Sunday, January 8, 2023

Virginia's Racial Integrity Act of 1924 had a "Pocahontas Exception" to appease wealthy Virginians


In 1924, the Virginia General Assembly enacted the Racial Integrity Act. The act reinforced racial segregation by prohibiting interracial marriage and classifying as "white" a person "who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian


The Racial Integrity Act was subject to the Pocahontas Clause (or Pocahontas Exception), which allowed people with claims of less than 1/16 American Indian ancestry to still be considered white, despite the otherwise unyielding climate of one-drop rule politics. The exception regarding Native blood quantum was included as an amendment to the original Act in response to concerns of Virginia elites, including many of the First Families of Virginia, who had always claimed descent from Pocahontas with pride, but now worried that the new legislation would jeopardize their status


In Confederate mythmaking, that made Pocahontas the mother of the South. She was a symbol of Southern exceptionalism, a link to royal ancestry, a queen among the heathen. As John Esten Cooke wrote in his 1861 poem “A Dream of the Cavaliers,” she was “Our own dear Pocahontas! Virgin Queen of the West — With the heart of a Christian hero, in a timid maiden’s breast!” An Indian who embraced the virtues of whiteness, her symbolic presence in the Confederate cause helped to justify the subjugation of nonwhite people. During the war, one Virginia cavalry unit went so far as to name itself “The Guard of the Daughters of Powhatan” and emblazoned an image of Pocahontas on its battle flag as it fought to preserve slavery.


In 1887, former Virginia governor Wyndham Robertson published “Pocahontas and her Descendants” to assist those searching for ancestral connections to this most American of founding mothers. He noted that the descendants of Pocahontas ranked among the finest Americans, and therefore, he argued, she was clearly of superior stock.


To circumvent the stigma of Jim Crow segregation, the First Families of Virginia demanded that the law contain a “Pocahontas exception” . . . . The group needed an exception to claim an indigenous woman as a symbol of their superiority over nonwhites, including actual Indian people living in Virginia.