One evening in 1950, seventeen-year-old Richard Loving decided to walk several miles through the isolated back country of Caroline County, Virginia. His destination was a well-known farmhouse where the Jeter Brothers would be playing bluegrass.
When he arrived, he found the place packed with other music lovers; but, his eyes locked in on one particular girl. Asking around, he found out she was the Jeters’ younger sister. Tall, willowy, and seemingly shy, Mildred Jeter made an indelible impression on him.
The months went by and Richard continued to visit the farmhouse, to listen to the music and to get to know the younger sister.
Mildred Jeter was only eleven, six years younger than Richard. This, however did not stop him from beginning a courtship that lasted for the next eight years.
Two months shy of her nineteenth birthday, Mildred became pregnant. Without any hesitation, Richard asked her to marry him.
The story could have just ended there with the couple living happily ever after.
But, Mildred Jeter was black and Richard Loving was white. In 1958, it was illegal within the state of Virginia for people classified as white to marry anyone classified as colored.
Richard and Mildred drove instead to Washington D.C., where they wed. They carried their coveted marriage license back to Caroline County and settled into their new role as husband and wife.
Five weeks into their marriage they were awakened in the middle of the night by the county sheriff and two deputies who broke into their home, burst into their bedroom, and shined flashlights in their faces. “What are you doing with this women?” the sheriff supposedly barked.
“I’m his wife,” Mildred calmly replied. Richard pointed to the marriage certificate hanging on the wall. “That’s no good here,” was the sheriff’s terse reply.
The couple was hauled off to jail and arrested. Richard was released the next morning, but Mildred stayed behind bars for several additional days. Eventually, the couple pleaded guilty to having broken the Virginia anti-miscegenation law. In court, the judge sentenced them each to a full year in prison, then suspended the sentence if they agreed to leave Virginia, and not return for 25 years.
Richard and Mildred packed their belongings and moved out of state.
The Loving’s settled into a blue-collar life in Washington D.C. and started to raise their children there. However, Mildred missed her family and the peacefulness of a rural lifestyle. When their young son was hit by a car in 1963, Mildred decided it was time for them to go home.
Knowing they would be arrested as soon as they stepped foot back in Caroline County, Mildred wrote to Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, stating their cause and asking for help. Bobby Kennedy promptly referred her to the American Civil Liberties Union, who took up the case.
Their case dragged on for years. First, their lawyers attempted to have the original judge set aside his previous verdict. He refused. The next step was to take the case to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals; that court upheld the lower court. With nothing to lose, Mildred and Richard’s lawyers proceeded to file an appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
The U.S. Supreme Court was made up of six white male judges, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren. On June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously decided in favor of Loving v. Virginia, declaring that all anti-miscegenation laws across the country violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
It was a landmark legal decision. For Richard and Mildred, it meant they could finally live together in peace, and they returned to Caroline County. Unfortunately, Richard was killed by a drunk driver in 1975. Mildred continued to live in Virginia, a quiet, unassuming life.
What makes this story even more interesting is that Mildred Jeter was multi-racial. Her ancestry included Caucasian, Native American, and African heritage. But in the 1950s, any Negro ancestry meant that your ethnicity was considered to be black, and the Virginia law specifically forbid persons of ‘color’ to marry a white person. Persons of color, however, only referred to Negros. The Virginia anti-miscegenation statute had been on the books since 1662, but, did not include Native Americans. This was due to Virginia being settled by one John Rolfe, who in addition to introducing tobacco into the Jamestown settlement (making the community financially stable), also married an Indian princess, Pocahontas. Being descended from that illustrious union was considered prestigious and therefore the anti-miscegenation law did not apply to whites marrying Native Americans.
Mildred Jeter Loving stood up for her belief that marriage was a God given right, for everyone. When asked about how it felt to be a Civil Rights Activist, she replied, “I didn’t set out to be an activist, I only wanted to come home and be a married woman.”
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~ Linda ~