Undocumented Citizens: 
The Crisis of U.S. Birth Certificates, 1940-1945

This paper was originally written for delivery on January 8, 2010, at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting in San Diego, California, as part of the panel “Identity Documentation and the Modern Western State.” Because it is part of a larger work in progress, please do not quote or cite it in a print-published work without emailing me (Shane Landrum, srl AT cliotropic DOT org) to find out whether an updated version has been published.

I’m circulating this paper online in hopes of receiving a wider range of comments on my work and of reaching a broader audience. If you have questions or comments, feel free to comment below or to email me separately. I’ll try to respond to comments promptly, but as of mid-January 2010, I’m very busy finishing my dissertation and replies may be slow.

In September, 1942, the American women’s magazine Good Housekeeping published an article on an increasingly important task its readers faced: getting a birth certificate. “America has suddenly become aware of birth certificates,” it declared.1 Between 1940 and 1943, as the United States shifted into a wartime industrial economy, many native-born Americans faced difficulty proving that they were, in fact, citizens by birth. This was particularly true for those who sought work in the aircraft industry, like 42-year-old Grace Wilson. After her son joined the military, she moved from Kansas to San Diego to get a job in an aircraft factory, but without a birth certificate she could not even attend a training school. “It is a bitter hurt feeling,” she wrote, “to know you are an American citizen whose grandparents as well as parents also were, and still not be able to establish citizenship.”2

Creative Commons License
“Undocumented Citizens: 
The Crisis of U.S. Birth Certificates, 1940-1945″ is Copyright © 2010 by Shane Landrum and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

This research was funded partially by the Institute for Political History’s Hugh Davis Graham Fund, the Alfred J. Beveridge Fund of the American Historical Association, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Association, the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History, and a Crown Family Fellowship from Brandeis University. My thanks to all of them for their support.

Notes on formatting: I’ve reproduced my footnotes here as a guide for other researchers. However, due to format-conversion issues, some text which was originally italicized is not italicized here. The original talk featured slides which, due to uncertainties about copyright, I haven’t reproduced in this version.

US law had specified for over a decade that aircraft companies must only hire citizens, but the wartime boom made this requirement relevant for many more workers.3 Despite the importance of being able to prove one’s citizenship with a birth certificate, in the early 1940s, about 43 million Americans—nearly one-third of working-age population—had no such document. Their births had never been recorded by government, and they faced complex and unfamiliar procedures for documenting their own births. This process was known as “delayed birth registration;” people sent forms and supporting evidence to the offices of vital statistics in their birth states, then waited for weeks or months to get an answer.

Perplexed by these requirements and delays, some would-be defense workers sent complaints to government officials and newspaper advice columns. One anonymous “Soldier’s Dad” wrote to the Chicago Tribune that he had lost his job for lack of a birth certificate. “I am desperate,” he stated. “I have worked for 40 years and now it looks as if I’m thru.”4 One Rhode Island man declared that “Every time I try to get a job now they make me feel like a foreigner… This is America and its not right to refuse me a job because I have not got my birth papers. I have a wife and child and I want a job.”5 A white Georgian man wrote that “[N]ever have I experienced so much delay and red tape in connection with one paper as I have in attempting to secure what belongs to me.”6 For those who already took the privileges of citizenship for granted, the ability to prove that citizenship with a birth certificate seemed akin to a basic right that they were being denied. Here, I focus on native-born Americans because immigration historians have already documented the paperwork struggles faced by immigrants in their efforts to become citizens.7

The problems these people faced were results of the relatively slow development of government identity bureaucracies in the United States. The US wasn’t like European countries, many of which had developed internal passports and other identity documentation systems in the 19th century or earlier. The United States may have been the first country to have a constitutionally-mandated national census, but that census only happened every 10 years and wasn’t used as a means of identifying particular citizens. Rather, American documentary identity systems-— like the vital-records bureaucracies which issued birth certificates-— were decentralized and locally run.8 Dual-federalist systems for identity documentation resulted in state offices that were unprepared to cope with their roles as citizenship documenting agencies. In the case of delayed birth registration, the diversity of state-level policies and procedures had profound implications for native-born Americans’ ability to prove their identity and citizenship.

This paper’s drawn from my dissertation on the history of birth certificates and compulsory birth registration in America. In the larger work, I discuss how Americans developed modern systems for compulsory birth registration, how ordinary people learned about the uses of birth certificates, and how birth certificates changed American law. First, I’ll talk more about the scale of the birth certificate crisis and how unprepared state governments were to act as identity bureaucracies. Secondly, I’ll talk about California’s judicial procedure for delayed birth registration. Finally, I’ll discuss Virginia’s racial registration policies, and I’ll show how the postwar federal welfare state hinged on the use of birth certificates as identity documents.

