1942 Plecker Letters
Walter Ashby Plecker was he head of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 to 1946. He believed “there is a danger of the ultimate disappearance of the white race in Virginia, and the country, and the substitution therefor of another brown skin, as has occurred in every other country where the two races have lived together.” Plecker believed this “mongrelization,” resulted in the downfall of several earlier civilizations. He used the 1924 Racial Integrity Act to classify Virginia Indians and mixed-race individuals as “colored,” and therefore denied basic civil rights under Virginia’s system of segregation.
In August of 1942, Plecker sought help from Tennessee authorities in establishing the ethnic origins of the Melungeons, many of whom lived in Virginia. In a letter dated 5 August 1942, Plecker queried the Secretary of State in Nashville in an attempt to further research the murky origins of the Melungeons.
Correspondence located by S.J. Arthur in Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville.
Our bureau is the only one in any state making an intensive study of the population of its citizens by race.
We have in some of the counties of southwestern Virginia a number of so-called Melungeons who came into that section from Newman’s Ridge, Hancock County, Tennessee, and who are classified by us as of negro origin though they make various claims, such as Portuguese, Indians, etc.
The law of Virginia says that any one with any ascertainable degree of negro is to be classified as colored and we are endeavoring to so classify those who apply for birth, death and marriage registrations.
We have a list of the free negroes, by counties, of the 1830 U. S. Census in which we find the racial origin of most of these Melungeons classified as mulattoes. In that period, 1830, we do not find the name of Hancock County, but presume that it was made up from portions of other counties, possibly Grainger and Hawkins, where we find considerable numbers of these Melungeon families listed.
Thanking you in advance and with kindest regards, I am
Very truly yours,
Tennessee’s State Librarian and Archivist replied to Plecker on 12 August 1942.
My dear Sir:
The Secretary of State has sent your letter to my desk. You have asked us a hard question.
The origin of the Melungeons has been a disputed question in Tennessee ever since we can remember.
Hancock County was established by an Act of the General Assembly passed January 7th, 1844 and was formed from parts of Claiborne and Hawkins counties.
Newman’s Ridge, which runs through Hancock county north of Sneedville, is parallel with Clinch River and just south of Powell Mountain. The only map on which we find it located is edited by H. C. Amick and S. J. Folmsbee of the University of Tennessee in 1941 published by Denoyer-Geppert Co., 5235 Ravenswood Ave., Chicago, listed as [TN 7S]* TENNESSEE. On this map is shown Newman’s Ridge as I have sketched it on this little scrap of paper, inclosed. But we do not have the early surveys showing which county it as originally in. It appears that it may have been in Claiborne according to the Morris Gazetteer of Tennessee 1834 which includes this statement: “Newman’s Ridge, one of the spurs of Cumberland Mountain, in East Tennessee, lying in the north east angle of Claiborne County, west of Clinch River, and east of Powell’s Mountain. It took its name from a Mr. Newman who discovered it in 1761.”
Early historians of East Tennessee who lived in that section and knew the older members of this race refer to Newman’s Ridge as “quite a high mountain, extending through the entire length of Hancock County, and into Claiborne County on the west. It is between Powell Mountain on the north and Clinch River on the south.” Capt. L. M. Jarvis, an old citizen of Sneedville wrote in his 82nd year: “I have lived here at the base of Newman’s Ridge, Blackwater, being on the opposite side, for the last 71 years and well know the history of these people on Newman’s Ridge and Blackwater enquired about as Melungeons. These people were friendly to the Cherokees who came west with the white immigration from New River and Cumberland, Virginia, about the year 1790 … The name Melungeon was given them on account of their color. I have seen the oldest and first settlers of this tribe who first occupied Newman’s Ridge and Blackwater and I have owned much of the lands on which they settled.. They obtained their land grants from North Carolina. I personally knew Vardy Collins, Solomon D. Collins, Shepard Gibson, Paul Bunch and Benjamin Bunch and many of the Goodmans, Moores, Williams and Sullivans, all of the very first settlers and noted men of these friendly Indians. They took their names from white people of that name with whom they came here. They were reliable, truthful and faithful to anything they promised. In the Civil War most of the Melungeons went into the Union army and made good soldiers. Their Indian blood has about run out. They are growing white… They have been misrepresented by many writers. In former writings I have given their stations and stops on their way as they emigrated to this country with white people, one of which places was at the mouth of Stony Creek on Clinch river in Scott County, Virginia, where they built fort and called it Ft. Blackamore [sic]after Col. Blackamore who was with them … When Daniel Boone was here hunting 1763-1767, these Melungeons were not here.”
