A Guide to the Rockbridge County (Va.) Atha Sorrells by her next friend William Sorrells vs. A. T. Shields, Clerk of Circuit Court, 1925 Rockbridge County (Va.) Atha Sorrells by her next friend William Sorrells vs. A. T. Shields, Clerk of Circuit Court, 1925 1140744, 1164679

A Guide to the Rockbridge County (Va.) Atha Sorrells by her next friend William Sorrells vs. A. T. Shields, Clerk of Circuit Court, 1925

A Collection in
the Library of Virginia
Barcode numbers: 1140744, 1164679


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Repository
The Library of Virginia
Barcode numbers
1140744, 1164679
Title
Rockbridge County (Va.) Atha Sorrells by her next friend William Sorrells vs. A. T. Shields, Clerk of Circuit Court, 1925
Physical Characteristics
.15 cu. ft. (1 box) and 1 oversized folder
Collector
Rockbridge County (Va.) Circuit Court.
Location
Library of Virginia
Language
English

Administrative Information

Access Restrictions

There are no restrictions.

Use Restrictions

Do not serve oversized genealogical chart (barcode 1164679). Serve instead the inkjet print copy of the chart found in Personal Papers accession 35980.

Preferred Citation

Rockbridge County (Va.) Atha Sorrells by her next friend William Sorrells vs. A. T. Shields, Clerk of Circuit Court, 1925. Local government records collection, Rockbridge County Court Records. The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va. 23219.

Acquisition Information

These items came to the Library of Virginia in shipments of court papers from Rockbridge County (Va.) Circuit Court.

Photolab id number for inkjet print of genealogical chart 091374.


Historical Information

Rockbridge County was named for Natural Bridge, an exceptional rock formation located in the county. The county was formed from Augusta and Botetourt counties in 1778, and another part of Botetourt was added later.

On March 20, 1924, Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act that recognized only two races, white and colored. The act required that a racial description of every person be recorded at birth, and made marriage between white persons and non-white persons a felony. The law was the most famous ban on miscegenation in the United States, and was overturned by the United States Supreme Court in 1967, in Loving vs. Virginia. The registrar of Virginia's Bureau of Vital of Statistics, Dr. Walter Ashby Plecker, developed the racial criteria behind the act and adhered strictly to the one-drop rule, a historical colloquial term that holds that a person with any trace of African ancestry is considered black. The Racial Integrity Act was subject to the Pocahontas exception. Since many influential families claimed descent from Pocahontas, the legislature declared that a person could be considered white with as much as one-sixteenth Indian ancestry. This law, along with the Sterilization Act also of 1924, imposed the practice of scientific eugenics in the Commonwealth.

Walter Ashby Plecker, 1861-1947, was a physician and public health advocate who was the first registrar of Virginia's Bureau of Vital Statistics. Plecker graduated from Hoover Military Academy in 1880 and obtained a medical degree from the University of Maryland in 1885. He settled in Hampton, Virginia in 1892, and became its public health officer in 1902. He took an active interest in obstetrics and public health issues, educating midwives, inventing a home incubator, and prescribing home remedies for infants. His efforts are credited with an almost fifty percent decline in birthing deaths for black mothers. From 1912 to 1946, Plecker served as the first registrar of Virginia's newly created Bureau of Vital Statistics. An avowed white supremacist and advocate of eugenics, Plecker believed that the state's Native Americans had been mongrelized with its African American population. A law passed by the state's General Assembly in 1924, The Racial Integrity Act, recognized only two races, white and colored. Plecker believed that colored people were attempting to pass as Indian and obsessively documented each and every birth and marriage registration submitted to his agency. Plecker's policies pressured state agencies to reclassify most citizens claiming Indian identity as colored. This policy has left a modern day legacy where Virginia's Native Americans struggle to achieve federal recognition because they cannot prove their heritage as required by federal laws.