Unprepared states: the scale of the crisis

The first thing that becomes obvious in reading about birth certificates during World War II is that state vital statistics offices were overwhelmed. Suddenly, relatively minor parts of state governments were being expected to carry out a task that was critical to national security. Alabama’s office faced a two-month backlog of work; clerks were reportedly so busy that they could barely open each day’s mail.9 The Los Angeles Times observed that “[at] no other time in the history of the nation has proof of American citizenship been so essential, and the machinery supposed to provide such proof apparently has bogged down.”10

The “machinery” of vital statistics offices was overwhelmingly female and white, working stressful jobs for relatively low pay.11 In the Georgia office, lines of men and women filled waiting rooms, and telephones rang incessantly. At the head of the line, clerks examined applications and explained to numerous people that their documentation was insufficient. Job-seekers with families to feed begged for lenience, fearing the loss of a paycheck if they did not locate their mother’s family Bible, a doctor’s record, a Census record, or any of the other forms of required evidence.12 Moreover, they handled the usual crushing volume of incoming mail. In early 1941, each of Georgia’s 7 certificate clerks handled 80 to 90 pieces of incoming mail per day.13 Over the next year, the office became more cramped, as the state hired clerks until it had no more room for extra desks.14 In 1939, the office issued just over 3,000 certified birth certificates.15 Three years later, in 1942, the Georgia office’s staff handled almost 60,000 delayed birth certificates, an average of just below 5,000 per month, in addition to filing, checking, and tabulating over 103,000 certificates for that year’s births, deaths, and stillbirths.16

Georgians who needed birth certificates during the early 1940s were coping with the unexpected consequences of government decisions made during the 1910s. Until 1914, their elected officials hadn’t thought birth registration was important enough to bother passing a compulsory registration law. The statute didn’t go into operation until 1919. Moreover, in 1924 the state supreme court struck down the law as unconstitutional, and it wasn’t until 1927 that a functional birth registration law actually went into practice. So Georgia’s 21-year-olds in 1940 might have had birth certificates, but older people didn’t unless they were born in a city that had its own birth registration law.17

If Georgians had problems getting delayed birth certificates, their concerns were small-scale compared to residents of states with large populations and large defense industries. During one month (April, 1942), New York City faced over 51,000 requests—- almost as many as Georgia handled during the entire year.18 According to the federal Census Bureau, Illinois had the largest number of people without birth records. In 1941, it processed 166,000 delayed birth registrations; the year after, it processed over twice that number; and by 1943, it processed another 167,000 applications. As in Georgia, the majority of registrants in Illinois had been born before 1915, when the state passed a modern birth registration law.19

State offices were overwhelmed partially because most of them had only existed for a few decades; modern compulsory birth registration systems in the US were generally a Progressive-era reform designed to generate more precise infant mortality numbers. They were woefully incomplete in most states until the 1920s or early 1930s. Someone who was 25 years old in 1941 was born in 1916, when less than one-third of the American population lived in a state which registered 90 percent or more of each year’s births.20 By 1922, only 29 states met that 90 percent standard, which was set by the US Census Bureau in 1915 to encourage better state birth registration laws.21

US Birth Registration Area, 1922. Registration-area states (90% of each year's births registered) are in red; states with "laws under trial" are in pink; states with "unsatisfactory laws" are in yellow.

US Birth Registration Area, 1922. Registration-area states (at least 90% of each year's births registered) are in red; states with "laws under trial" are in pink; states with "unsatisfactory laws" are in yellow.

Thus, the existence of a government birth record for any particular person depended heavily upon her age, her state of birth, whether she had been born in a rural area or a city, and whether she had white, English-speaking parents. Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Oklahoma were among the last states to meet the federal 90 percent standard; Texas was last, in 1933. As late as 1940, racial disparities in birth registration rates were still significant in many of these same states.22 Moreover, the racialized, classed, and gendered aspects of state-level policies greatly affected who could successfully obtain and use the documents.23

California’s judicial procedure for delayed birth registration

The problems created by a lack of functional bureaucracy were particularly clear in California, which allowed delayed birth registration only by a complicated judicial process. This policy had the advantage of making fraud significantly more difficult, which was probably attractive to nativists concerned about citizenship fraud by Chinese and Japanese immigrants. However, this anti-immigrant logic backfired on Californians during the war. A court proceeding to establish a delayed birth registration could rack up $50 to $100 in court costs and legal fees. This was a sizable percentage of a factory worker’s monthly wages, making a birth certificate inaccessible for most Californians who had not been registered as infants by a doctor or midwife.24

