Segregation’s Era of Science: Eugenics Altered Lives

By Peter Hardin, Times-Dispatch Washington Correspondent
Sunday,November 26, 2000 A1

The mother of a 16-year-old housed at a Lynchburg asylum pleaded with Virginia’s governor shortly before Christmas 1929 to intervene and prevent her daughter’s sterilization by the state.

“I am a poor broken hearted mother asking you for a favor of my daughter,” the Pocahontas, Va., woman wrote in pencil to Gov. Harry F. Byrd. “They claim they have to sterilize her before she can come home my daughter is to young.”

The mother had little chance. Virginia was in the forefront of efforts, based on a movement called eugenics, to engineer a better society by using such tools as forced sterilization of “unfit” people and the prohibition of marriage between whites and non-whites.

Virginia’s ardor for eugenics might be spotlighted for the world when the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington launches an exhibit in 2004 on racial science in Nazi Germany. Eugenics, often called the “science” of breeding better people, was embraced by the Nazis.

The Library of Virginia received a request in June to help the Holocaust Museum find documents or pictures about sterilizations at the old Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded in Lynchburg and the landmark sterilization case there of Carrie Buck.

In the 1927 Buck case, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s sterilization law.

From 1927 to 1979, about 8,300 Virginians were sterilized involuntarily – rendered unable to have children – as eugenics adherents applied theory mixed with social prejudice to alter human lives.

Creation of the Holocaust Museum exhibit comes as scholars have located troves of information about Virginia’s study, teaching and application of eugenics. It largely has been discredited as science in intervening years.

Historians at the University of Virginia have traced webs linking educators, advocates in Richmond of racial purity and of sterilization law, national eugenicists and in some cases, Nazis.

*There was admiring correspondence by Earnest S. Cox of Richmond, an influential white supremacist, to the Nazi secretary of interior in 1938, and Cox was in contact with former Nazi officials after World War II. Cox was a major force behind Virginia’s 1924 law against racial intermarriage, the Racial Integrity Act.

*There was quiet support from top educators at the University of Virginia for the work of Dr. Walter A. Plecker, head of the state Bureau of Vital Statistics, in zealously enforcing that race-purity law.

*There was an unsuccessful proposal for a benefactor to endow a national center on eugenics education at U.Va. The idea was floated by a national eugenicist who wrote and edited a journal that gushed with positive publicity about the Nazi eugenics program.

The new scholarship provides a fuller picture and broader perspective of Virginia’s eugenics movement, which affected state policy and discourse for almost two-thirds of a century and created a lasting legacy.

Virginia Indian tribes, for example, still are trying to reckon with the crushing impact of Plecker’s campaign, The Times-Dispatch reported in March. Plecker waged a paper war against Virginia’s Indians by classifying them as blacks, to block them from “passing” as white people.

Until this summer, Virginia’s newspaper industry held in honor a former newspaper editor and eugenics adherent who crusaded in the 1920s for state law to separate the races in all places of public entertainment.

The industry’s most prestigious award was named for the Newport News editor. After The Times-Dispatch detailed his crusade, his name was removed from the award.

The precise scope of the Holocaust Museum exhibit, meanwhile, is undecided, according to a museum spokesman. The context for the exhibit will be “the eugenics movement that had adherents all the way around the world,” he said.

Museum researchers have traveled to Virginia to scour for records and to visit the old Virginia “Colony” in Lynchburg. From there, Carrie Buck’s sterilization echoed worldwide.

* * *

Germany was marching toward the Holocaust when a student of eugenics at U.Va. wrote in 1934, “In Germany Hitler has decreed that about 400,000 persons be sterilized. This is a great step in eliminating the racial deficients.”

Another student wrote in 1935 that “amalgamation” of the black and white races clearly threatened to injure or destroy “the most specialized qualities of the white race . . . the only hope, therefore, of slowing up the process of amalgamation is to prevent racial intermarriage.”

These term papers and others reflected the extent to which U.Va. taught eugenics as a basis for social policy, historian Gregory M. Dorr contended in his Ph.D. dissertation at the school this year.

His “Segregation’s Science: The American Eugenics Movement and Virginia, 1900-1980” was a source for much of this article. Another source was Dr. Paul A. Lombardo, director of the Program in Law and Medicine at U.Va.’s Center for Biomedical Ethics and an expert on eugenics history.

The eugenics movement, born in England in the late 19th century, gained broad acceptance in America in the early 1900s. Congress endorsed eugenics thinking in 1924 by adopting the Immigration Restriction Act, which led to sharply reduced immigration quotas for southern and eastern Europeans.

