26. The Growth and Implication of the Southern United States Eugenics Movement

Author: Kirstie Deprey, Junior

The term “eugenics,” implying a way of scientifically determining a person’s worth in terms of physical characteristics, is often associated with Hitler and the Third Reich during World War II. It generally brings up dark memories of the past evils of humankind, reminding people of a period of terror, injustice, judgment, and hopelessness. What many individuals fail to realize, however, is that the United States had its own eugenics movement fairly recently, beginning about a century ago and remaining within the realm of public support for decades after its birth. German Nazis based their ideas of genetic purity and human improvement on existing American federal and state laws, as well as popular culture. The American push for eugenic-based sterilization and isolation eventually died down, yet it may reappear in full force sometime in the near future. Currently, expecting parents are using scientific technologies to see and change the genetic makeup of their children, which is a modern outlet of eugenic ideals because it encourages the improvement of the traits of the human race. Eugenics in the southern United States at the turn of the 20th century developed from the two pillars of mental health and race, and has inserted itself into modern scientific processes of human genetic improvement, such as DNA alterations and genetic screening.

Sir Francis Galton, an explorer and anthropologist who pioneered his own facet of the studies of human intelligence, first coined the term “eugenics” in 1883. Galton started using this term to describe a method of using statistics to distinguish individuals who were normal, inferior, and superior in order to physically and intellectually improve the human race (Nilsson). Eugenics places an emphasis on improving the qualities of the human race through discouraging the reproduction of individuals that are deemed unfit. In this way, the undesired genetic information will not pass on to offspring and therefore make the population less than superior (Kickler). Henry Rogers Seager, an economist and president of the American Eugenics Association in 1922, stated that “if we are to maintain a race that is made up of capable, efficient, and independent individuals . . . we must courageously cut off lines of heredity that have been proved to be undesirable by isolation or sterilization” (Leonard 213). This idea of eliminating the less suitable strains of heredity grew out of the rediscovery and application of Gregor Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance to more complex traits, such as those seen within a human society (Beckwith 47). This, as we will see, had “serious eugenic complications” (Beckwith 47).

During the early twentieth century, the idea of eugenics received support from the public, government organizations, and influential political leaders, which helped to spread its ideals. For example, the political climate of the time was more progressive than it had been previously, and the idea of eugenics “fit perfectly with Progressive ideology” (Silver 865). Throughout this era of progressivism, government leaders used state and federal initiatives in a greater abundance than in previous years, including the implementation of various state laws that supported eugenic sterilization (Bozeman). The enforcement of eugenics in the population led to several social and legal reforms, supported by not only the government, but also by the public. Several articles in popular magazines were published that advertised and praised the use of eugenic sterilizations on humans that were considered inferior to the ideal human population (Bozeman). From this increased federal and public support of eugenic ideology, the American Breeders Association was formed in 1903, creating a eugenics committee in 1906 (Bozeman). Even African American leaders supported these ideas, shown when W.E.B. DuBois stated that African Americans “must learn that among human races and groups, as among vegetables, quality and not mere quantity really counts” (Dorr). He argues there are subtle differences between people that divide them into groups, those that are inferior and superior (Dorr). A black leader’s support of the eugenics movement demonstrates how widespread the ideologies of improving the human race through genetics became during this time. Entire communities and organizations quickly supported the idea of improving qualities of the human race. These intentions may sound noble, but the widespread support soon led to serious implications, especially in the southern United States.