California’s registration officials, beset by would-be defense workers who could not prove their citizenship, called for a better solution. By April, 1941, California’s legislature passed a new law which allowed a process much more like Georgia’s.25 However, the statute had a fatal flaw: it allowed California officials to issue delayed birth certificates for persons born in other states. In early September, a California appeals judge declared that this provision of the law violated other states’ sovereignty, and that the statute also created numerous opportunities for birth certificate fraud by any “foreign agent.”26 Six months later, as Californian-born workers continued to face the high costs of the judicial registration process, the Los Angeles Times wrote that “[c]ountless native-born Californians are being refused employment in defense plants because of the lack of a birth certificate, while hordes of persons from other States grab the jobs on presentation of a ‘delayed certificate of birth’.”27

Facing their inability to navigate such obstacles, some California workers sought alternate, dubiously-legal means of proving their citizenship. By May 1942, at least four separate businesses in Los Angeles purported to help would-be defense workers get birth certificates. Some of these businesses may have been legitimate. However, when workers took the documents with them to an employment office, they sometimes discovered that they had paid good money for a worthless piece of paper.28

In 1942, the birth certificate crisis became less urgent, as the War Manpower Commission announced that defense-plant workers no longer needed to show a birth certificate as proof of their citizenship. Instead, they could swear to their citizenship “in the presence of an Army or Navy plant representative,” signing their names and agreeing to a $10,000 fine and up to 5 years in prison if they were lying.29As a result of the new policy, citizen requests for delayed birth certificates slowed significantly, though never again falling to their prewar levels.

Delayed birth registration and “racial integrity” in Virginia

In Virginia, state-specific policies on delayed birth registration had a dramatic effect for people with ancestors of color. There, the only law for delayed birth registration was the 1927 “Act to Preserve Racial Integrity,” which required anyone born before 1912 to register his or her race as “white” or “colored.” The state’s racial categories were supported by an elaborate system of government genealogical recordkeeping.30 32-year-old William E. Bradby, like many other Virginia-born people, moved to Detroit in search of defense-industry work, then wrote to Richmond for a delayed birth certificate. He filled out the state’s standard form, entering his birthdate, birthplace, and his parents’ names, John and Lizelia Bradby, whose race he described as “half-breed Indian.” When he received a reply, it contained no birth certificate, only a typewritten letter from state registrar of vital statistics Walter Plecker telling him that he had completed the form incorrectly.

We are returning your dollar fee and are holding your birth certificate for future reference… We do not recognize any native-born Indian as of pure Indian descent unmixed with negro blood. According to the law of Virginia any ascertainable degree of negro blood constitutes the individual a colored person. If you desire to make up another certificate and give the race of your parents as colored … and return it with the fee of one dollar, we will furnish you a photostat copy of it.31

This letter was almost identical to dozens of others Plecker sent during the early 1940s.32 William Bradby was a Pamunkey Indian, born on his people’s traditional land in the Tidewater region, but he had to choose between living without a birth certificate or being classified as “colored” on his fundamental document of citizenship. One self-identified “Indian” returned his children’s birth certificates to the state in protest rather than tolerating Plecker’s disrespect.33 Lacking effective ways to exert sovereignty or to create their own legally-binding birth records, the Pamunkeys and other Virginians of indigenous descent were vulnerable to the state’s attempts to document them out of existence.34 Birth certificates could enable individuals to prove their citizenship, but they were simultaneously powerful tools for government control over the categories of identity.

Birth Certificates and the Postwar Welfare State

The wartime birth certificate crisis brought new attention to the idea that every American needed a birth certificate. Federal military bureaucracies required soldiers’ wives to present a marriage license and their children’s birth certificates in order to receive the health services accorded to military dependents. Thus, birth certificates became tools of social citizenship for the children of the Baby Boom.35 Some public schools had long required birth certificates of pupils who were registering for kindergarten or first grade; these requirements became almost ubiquitous in the postwar period.36 The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 required young workers to prove their ages-—ideally with a birth certificate—before joining the paid labor market. Increasingly, thinking about birth certificates became a mother’s job, part of how she secured her children’s birthright as citizens.37 As the nation’s economy boomed and the GI Bill helped solidify a growing middle class, American suburbs filled with fathers, mothers, and children whose births were registered and who increasingly relied on government as the proper recordkeeper for every individual’s birth.

