Pocahontas and John Rolfe were married in 1615, producing a son, Thomas. Mildred and Richard Loving were married in 1958 and had three children. Although more than 400 years separated these two couples, their stars crossed in 1967.
At the June 1902 constitutional convention, Virginia’s white male political elite neatly arranged the Commonwealth’s governing document to ensure the state’s black citizenry had no opportunity to develop electoral or political power. By ingraining the new constitution with a web of Jim Crow laws, including poll taxes and literacy tests, these benighted lawmakers sought to reinstitute plantation governance, nullify the reforms initiated during Reconstruction, and restore a homeland of genteel, white dominance.
However, some two decades later, the state’s General Assembly was drawn to revisit the legislative architecture to confront a contemporary emerging social threat: miscegenation—the mixing of racial groups, generally through marriage. The ban on interracial marriage in Virginia dated to 1691. The new legislative product was the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 which made interracial marriage a felony punishable by 1–5 years in prison. Not content to proscribe some political and social boundaries of racial dynamics, that same year the General Assembly also passed the Eugenics Sterilization Act. Later, in 1926, the General Assembly adopted the Public Assemblages Act, requiring the strict segregation of the races in public meeting places. Such public policy had the imprimatur of the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson separate-but-equal Supreme Court decision. In Virginia’s view, only separate was essential.
While the Racial Integrity Act defined a white person as one who had no trace whatever of any but Caucasian blood, it contained the Pocahontas exception: an individual who had less than 1/64th Native American and no African-American blood would be considered white. This latter exception, history relates, protected a number of prominent and influential Virginia families.
Married in the District of Columbia in 1958, Richard and Mildred Loving returned to Virginia to settle but were soon arrested and charged with violating the anti-miscegenation act and, following a guilty plea, moved to DC as a condition of a suspended sentence of one year’s imprisonment. Facing difficulties in a new environment and unhappy with separation from their families, the couple commenced legal proceedings to challenge the Racial Integrity Act. On appeal, on June 12, 1967, SCOTUS issued a decision in favor of the Lovings, vitiating the act and the criminal charges against them.
In a bit of irony, it must be noted that Virginia’s General Assembly currently maintains meeting rooms and offices in the Pocahontas building in Richmond. Although unofficial, there are grassroots efforts to have June 12th celebrated and designated as Loving Day. We think Loving-Pocahontas Day more fitting.