Throughout the beginning of the 20th century, eugenic ideologies were not only accepted by the masses, but were also implemented through two main facets- mental health and race- and were supported by influential figures across the nation and the world, particularly in the South. The most evident pillar of the eugenics movement concerned the mental health of individuals. Eugenicists attempted to weed out those with any sort of mental handicap to create a society consisting solely of intelligent, competent individuals. The push toward the eradication of a less-than-intelligent bloodline began in Virginia, where sterilizations soon became the norm to end a mentally disabled family tree. As early as 1914, Virginia legislature passed the Model Eugenical Sterilization Law that allowed the involuntary sterilization of the “socially inadequate” (Lombardo). Interestingly, Virginia originally passed this law to save on tax money for mental institutions (Lombardo). This law was supported on a widespread scale, including by state hospital psychiatrists because of the overcrowded hospitals (Dowbiggin). The psychiatrists thought it only logical to eliminate the overpopulation in these mental hospitals through the sterilization of individuals with disabilities, instead of growing the hospital to accommodate more patients. Although the original intent of the Model Eugenical Sterilization Law was for financial sustainability, most state’s citizens supported it because of the law’s eugenic ideals of improving the intellect of the human race as a whole through cutting out those of lesser intelligence. It would stand for decades, continually supported by several legal court cases throughout the years.

Perhaps the most famous court case relating to the application of eugenic ideas in the population was Buck v. Bell. In 1927, a teenage girl named Carrie Buck was forcibly sterilized because the court deemed her as “feeble-minded” (Lombardo). During the legal proceedings, the judge famously declared that “three generations of imbeciles is enough,” referring to Carrie, her mother, and Carrie’s unborn baby (Silver 863). The case ruled that “sterilization on the grounds of eugenics is okay and within the power of the state” and that the “welfare . . . of society will be promoted by [Buck’s] sterilization” (Nilsson; Holmes). The Supreme Court, arguably the most influential group in the United States and the most able to make positive change, decided on May 2, 1927, to allow innocent people of all ages and backgrounds to be forced into a life without children, a denial of a right that modern Americans may find appalling. Buck v. Bell set a precedent for well over eight thousand Virginians who were sterilizes because of mental illness (Lombardo). In fact, throughout the 1930s in Virginia, “‘misfit’ families were round up and sterilized” on a large scale (Nilsson). Without adding specific guidelines as to the boundaries of superior intelligence, normal intelligence and feeble-mindedness, the state of Virginia was given the power to halt the spread of genetic information of an individual and take away his hope of a family, with many other states soon to follow.

The racial climate out of which these intelligence-related sterilizations grew was one of a firm inequality and separation of whites and all other races, shown through marriage restrictions, immigration laws, Jim Crow laws, and other policies designed to distinctly identify one race as different from another. Firstly, strict miscegenation laws came about during this time period for the purpose of preventing the creation of mixed-race children. Although most strictly regulated in the South, these laws were passed all across the United States. In fact, at some point during the time period of the Southern Renaissance, thirty-four out of the fifty American states passed laws that forbade marriage between blacks and whites (Beckwith 49). This mindset fit perfectly within the eugenics era of the United States because many white people believed African Americans had less-than-average intelligence and an inability to contribute positively to the human race, and therefore attempted to gather all the black heredity to a clear, manageable population. Among other leaders, Davenport, a U.S. biologist, disagreed with interracial marriage, referring to it as a “social evil” and a “clash of instincts” (Nilsson). Voicing a popular sentiment of the time, Davenport also felt that segregation, especially within procreative territories, is necessary for social stability and superior functioning of the human race (Nilsson). If children had a mix of both bloods, eugenic proponents said, inferior genetics would quickly spread throughout society and as a result be more difficult to control. A eugenicist’s main purpose was to strengthen the human race by encouraging the spread of “superior” genetic information, which does not include mixed-race individuals, nor does it include assimilating any race into the country through immigration.

In addition to marriage restrictions, influential policymakers also set in place more comprehensive immigration restrictions during this era in order to keep undesired races out of the gene pool of American society. First passed to reduce the number of foreign travelers entering the country was the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which reduced by 3% the acceptance of immigrants entering the United States. However, when Calvin Coolidge became president in 1923, he publicly said, “America must remain American” (Piotrowski). As a result, Congress soon passed the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which drastically reduced the immigration quotas for people coming into the country with darker skin (Piotrowski). This distinction between skin colors can be inferred because the act reduced by two-thirds the immigrants coming into America, specifically from Southern Europe where peoples’ skin is much darker than that of Northern Europe (Piotrowski). The location and identity of the country from which the majority of immigrants were denied reveals an aversion towards those of darker skin color by American officials during the early 20th century and contributes to the mindset of white superiority rampant throughout society at the time.