Because of these uses of birth certificates, citizens were able to push back somewhat against arbitrary state policies like Virginia’s. In the late 1940s, just a week before Virginia registrar Walter Plecker retired, he was contacted by a lawyer on behalf of a 29-year-old military wife who needed birth certificates to secure Veterans Administration benefits for her two children. Plecker and his office staff had held her request for certified copies because they were busy researching whether she was a descendant of a mixed-race man and “his white housekeeper.”38 We can know about her successful challenge because she hired a lawyer, but  Walter Plecker’s preserved correspondence holds many more examples of Virginians who were forced to submit to racial classification in order to secure their basic document of birthright citizenship.

In the spring of 1945, just a few months before the war came to an end, communities around the nation publicized the importance of birth registration as part of the national Child Health Day celebration. Much of the birth-registration publicity information circulating during and after the war used rhetoric which had not changed substantially since the 1910s. However, the mothers of the Baby Boom had lived through a time when many of them had faced a substantial need for a birth certificate without having one on hand. Child Health Day’s reminder that “a child’s birth certificate is his first and most valuable citizenship paper” sought to make birth registration a routine process, urging American women to document their children’s births now that they had documented their own.39

Thus, the expectation that Americans should have and be able to use a birth certificate was a generational phenomenon. It was rooted in the specific wartime experiences of American adults during World War II and in the policies of the postwar social welfare state. Although many Americans of the wartime generation had grown up with government birth records and had used birth certificates to prove their ages and identities, the unevenness of federal and state-level power had ensured that some of their peers could reach adulthood without one. By the late 1940s, birth certificates had become documents that few Americans could afford not to have.