The late Judge Lewis Shepherd, prominent jurist of Chattanooga, went further in his statements in his “Personal Memoirs”, and contended that this mysterious racial group descended from the Phoenicians of Ancient Carthage. This was his judgment after investigations he made in trying a case featuring the complaint that they were of mixed negro blood, which attempt failed, and which brought out the facts that many of their ancestors had settled early in South Carolina when they migrated from Portugal to America about the time of the Revolutionary war, and later moved into Tennessee. At the time of this trial covered by Judge Shepherd “charges that Negro blood contaminated the Melungeons and barred their intermarriage with Caucasians created much indignation among families of Phoenician descent in this section.
But I imagine if the United States Census listed them as mulattoes their listing will remain. But it is a terrible claim to place on people if they do not have negro blood. I often have wondered just how deeply the census takers went into an intelligent study of it at that early period.
Plecker replied on 20 August 1942:
Dear Mrs. Moore:
We thank you very much for your informative letter of August 12 in reply to our inquiry, addressed to the Secretary of State, as to the original counties from which Hancock County, Tennessee, was formed.
We are particularly interested in tracing back, as far as possible, to their ultimate origin the melungeons [sic]of the Newmans Ridge section, especially as enumerated in the free negro list by counties of the states in the U. S. 1830 census. This group appears to be in many respects of the same type as a number of groups in Virginia, some of which are known as “free issues,” or descendants of slaves freed by their masters before the War Between the States. In one case in particular which we have traced back to its origin, and which we believe to be typical of the others, a slave woman was freed with her two mulatto sons and colonized in Amherst County in connection with a group of similar freed negroes. These sons were presumably the children of the woman’s owner, and this seemed to be the most satisfactory way of disposing of them. One of those sons became the head of one of the larger families of that group. All of these groups have the same desire, which Captain L. M. Jarvis says the melungeons have, to become friends of Indians and to be classed as Indians. He referred to the effort which the melungeon group made to be accepted by the Cherokees, apparently without great success. It is interesting also to know the opinion expressed by Captain Jarvis that these freed negroes migrated into that section with the white people. That is perfectly natural as they have always endeavored to tie themselves up as closely as possible either with the whites or Indians and are striving to break away from the true negro type.
We have a book, compiled by Carter G. Woodson, a negro, entitled “Free Negro Heads of Families in the United States in 1830,” listing all of the free negroes of the 1830 census by counties. Of the names that Captain Jarvis gave, we find included in that list in Hawkins County, Solomon Collins, Vardy Collins, and Sherod (probably Shepard) Gibson. We find also Zachariah Minor, probably the head of the family in which we are especially interested at this time. We find also the names of James Moore (two families by this name) and Jordan and Edmund Goodman. In the list for Grainger County we find at least twelve Collins and Collens heads of families. This shows that they were evidently considered locally as free negroes by the enumerators of the 1830 census.
One of the most interesting parts of your letter is that relating to the opinion of the Judge in his “Personal Memoirs,” seemed to have accepted as satisfactory certain evidence which was presented to him that these people are of Phoenician descent from ancient Carthage, which was totally destroyed by Rome. We have in Virginia white people, descendants of Pocahontas, who married John Rolfe about 1616. About twelve generations have passed since then, and we figured out that there was about 1/4000th of 1% of Pocahontas blood now in their veins, though they seem to be quite proud of that. If you go back to the destruction of Carthage in 146 B. C., or to the destruction of Tyre by Pompey in 64 B. C., when all characteristic features of national life became extinct and with it racial identity, you will see that the fraction of 1% of Phoenician blood would reach astronomical proportions and be totally lost in the various mixtures of North Africans, with which the Carthaginians afterwards mixed. The Judge also speaks of the inclusion of Portuguese blood with this imaginary Phoenician blood. It is a historical fact, well known to those who have investigated, that at one time there were many African slaves in Portugal. Today there are no true negroes there but their blood shows in the color and racial characteristics of a large part of the Portuguese population of the present day. That mixture, even if it could be shown, would be far from constituting these people white. We are very much afraid that the Judge followed the same course pursued by one of our Virginia judges in hearing a similar case, when he accepted the hearsay evidence of people who testified that they had always understood that the claimants were of Indian origin, regardless of the documentary evidence reaching back in some cases to or near to the Revolutionary War, showing them to be descendants of freed negroes.
We will require other evidence than that of Captain Jarvis and His Honor before classifying members of the group who are now causing trouble in Virginia by their claims of Indian descent, with the privilege of inter-marrying into the white race, permissible when a person can show his racial composition to be one-sixteenth or less Indian, the remainder white with no negro intermixture. We have found after very laborious and painstaking study of records of various sorts that none of our Virginia people now claiming to be Indian are free from negro admixture, and they are, therefore, according to our law classified as colored. In that class we include the melungeons of Tennessee.
We again thank you for your care in passing on this information and would be delighted if you ever visit in Virginia and in Richmond if you will come into our office. Miss Kelley and I would be greatly pleased to talk with you on this and kindred subjects and to show you the work which Miss Kelley is doing in properly classifying the population of Virginia by racial origin. She is doing work which, so far as I know, has never before been attempted.
Very sincerely yours,