made its indelible mark upon colonial history.” baptism of Pocahontas in 1614Source: Library of Congress, America as a Religious Refuge: The Seventeenth Century

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:4

…he led the effort to purify the white race in Virginia by forcing Indians and other nonwhites to classify themselves as blacks. It amounted to bureaucratic genocide.

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.5

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:6

It was during the Reconstruction period that the Powhatan groups truly came to be active in opposition to some of the aims of both whites and blacks – a lonely position that has done much to help the groups maintain a unique, Indian identity.

As noted in the 1890 Census regarding the Pamunkey tribe:7

They have their own schools and will not mix socially with the blacks… If one of the tribe marries outside of his people, he must leave, and if anyone marries an Indian outside the tribe, he or she must come and dwell with the tribe. These requirements are enforced in order to preserve as far as possible the purity of the blood, and prevent the scattering of their people.

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, and . Roundtree’s assessment of the civil rights struggle distinguises the activist role of blacks vs. Native Americans:8

However, no Indians joined the civil rights movement in Virginia… All of the tribes, the reservation people included, still felt far too insecure about their public recognition as Indians to endanger it by seeking immediate gains through cooperation with black activists… To Indian parents, integration meant first being pushed into black schools and only secondarily equal opportunity in education.

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.9

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%).10


  • Battles in Red, Black, and White – Virginia’s Racial Integrity Law of 1924
  • National Institutes of Health
    • Categorization of humans in biomedical research: genes, race and disease
  • Library of Virginia
    • “Tell the court that I love my wife…”
  • Loss of Identity in Virginia
  • Loving vs. Virginia
  • Loving v. Virginia at Thirty, by Randall Kennedy
  • National Institutes of Health
    • Categorization of humans in biomedical research: genes, race and disease (published in Genome Biology, 2002; 3(7))
  • National Public Radio
    • Loving Decision: 40 Years of Legal Interracial Unions (June 11, 2007)
  • New York Times
    • Loving v. Virginia and the Secret History of Race (May 14, 2008)
  • “One Drop of Blood” by Lawrence Wright (The New Yorker, July 24, 1994)
  • VA-HIST listserv discussion: Genealogy and racial integrity (March 2005)
  • Virginia-Pilot: The black-and-white world of Walter Ashby Plecker (August 18, 2004)


1. “Atlas of the Human Journey,” National Geographic, (last checked May 25, 2012)2. Virginia General Assembly, “An Act to Preserve Racial Integrity,” 1924, (last checked May 25, 2012)3. Mrs. Burton Harrison, Recollections Grave and Gay, 1911, (last checked May 25, 2012)4. “The black-and-white world of Walter Ashby Plecker,” The Virginian-Pilot, August 18, 2004, (last checked May 25, 2012)5. Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries, University of Oklahoma Press, 1996, pp.193-1956. Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries, p.201 7. Bureau of Census, 1890 Census, Volume 10: Report on Indians Taxed and Indians Not Taxed in the United States (except Alaska), (last checked May 25, 2012)8. Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries, p.241 9. Jane Elizabeth Dailey, Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000, p.100, (last checked May 25, 2012)10. “The Rise of Intermarriage,” Pew Charitable Trust, February 16, 2012, (last checked May 25, 2012)

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