  1. Victoria Case, “Why you need a birth certificate,” Good Housekeeping (September 1942): 32.
  2. Grace Wilson to Department of Labor, February 18, 1942, File 4-2-1-2 (Birth Registration 1942), Box 85, Central File 1941-1944, Records of the Children’s Bureau, RG 102, National Archives, College Park, Maryland (collection hereafter cited as RCB). The aircraft-school ad quoted above was enclosed with her letter.  On the volume of birth-certificate requests in New York City, which had a separate vital records office from the state, see “Birth Data Sought By 34,657 in Month,” New York Times, August 12, 1942, 16.  For similar delays in Georgia, see Ellis Clark to Secretary of Labor, September 13, 1942, File 4-2-1-2 (Birth Registration 1942), Box 85, Central File 1941-1944, RCB; William Harvey Jordan to T.F. Abercrombie, December 30, 1942, DPH Information & Statistics folder, Box 21 (RCB-30671), Director’s Subject Files 1942, Georgia Department of Public Health Director’s Office, RG 26-2-3, Georgia Archives (collection hereafter cited as GDPHDO).
  3. The relevant legislation was the Aircraft Procurement Act of 1926, section 10(j). United States House of Representatives, Authorizing the Director of the Census to Issue Birth Certificates; Hearings Before the United States House Committee on the Census, Seventy-Seventh Congress, Second Session, on June 4, 9, 10, 1942 (Washington: GPO, 1942).  For examples of aviation jobs and training courses which required birth certificates, see  “Plane Plants Seek Riveters,” Los Angeles Times, April 6, 1941, B13; “Students Flock to Aviation Courses At City College,” Los Angeles Times, May 25, 1941, 9; “Plane Plants Call for Men; State Seeks 23,000 to Train for Jobs in Aircraft Factories,” Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1941, A1; Charles F. McReynolds, “How Aircraft Factories Find Their Men,” Aviation November 1940), 33.
  4. “Soldier’s Dad”, “Voice of the People: Birth Certificates,” Chicago Daily Tribune, January 2, 1942, 10.
  5. H. Clayton Kiddy to “Dear Sir,” August 3, 1942, Folder 4-2-1-2 (Birth Registration 1942), Box 85, Central File 1941-1944, RCB. Punctuation is uncorrected from original.
  6. Frank Logan Butler, Americus, Georgia, to State of Georgia Department of Public Health, September 1, 1942, DPH Information & Statistics folder, Box 21 (RCB-30671), Director’s Subject Files 1942, GDPHDO.
  7. Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). ; Lucy E. Salyer, Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).
  8. Jane Caplan and John C. Torpey, eds. Documenting Individual Identity: The Development of State Practices in the Modern World (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001); John C. Torpey, The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship, and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). ; Michel Foucault, “Governmentality,” in The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, With Two Lectures By and an Interview With Michel Foucault, ed. Graham Burchell et al. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); James C Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998) ; James C. Scott et al., “The Production of Legal Identities Proper to States: The Case of the Permanent Family Surname,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 44, no. 1 (Jan., 2002): 4-44; William J. Novak, “The Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State,” The American Historical Review 113, no. 3 (2008): 752-72.
  9. United States House of Representatives, Authorizing the Director of the Census to Issue Birth Certificates, 67
  10. “Birth Proof Setup Tangled; Problem of Obtaining Certificates Hardship for Defense Workers,” Los Angeles Times, March 16, 1942, A3.
  11. Every photograph I have been able to locate of a state records office between 1920 and 1945 features white female clerks exclusively. For an image of women working in the Virginia office, see J. Douglas Smith, Managing White Supremacy: Race, Politics, and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002). 90 For a sense of their names and the proportion of female clerks, see the names listed under department code 601 (Department of Health) with position codes 301, 401, and 501 in “Tabulation of Salary Increases, January 1940-December 1941,” Folder “Personal Services: Tabulation of Personal Services Action”, Box 58, Governor James H. Price Executive Papers, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia. Aircraft companies advertised pay of $280 per week for a 50-hour week; even if this were an exaggeration, an aircraft worker might make as much in  two or three months as the Virginia office’s senior clerks made in a year. For women in other vital records offices, see Division of Public Health City of Minneapolis. Board of Public Welfare, Summary of Activities, 1943, 23; Report of the Department of Health of the City of New York for the Years 1941-1948, 240.
  12. “Help Us Issue Your Delayed Birth Certificates,” Georgia’s Health 22, no. 3 (March 1942): 3; “All in the Day’s Work,” Georgia’s Health 22, no. 12 (December 1942): 3. For the standards they were trying to enforce, see Wolfe, “Delayed Birth Registration;” Manual of Uniform Procedure for the Delayed Registration of Births, reprinted in United States House of Representatives, Authorizing the Director of the Census to Issue Birth Certificates, 18; David M. Wolfe, “For Your Health’s Sake: Delayed Birth Certificates,” radio program broadcast April 29, 1941, Director’s Subject Files, GDPHDO.
  13. “Help Us Issue Your Delayed Birth Certificates.” David M. Wolfe, “Semi-Annual Report, Division of Information and Statistics,” undated (July, 1941), Semi-Annual Reports folder, Box 19 (RCB-30670), Director’s Subject Files, GDPHDO.