In the same year, Virginia’s legislature adopted its sterilization law and its Racial Integrity Act. By 1928, 376 colleges nationwide were teaching eugenics, including a number of them in Virginia.

At the heart of the eugenics movement were beliefs that human stock could be improved by selective breeding – encouraging reproduction among the “best” people and reducing it among “defective” or “socially inadequate” people by such steps as compulsory sterilization or institutionalization. Branding a person “feebleminded” could mean he was mentally ill or retarded, immoral or alcoholic.

U.Va., perceived by many Southerners as the region’s flagship university, became a hotbed of eugenics teaching.

It traditionally was an academy for Virginia’s aristocracy, whose interest in family lineage went hand in hand with this “science” of improving the human stock. The university was much smaller then; in 1935 it had 2,360 students, compared with 18,000 today.

Key educators were highly respected and enthusiastic supporters of eugenics. These white men and other key Virginia advocates embraced theories about genetic inheritance of most human traits, including racial superiority, that also fit their cultural views.

The university became “an epicenter of eugenical thought,” Dorr writes, “closely linked with the national movement, the Virginia anti-miscegenation movement, and tied to the state mental health professionals who promoted eugenic sterilization.”

One of U.Va.’s leading eugenicists was Dr. Harvey E. Jordan, hired in 1907 and promoted in 1939 to dean of medicine.

Jordan was connected to many national eugenics groups and leaders. In Virginia, he joined the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America, a Richmond- based group set up to preserve “the supremacy of the white race in the United States of America without racial prejudice or hatred.” The clubs pushed for Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act.

Sharing like views was Dr. Ivey F. Lewis, a biology professor hired in 1915. He taught eugenics and became dean of the university in 1933.

Lewis deplored “the drag of the negro on our civilization” in a letter to Earnest Cox, author of a book urging repatriation of blacks to Africa. He invited Cox to lecture to his class and corresponded with him over three decades.

In addition to white supremacy, there was significant anti-Semitism in the United States. At U.Va., there was surveillance of Jewish students, segregation in housing, efforts to limit their enrollment and official wariness, clearly shared by Lewis.

Weighing a request to use an auditorium for a rally for Europe’s oppressed, Lewis demurred in 1938 and added, “It seems to me quite likely that the pro-Jew meeting of protest would bring forth a reaction that would not be to the interests of the University of Virginia. . . . A great many people believe that the growing number of Jews in the United States is a menace to the American way of life.”

The university’s reputation led Dr. Harry H. Laughlin, a prominent national eugenicist, to propose Charlottesville to benefactor Wickliffe Draper as home for a national center for eugenics education.

Laughlin knew Virginia. Author of a 1914 model sterilization law for states, he also had corresponded extensively with Plecker about Virginia’s race- purity campaign. He had given testimony in the Carrie Buck legal case and helped to win passage of the Racial Integrity Act.

Laughlin lavished favorable publicity on the Nazi eugenics program in the Eugenical News journal he edited, according to Lombardo, who has traced ties of some American adherents with Germany.

In 1935, Laughlin’s affinity with Nazi thinking was shown further when he sent a paper on American sterilization law to be read by a like-minded colleague at a World Population Congress in Berlin. The colleague applauded Nazi racial principles and ended his speech with: “To that great leader, Adolf Hitler!”

Draper, the benefactor, was keenly interested in eugenics and attended the same Berlin conference. He also visited Charlottesville, but Laughlin’s 1936 proposal for a national center on eugenics education was not adopted. Scholars aren’t certain why.

In the same year that Laughlin floated the U.Va. idea, he received from Nazi-controlled Heidelberg University an honorary degree for his achievements in the “science of racial cleansing.”

Laughlin wrote back, according to Lombardo, that he found the degree a personal honor and “also evidence of a common understanding of German and American scientists of the nature of eugenics.”

* * *

Walter Plecker, born before the Civil War and head of the Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 to 1946, was one of Virginia’s most inflammatory eugenics supporters.

After helping win passage of the Racial Integrity Act, Plecker used it to wage a vigorous campaign to prevent what he considered “destruction of the white or higher civilization.”

Lewis of U.Va. expressed admiration when Plecker contacted him in 1926 seeking more information about intermarriage issues in Albemarle County.

“I feel that Virginia of all the Southern states is most to be congratulated for having in charge of this work a man like yourself who sees this situation as it is,” Lewis answered, “and who tries so effectively to do what can be done.”

There was agreement with Plecker at least on principle from Jordan of U.Va.

“I have followed Dr. Plecker’s work and am in entire sympathy with it,” he wrote in 1927. