Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Infamous Walter Plecker and his Letters cont.

 The third in our series presenting the infamous "Plecker letters"

Written by W. A. Plecker, MD    -
August 20, 1942
Walter Plecker Letter to
Tennessee State Librarian and Archivist
Regarding Melungeon Classification
August 20, 1942

Mrs. John Trotwood Moore
State Librarian and Archivist
State Department of Education
Nashville, Tennessee

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 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 mentioned, in his "Personal Memoirs," who

Page Two

Mrs. John Trotwood Moore, #2
August 20, 1942

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

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,

W. A. Plecker, M. D.
State Registrar


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