  14. ”Division of Information and Statistics,” undated (April, 1942?), Director’s Subject Files 1941, GDPHDO. T.F. Abercrombie to A.J. Hartley, April 25, 1942, DPH Information & Statistics folder, Box 21 (RCB-30671), Director’s Subject Files 1942, GDPHDO.
  15. David M. Wolfe, “For Your Health’s Sake: Delayed Birth Certificates,” radio program broadcast April 29, 1941, Director’s Subject Files, GDPHDO.
  16. Georgia Department of Public Health, Director’s 1942 Annual Report to the State Board of Health, March 18, 1943), Georgia Archives, Morrow, Georgia, 4.
  17. Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs (hereafter GaFWC), GaFWC Year Book 1914-1915, 18; GaFWC Year Book 1916-1917, 58; Georgia Acts 1914, 157-174; Georgia Acts 1919, 273-275; Smith v. State, 160 Ga. 857 (1924). The GaFWC yearbooks cited here are located in Box 3, Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs Papers, accession 1975-0487M, Georgia Archives.
  18. “Birth Data Sought By 34,657 in Month,” New York Times, August 12, 1942, 16. This was an unusually high-demand month for the New York City office; July’s approximately 35,000 requests represented a more common level.
  19. “54 Million in U. S. Lack Birth Proof; Illinois is Laggard,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 30, May 30, 1942, 2; Illinois Department of Public Health, Twenty-Fifth Annual Report of the Department of Public Health; July 1, 1941 to June 30, 1942, (Springfield, Illinois: (1942)), 28; Illinois Department of Public Health, Twenty-Sixth Annual Report of the Department of Public Health; July 1, 1942 to June 30, 1943, (Springfield, Illinois: (1943)), 34; Illinois Department of Public Health, Twenty-Seventh Annual Report of the Department of Public Health; July 1, 1943 to June 30, 1944, (Springfield, Illinois: (1944)), 125,127.
  20. “The Registration Area for Births,” American Journal of Public Health and the Nation’s Health 7, no. 8 (1917): 714-16. For the case of an American born in 1915, see “Friend of the People,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 23, May 23, 1944, 10.
  21. US Bureau of the Census Division of Vital Statistics, “Birth Registration Area 1922,” Box 52, Herbert Hoover Commerce Papers, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, IA.
  22. Robert D Grove, “Studies in the Completeness of Birth Registration; Part I, Completeness of Birth Registration in the United States, December 1, 1939, to March 31, 1940,” Vital Statistics Special Reports 17, no. 18 (April 20, 1943): 224-96.
  23. Because rural people of color often had minimal access to medical care and were subject to neglect by state-level health programs, their births were significantly less likely to be officially recorded. This was especially true for Native Americans and Spanish-speaking Americans; states with large populations of either group were among the last to enter the Census Bureau’s birth registration area. These included Colorado and Oklahoma in 1928, Nevada and New Mexico in 1929, South Dakota in 1932, and Texas in 1933. Hetzel, U.S. Vital Statistics System Major Activities and Developments, 1950-95, 59. The one exception to this rule was Americans of Japanese descent, who were accustomed to civil registration systems in Japan and thus adopted American birth registration practices quickly; State Board of Health of California, Biennial Report, for the Fiscal Years From July 1, 1914 to June 30, 1916 (Sacramento: California State Printing Office, 1916), 226-27; Susan L. Smith, Japanese American Midwives: Culture, Community, and Health Politics, 1880-1950 (University of Illinois Press, 2005).
  24. Elsie McCormick, “No More ’5-Minute Citizens’!,” Los Angeles Times, May 10, May 10, 1942, H6; “Help Wanted–Men; Boys,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 16, March 16, 1941, F2, column 2.
  25. “New Plan Urged to Prove Births,” Los Angeles Times, January 12, January 12, 1941, A2; “Proving Birth Made Easier By New Law,” Los Angeles Times, April 18, April 18, 1941, 14.
  26. “New Birth Record Law Held Unconstitutional,” Los Angeles Times, September 5, September 5, 1941, 1A.
  27. “Birth Proof Setup Tangled; Problem of Obtaining Certificates Hardship for Defense Workers.” Not all workers with a California birth certificate could get defense jobs, even when they had completed specialized vocational training. Born in Oakland, shipyard worker Fred Korematsu lost his job due to anti-Japanese prejudice. After pursuing cosmetic surgery so that he could pass more easily as white, he erased his birth name from his birth certificate, while acquiring other documentation in his chosen name, “Clyde Sarah.” Testimony of Oliver T. Mansfield for the United States, Korematsu v. United States, Transcript of Record, U.S. Supreme Court Case No. 679 (October term, 1943), 19-23.
  28. United States Senate, Certifications of Birth Records: Hearing Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Military Affairs. On S. 2299. April 2, 1942 (Washington: GPO, 1942). 19
  29. {United States Senate, Certifications of Birth Records: Hearing Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Military Affairs. On S. 2299. April 2, 1942, 1942,@17; Birth Certificate Not Needed for War Job  Mcnutt Rules Declaration is Sufficient, New York Times (July 6, 1942) 11; Hal Foust, Relax War Job Requirement on Proof of Birth, Chicago Daily Tribune (July 6, 1942) 8;Birth Certificates No Longer Needed for Arms Workers, Wall Street Journal, July 6, 1942, 8; Birth Certificates No Longer Needed By War Workers, Washington Post, July 6, 1942, 1;Plane Plants Warned Lax Citizenship Inquiries Perilous, Los Angeles Times, July 10, 1942, A10}  For a case of birth certificate forgery which postdated the more lenient requirement, see “Indicted Over Birth Certificate,” New York Times, August 5, 1942, 7.