Miscegenation laws and immigration restrictions were only two of the broader categories revealing the racial mindset of the southern United States during the Southern Renaissance. There were also countless other policies that, when implemented, showed support for racial inequality and distinctions between skin color that helps explain the popularity of the eugenics movement during that time. For instance, Jim Crow laws, first implemented in the 1880s and lasting through the 1960s, entailed the legal enforcement of segregation between the races. In several states, especially in the South, state legislatures passed laws to essentially keep blacks out of the normal functioning society (“Jim Crow Laws”). Instead, they were forced to acknowledge their differences in relation to whites and learn to disassociate themselves with the white, “superior” population. These laws included segregation in everything from education and transportation to the military (“Jim Crow Laws”). A eugenic mindset centers on the same purposes of the Jim Crow laws, but uses a different method to achieve these goals. The Jim Crow laws were therefore not necessarily a direct contributor of the eugenics movement, but they do help to explain the separation efforts between those deemed inferior and superior. Also pushing for racial segregation, Plessy v. Ferguson, decided in 1896, still remained a legal policy throughout the beginning of the 1900s. It ruled in favor of a divided society, with blacks and whites as separate components of society, rarely interacting (“Plessy v Ferguson No. 210”). Although the case was supposed to make resources, living situations, and opportunities equal for both blacks and whites, a clear distinction between races was created. This enforced an “us and them” mentality within human society, which contributed to increasing public support of the eugenics movement. Margaret Sanger, the creator of Planned Parenthood, wrote a letter to a fellow eugenics activist, telling him: “we don’t want the word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population” (Enriquez). This quote from Sanger is a shocking piece of evidence that eugenics was a matter of race as well as mental intelligence, although the former often remained more covert than the latter. Several legal and social policies influenced public opinion during the period of the eugenics movement, which revealed the attitudes of individuals in the southern United States and the overall culture in which they lived, regarding those of a different skin color as somehow inferior, which contributed to the growth of a widespread eugenic environment.

Although the main public reason for sterilizing individuals was a question of intelligence, this reason could have been used to cover a different level of inferiority, one that involved racism. The American Eugenics Society’s catechism of 1935 referred to eugenics as a “racial preventative medicine” that helps to eradicate a harmful part of the host, much like a doctor would eliminate cancer cells from the body (Mehler). Studies of the actual statistics of various southern states’ sterilizations in each year throughout this time period reveal that a disproportionate number of black people were sterilized in relation to white people of comparable intelligence. In North Carolina, for example, about forty percent of all sterilizations were performed on African Americans, yet the black community made up less than a quarter of the population (Kaelber). This relative discrepancy between the actual black population and the sterilizations of black individuals may suggest an underlying and more concealed push towards eliminating the race that many during this time period, especially in the southern states, deemed as inferior to the white race. Similarly, in South Carolina, 102 out of the 277 involuntary sterilizations were performed on African Americans, even though a much larger proportion of whites resided in these state hospitals (Kaelber).  If racism were not an issue in the decision-making of whether or not to sterilize a patient, the proportions of patient population and sterilization differences would be equal. This was a method of strictly controlling the spread of the black population, something that was important to a supporter of the eugenics movement.

Many people living today would be shocked to learn that Adolf Hitler used American ideals to develop his own eugenics movement in Germany, resulting in the Holocaust and the systematic murder of over six million people he deemed as unfit for human civilization. While the American biologists Charles B. Davenport and Harry H. Laughlin supported the need to keep the Anglo-Saxon race pure, another leader of the eugenics movement, Madison Grant, wrote a book on race-based eugenics called The Passing of the Great Race. Hitler wrote Grant a fan letter upon reading it, calling the book his “bible” (Black). After the war, during the Nuremberg Trials, the Nazis quoted the American court case Buck v. Bell as support for what they had done during World War II: attempted to eliminate the genetic lines of inferior blood in order to make way for a stronger, more stable, and more intelligent human race (Piotrowski). After Americans observed the Holocaust and began to realize the implications of where the U.S. eugenics movement could potentially lead, the movement, especially the racial component, began to die down. By the end of World War II, eugenics was much less popular- support from political leaders was no longer common, and policies such as the marriage restrictions were overturned a few years later through court cases such as Loving v. Virginia. Although the racial aspect of eugenics is essentially obsolete, we currently have lingering aftereffects of parallel attitudes and scientific technologies that keep eugenics alive today.