Scope and Content

Rockbridge County (Va.) Atha Sorrells by her next friend William Sorrells vs. A. T. Shields, Clerk of Circuit Court, 1925. This judgment consists of the papers related to the suit that Atha Sorrells brought against the clerk of Rockbridge circuit court after he denied her a marriage license to marry Robert Painter on the grounds that she was not a white person. The case contains her petition for a writ of mandamus to force the clerk to declare her a white person and grant her a marriage license, an order appointing William Sorrells as her next friend since she was a minor, a memorandum opinion of Judge Henry W. Holt ordering the license to issue, witness subpoenas, depositions, and correspondence and evidence related to the case including a large family tree of the Clark family from whom Altha Sorrells descended.

Atha Sorrells's contention was that her family had some Native American ancestors not African American ancestors and that they had long been considered white or at least not negro. Evidence in the form of a family tree, copies of federal land warrants and War of 1812 military service, a prior case of ancestor James Clarke who was declared in 1876 to be a white person in a similar case, and depositions to support her claim were submitted. All of the depositions concern the family tree and family relationships, whether the Clark and Sorrells families had gone to to white or colored churches and schools, who these families associated and married with, and what the general opinion of the neighborhood was as to their color and the color of their ancestors. Many questions centered on the families of the Irish Creek community in Rockbridge County, many of whom either claimed or were accused of some degree of Native American ancestry, probably Monacan. Dr. Walter A. Plecker, then-registrar of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics, was one of the deponents for the defense. The lawyer for Shields tried many times to ask deponents about additional families of the Irish Creek area and their ancestries but the judge continually disallowed such discussions. Atha Sorrells won her case when the judge decided that her ancestry was Indian and not negro, and that she contained little enough Indian to be classified as a white person under the Racial Integrity Act of 1924.

Some correspondence filed at the end of the case discussed the possibility of an appeal of the decision.

Related Material

A letter in the clerk's correspondence to Shields from Plecker dated 1925 May 9 stated that they should decline to appeal for fear that a higher court would uphold the decision and open the door for more people of Indian descent to be declared white rather than colored. Other correspondence and newspaper clippings are also present. See Rockbridge County (Va.) Clerk's Correspondence [Walter A. Plecker to A. T. Shields], 1912-1943. Local government records, Rockbridge County Court Records. The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va. 23219.

Separated Material


Index Terms

    Persons:

  • Holt, Henry W.
  • Painter, Robert.
  • Plecker, Walter Ashby -- 1861-1867.
  • Shields, Abner Terry -- 1852- .
  • Sorrells, Atha.
  • Family Names:

  • Clark family.
  • Clarke family.
  • Puls family.
  • Pultz family.
  • Sorrel family.
  • Sorrells family.
  • Wood family.
  • Woods family.
  • Corporate Names:

  • Rockbridge County (Va.). Circuit Court.
  • Subjects:

  • African Americans -- Virginia -- Rockbridge County.
  • Eugenics.
  • Indians of North America.
  • Interracial marriage.
  • Interracial marriage. -- Law and legislation.
  • Miscegenation.
  • Monacan Indians.
  • Geographical Names:

  • Rockbridge County (Va.) -- History -- 18th century.
  • Rockbridge County (Va.) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Genre and Form Terms:

  • Civil court records -- Virginia -- Rockbridge County.
  • Depositions -- Virginia -- Rockbridge County.
  • Legal correspondence -- Virginia -- Rockbridge County.
  • Local government records -- Virginia -- Rockbridge County.

Significant Persons Associated With the Collection

  • Holt, Henry W.
  • Painter, Robert.
  • Plecker, Walter Ashby -- 1861-1867.
  • Shields, Abner Terry -- 1852- .
  • Sorrells, Atha.

Significant Places Associated With the Collection

  • Rockbridge County (Va.) -- History -- 18th century.
  • Rockbridge County (Va.) -- History -- 19th century.