  30. W.A. Plecker to Sallie E. Morris, October 5, 1938, State Board of Health folder, Box 33, Governor James H. Price Executive Papers, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia; ”An Act to Preserve Racial Integrity,” Virginia Acts 1924 chapter 371. This act is better known as the racial marriage restriction law struck down by Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1966 (1967), but it was also the state’s first delayed birth registration law. Most recent historians have focused on the act’s marriage restrictions; Peter Wallenstein, Tell the Court I Love My Wife: Race, Marriage, and Law: An American History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). ; Renee Romano, Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003). ; Peggy Pascoe, What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).  However, I argue that the delayed birth registration provisions of the law had a more pervasive effect on most individual Virginians, white and black. In order to secure a birth certificate after 1924, older Virginians were compelled to provide genealogical information to support the state’s expanding racial bureaucracy.
  31. W. A. Plecker to William E. Bradby, February 2, 1942, Folder 100, Box 41, John Powell Papers, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia. On Bradby’s age, family of origin and Pamunkey community, see his listing as “Willie Bradby” in the 1930 United States Federal Census, West Point, King William County, Virginia, Enumeration District 7, page 3B (Roll  2448, image 498.0), republished by Ancestry.com (Provo, UT, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 2002). Walter S. Bradby appears on the same page. For another Bradby who was required to file a delayed birth certificate as “colored,” see W.A. Plecker to Iola J. Bradby, March 4, 1943, John Powell Papers, MSS 7284/7284-a, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia (collection hereafter cited as JPP).
  32. W. A. Plecker to Elmer Hunt, June 11, 1940, Box 41, Folder 78, JPP; W.A. Plecker to Selina B.G. Jerome, April 26, 1938, State Board of Health folder, Box 33, Governor James H. Price Executive Papers, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia; W.A. Plecker to Hon. John Collier, April 6, 1943, Box 42, Folder 31, JPP. Because Plecker’s only surviving correspondence files are the copies he sent to his friend John Powell, historians lack explicit written records of individual indigenous Virginians’ responses to Plecker. On the larger scope of Plecker’s work, see*1* Smith, Managing White Supremacy. 76-106; Peter Hardin, “’Documentary Genocide’: Families’ Surnames on Racial Hit List,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 5, 2000, A1, A10, A11; Paul A. Lombardo, “Miscegenation, Eugenics, and Racism: Historical Footnotes to Loving v. Virginia,” UC Davis Law Review 21, no. 2 (1988): 421-52; Richard B. Sherman, “”The Last Stand”: The Fight for Racial Integrity in Virginia in the 1920s,” The Journal of Southern History 54, no. 1 (February 1988): 69–92.
  33. W. A. Plecker to Willie Lee Stewart, March 3, 1942, Folder 103, Box 41, John Powell Papers, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia.
  34. For an overview of the role of sovereignty in Anglo-American colonization and law, see Joanne Barker, “For Whom Sovereignty Matters,” in Sovereignty Matters: Locations of Contestation and Possibility in Indigenous Struggles for Self-Determination, ed. Joanne Barker (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005).
  35. For a prescient assessment about the relationship between military dependents’ benefits and the demand for birth certificates at state offices, see Halbert Dunn’s testimony in United States House of Representatives, Authorizing the Director of the Census to Issue Birth Certificates, 26. This relationship was most visible in the Emergency Maternity and Infant Care (EMIC) program, which provided medical care for the wives and young dependents of servicemen. For a similar argument about the impact of dishonorable discharges on military veterans accused of homosexual behavior, see Margot Canaday, “Building a Straight State: Sexuality and Social Citizenship under the 1944 G.I. Bill,” Journal of American History 90, no. 3 (2003): 235-57. For one objection to birth certificates as part of a more general federal plan to identify citizens, see R. M. Yoder, “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Number,” Saturday Evening Post, September 11, 1948, 25, 184.
  36. Bess M. Wilson, “New Pupils Must Now Have Birth Documents,” Los Angeles Times, January 6, 1943, A5. For a similar requirement in the Washington, D.C. schools, see “School Rules Listed for Newcomers; Entering Pupils Must Have Birth and Vaccination Certificates,” Washington Post, August 29, 1942, B1. On the role of teachers in encouraging children and parents to have copies of their birth certificates, see Earl K. Hillbrand, “Birth Certificates and the Teacher,” The Clearing House 15/16 (1941), 415.
  37. Elaine B. Bierbauer, “Mothers Ask Us,” The American Journal of Nursing 53, no. 7 (1953): 831-32.
  38. W. A. Plecker to E. F. Hargis, June 26, 1946, Folder 102, Box 42, John Powell Papers, Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia.
  39. Katharine F. Lenroot and J.C. Capt, quoted in Bureau of the Census, U.S. Department of Commerce and Children’s Bureau, U.S. Department of Labor, Child Health Day, May 1, 1945; May Day is Birth Registration Day; a Handbook for Communities (Washington: GPO, 1945), i. For one of the major implications of postwar uses for birth certificates-—records-privacy laws to prevent identity theft and disclosure of sensitive information-— see American Association of Registration Executives, The Confidential Nature of Birth Records (Washington: GPO, 1949).
10 Responses leave one →
  1. January 24, 2010