Last year, the state of North Carolina received a lot of press for its attempt to repay those who had been sterilized during the eugenics movement, trying to alleviate some of their stress and hardships caused by being forcibly sterilized. Several of those who were forcibly sterilized sank into depression, feeling as though their dignity was taken (Glanton). The state of North Carolina created the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation for the purpose of monitoring and distributing these repayments (“Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation”). Many popular newspapers and other media outlets told of the discussion on the amount to pay which victims for their troubles. For instance, NPR recently released a story detailing that the state of North Carolina set aside ten million dollars for a one-time reparation to any victims of involuntary sterilizations during the time period of the Southern Renaissance in an attempt to make amends for a dark period of recent history (Neuman). However, depending on how many people come forward seeking payment, the money received by each person may not be nearly what he deserves, revealing the ineffectiveness of the reparation program. In addition, because lawmakers spent so much time debating this issue and since no payments will be made until 2015, many aging victims may die before receiving any compensation (Neuman). The uproar that involuntary sterilizations caused among the public suggests that we as a society are appalled by any hint of eugenics still existing today. However, many people fail to realize that we are closer than we think to a new eugenics revolution- one of DNA splicing, gene alterations, and fetal karyotype observation that may lead to abortions, population de-individualizing, increasing pressure, and competition among families and siblings. Several ethical debates focus on these more modern forms of improving the human gene pool as a whole, while failing to realize that this suggests a support of eugenic ideology.

Current scientific technologies use sophisticated methods to observe and alter a person’s genetic makeup. One of these methods in popular use today is called genetic screening. This involves an expert separating a strand of DNA from a person or a fetus and studying each gene in an effort to detect any potential disabilities, problems, future diseases in one’s lifetime, physical characteristics, personality traits, demeanor, and many other qualities (Simmons). As it is used with an unborn child, genetic screening technology allows the parents to see any imperfections in their future child, such as Down syndrome for instance, which can lead to an increase of abortions. The abortion rate of fetuses with Down syndrome is 92%, compared to the 2% normal abortion rate in the United States (Mansfield et al. 800).

In addition to genetic screening, DNA alterations have become increasingly common in the past several years. More and more soon-to-be parents consult a geneticist before conceiving their child in order to physically insert desired traits into a strand of DNA, which is then inserted into the mother to grow into a “perfect” baby (Simmons). Adults may choose to eliminate certain genes that code for undesired characteristics, such as Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, poor skin, and less-than-average intelligence, and insert genes that code for characteristics they believe to be the best in the human gene pool, such as athleticism, intelligence, attractiveness, and a strong immune system (Simmons). While some of these ideas sound legitimate (why wouldn’t someone want to get rid of a diseased gene?), human society must question how far this mindset will go. Will humans one day be solely focused on weeding out those with a certain hair color, skin color, or specific ability?

Proponents of these technologies have the outlook that they would like to produce the best, healthiest, most attractive and genetically strong child available. In essence, this is what the early supporters of eugenics believed. The majority of the United States, most prominent in the South, supported the idea of weeding out unfit individuals from the community in order to grow a new generation of better, stronger, and smarter individuals. This may be a good idea in theory, but one would be hard-pressed to deny the cruelty the “unfit” individuals faced during the beginning of the 1900s. These people were robbed of their ability to reproduce, to grow a family- a right some would claim is inherent to all able human beings. We must question this rapidly growing genetic technology and be wary of its implications if we do not want to see this dark period of history repeated.


Works Cited

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