Janet Rainey served in Virginia’s Office of Vital Records for 47 years and retired January 31, 2023. (Sarah Vogelsong/The Virginia Mercury)
Janet Rainey, Virginia’s recently retired state registrar, has come a long way from the tobacco fields of Chase City, the small metropolis that is her hometown in Mecklenburg County. Her parents, God-fearing farmers James Sr. and Inez, encouraged Rainey and her five siblings to get educated, and get moving.
“They encouraged us to leave home because the only thing that was there was tobacco or factory work,” Rainey told me in an interview in her first days of retirement. “They wanted us to get an education but told us, ‘Always remember your roots.’”
That strong foundation of family supported Rainey throughout her 47-year career in the Office of Vital Records, the state’s official steward of birth, death, marriage and family records. She started at age 19, after a stint in business college, and for decades worked her way up through the ranks, learning all she could along the way from more senior colleagues. Soon, she saw firsthand the devastating effects Virginia’s racist, since-abolished Racial Integrity Act of 1924 was still having on families statewide – particularly Native American ones.
“I was promoted to the unit that did amendments – corrected spelling of names, birth records and race on important documents – in 1975,” Rainey said. “Every month, we were processing amendment requests from Virginia Indians who had been wrongly classified as ‘colored.’ I said to my coworkers, ‘How can somebody just do that, change your race from what you’ve always identified as to what they want you to be?’”
How can somebody just do that, change your race from what you’ve always identified as to what they want you to be?
– Janet Rainey
The architect of the Racial Integrity Act was Walter Plecker, the state’s first registrar of vital statistics. Plecker was a physician and a staunch proponent of eugenics, “a discredited movement aimed at scientifically proving white racial superiority and thereby justifying the marginalizing of non-white people,” according to Encyclopedia Virginia. Over the years Virginia enacted eugenics-based practices like restricting or removing the reproductive and parental rights of developmentally disabled people and banning interracial marriage. The state’s former systemic segregation of whites from non-white people was also based on the eugenics principle of white supremacy.
The Racial Integrity Act codified this racist system and, under Plecker’s purview, required non-white people like the ancestors and fellow tribal members of Diane Shields, director of the Monacan Nation Cultural Foundation, to be assigned a racial designation that misrepresented their true identity.
Bear Mountain, located in Amherst County, Virginia, has been the Monacan Nation‘s ancestral home for over 10,000 years. The Monacan were among the first Native American tribes recorded in Virginia history, but after 1924, the Racial Integrity Act deemed its members “colored” or other terms that indicated they were not white, leading to the misrepresentation of the identities of untold thousands of people.
Shields began working with Rainey in 1994 to correct the birth records of hundreds of members of her tribe.
“A lot of times in the early days, people were born at home. My grandparents married as ‘colored,’” said Shields. “Their three children that were born here in Amherst County, by midwife, had ‘Indian’ on their birth records. But then they moved over to the Eagle Rock area, and the rest of their children were [classified as] white. So it was who was looking at you, what time of year it is, what they think your skin tone is, and that’s how they’d classify you. Many of our older people didn’t have birth certificates; we’re still dealing with that.”
These long-standing errors made it difficult not only for individual tribal members to prove their identities, but also for tribes to obtain state and federal recognition. The Monacan earned federal recognition in 2018, one of just seven tribes that have that designation statewide. Shields said that although she and Rainey experienced “growing pains” as they both learned how to navigate the process of correcting Monacan members’ vital records, she appreciated Rainey’s commitment and compassion. The next state registrar has big shoes to fill, Shields said.
“I hope whoever takes over does it as well as Janet did,” she said.
Rainey also spearheaded changes in the way marriages and adoptions of same-sex couples and families are officially recorded in Virginia during her stint as state registrar.
In a 2014 Norfolk-based lawsuit centered on same-sex marriages, Rainey was named as one of the defendants in a case that preceded the Supreme Court ruling that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states.
Consequently, she and her department “came up with a policy to recognize same-sex partners as parents on birth certificates and adoption records, because at the time, Virginia only recognized parents as a mother and a father,” she said. Later, Rainey also oversaw new policies for the changing of transgender peoples’ vital records.
Rainey’s own life experiences as a Black woman from a rural community influenced how she understood and related to each person she helped to amend records related to their identity, she said. Earlier in her career, she sometimes experienced racism from members of the public who had come to her office seeking help. Despite this and other challenges, she persisted and left in her wake a legacy of excellence through actions that made Virginia a more inclusive commonwealth for all.
“There were times when I was looked down upon,” she said. “They would ask to see a supervisor, and when I walked in, they were surprised to see me. I encountered that, but I didn’t let it sway me from doing the job I was hired to do.”
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