    Nicely done. The Virginia stuff is very striking — I’d say shocking, but I know too much to be shocked by this sort of thing anymore — especially the resistance which it engendered. Thanks for posting it, and I look forward hearing more in the future.

  2. John Wassell permalink
    April 5, 2010

    A very informative work. It would appear that J. Edgar Hoover was not alone in discovering in middle age that his birth had not been registered at the time!

  3. Mary Giadina permalink
    July 30, 2010

    I am emailing on behalf of my very ill 66 year old sister. We have recently surprised her with a cruise…unbeknown to us she never had a birth certificate..seems that all these years she just has a certificate from the hospital she was born in. Unfortunately, all our family members are deceased…we have tried bureau of vital statistics (which replied “no birth record found”). My sister lives alone and is below poverty level in Hudson County, NY. She was born to Margaret Giardina and (we thought) Joseph Emanuel Giardina. Her birth place was Jefferson County, Missouri. Joseph Giardina is deceased and Margaret Giardina does not remember (she is 87). My sister Evelyn Lee Giardina was born on July 7, 1945 and Joseph Giardina was in the service at the time based in St. Louis, Missouri. I have been trying to help my sister and have exahusted all avenues…can anyone help her? Now, of course it is not about a cruise…My sister is becoming worse on a daily basis and I was thinking could her birth record be part of “Undocumented Citizens”?

    Thank you for any help or information you can give me.

    Mary Margaret Giardina

    • August 3, 2010

      Mary, I haven’t found any record of your sister in my research; Missouri isn’t one of the states I study closely, and she was born too late for me to have seen any records by any of your relatives in the archival material I use. What I can say generally is that vital-records offices were very busy during 1945, and it wasn’t uncommon for a child’s birth not to get recorded by state offices.

      You may still be able to file for a delayed birth registration through the Missouri state vital records office. Their policies will most likely require you to document your sister’s birth using the hospital records you have, plus the oldest other records you can find. (I’d start by contacting the hospital where she was born and asking them for a legally-certified copy of their records about her birth.) Other documents which may be handy in supporting your application would include infant-baptism records and school records from as early as possible in her life; any other legal records which state her birthday and/or place of birth may also be useful. In all cases, you’ll probably need legally-certified copies if they’re available.

      Once you’re able to get a birth certificate for your sister, getting a passport for her should be a matter of paperwork. The Passport Office has the ability to expedite this process for a fee. Given the situation’s time-sensitivity, you might also try contacting your US Senator to see if their office can help you speed things along. Best of luck.

  4. Robert N. Lillie permalink
    May 11, 2011

    I fall into this place of not being able to find birth proof – I found my fathers Michigan 1920 birth certificate that just states baby Lillie as his name but not mine and now that I’m sixty five I’m unable to complete my forms to get Medicare…..is there some solution if my birth certificate doesn’t exist? No one in my family is alive any more so I can’t get any information from them.

  5. Vivian Carrington permalink
    January 18, 2012

    It is interesting to know problems exist during 1940-45 concernig Birth Certificates. I have two copies of my Birth Certificates, one with the year 1940 and the other 1941. Howevr, since my school records claim the year 1940, I use this date. Many documents were lost, and my granparents who were born in the 1800′s would write their family names in the Bible, and many times leaving off the year of birth. With the help of the American Historiacal Association and the Geneology Foundation, important information has surface.
    “On my honor, I have not given, nor received,nor witnessed any unauthorized assistance on this work.”
    Ms. Vi

  6. April Berman permalink
    February 17, 2012

    My aunt was born in Virginia, August 6, 1945. She has never had a birth certificate, which has hindered her desire to travel outside of the country. If you think you can help me, or can give me direction to help get her birth certificate, please contact me at aberman@optimusbuilders.com. I’m not sure what town she was born in, but my grandfather was working in the shipyards at the time, from what I’ve been told.

    Thank you for your time.

    Best Regards,

  7. Eva permalink
    July 18, 2012

    My husband was born in 1938 in North Carolina. He was born at home aided by a midwife. He needs a birth certificate but there isn’t one at the county courthouse, nor is there one in the NC Vital Stats. dept. Needless to say all the relatives are now deceased. He wasn’t in the military nor does he have a passport. He doesn’t have a family Bible or a baptismanl certificate. He is listed in the NC 1940 census at age 2. What do we do now??

    • July 19, 2012

      Your best hope would be to file for a delayed birth certificate in the state of North Carolina by taking your “no record found” search response from the NC Vital Statistics department to the local register of deeds; they will be able to tell you what other documents might qualify. (Affidavits from non-relatives who knew him as a child might be one possible option for supporting documentation; I’m really not sure.)

      Good luck.


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