There was a time in Virginia when a man named Walter Plecker, the state registrar of vital statistics, had the power to decide whether a person would be treated as a citizen or as a person who “polluted” the “racial purity” of America. There also was a time when a man who was deeply involved in the passage of the law that gave Plecker so much power had his name on a building at Radford University. Finally, justice has been done and John Powell’s name will no longer grace that building.
A recent vote to strip Powell’s name from Radford’s arts and music building was the result of a unanimous vote of the school’s board of visitors, five years after Radford history professor Richard Straw and his class discovered that John Powell wasn’t merely a composer and musician but also was an important white supremacist, the man who founded the Richmond chapter of the Anglo-Saxon Club of America. Powell was instrumental in the passage of the 1924 legislation that gave Walter Plecker the authority to decide who was “undesirable,” “feeble-minded,” or a “mongrel.”
For example, using the power of that act, Plecker reclassified all members of Virginia Indian tribes as “colored,” thus excluding them from then-segregated public schools and other state institutions.
The Radford University building wasn’t named for John Powell in the Twenties when racist eugenics policies were fairly common in America. Instead, it happened in 1967, the year when the state 1924 Racial Integrity Act was overturned by the U. S. Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia, the court case that also outlawed any state prohibition against inter-racial marriage. However, when it was in force, the Racial Integrity Act didn’t simply refuse equal marriage rights to all state citizens. It resulted in actions by the state far, far worse…
Using the eugenics policies that Virginia had back then, thousands of people deemed by the state to be “unfit to reproduce,” including many poor white people with low IQ’s, were committed to places like the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in Amherst County, where they were surgically sterilized without their consent. Perhaps the worst indictment of the atmosphere in Virginia back then is the fact that Adolf Hitler used the same rationale as Virginia for the Nazi sterilization law, which was used to purge Jews, intellectually undesirable people, and handicapped citizens from German society before the Final Solution was devised.
The year after I began my teaching career in Amherst County, 1971, U.S. Judge Robert Merige forced the county to integrate its schools in the middle of the year. Merige was dumbfounded to find that Amherst County had three school systems, not two. One was for the Monacan Indian population, then designated as “Issues.” Their schooling only went to the 8th grade because the state insisted they were “colored” and they clung to their heritage and refused to be labeled that way. There was another for the Black population of the county, which had schools with up to 45 students in a classroom, little equipment, and old textbooks. Finally, there were the schools reserved for the favored White students.
I am pleased that John Powell will no longer be “honored” by having his racist name attached to a building on a state university campus. I still am sad realizing that my state in 1967 – during my lifetime – decided to honor such a bigot. There is no doubt that those responsible for naming the building knew Powell’s racist history. After all, he was not quiet about his views but proudly led the forces of hatred and bigotry.
All of us would do well to remember this dark side of Virginia history the next time politicians invite us to hate people, whether it’s gays or Muslims or illegal immigrants or liberals or whoever. Never again should my nation or my home state be a role model for Nazism.
I am often asked why I am a Democrat. As a teenager, I became aware of the evil inherent in the segregated South I lived in. In the 1960’s Democrats turned their backs on the past and led the way to seek equal rights for all Americans. The Republican party, at the same time, rejected the heritage of Abraham Lincoln, devised its “Southern Strategy,” and replaced its responsible conservatism with craven appeals to the prejudices and fears of people.
Back then, I chose the party that knew how to learn from the mistakes of the past and look to the future with optimism. That is the reason I remain a Democrat. If I ever needed reinforcement about my decision to be a Democrat, this electoral season is showing me once again the stark differences between the two political parties. I am proud to be a Democrat.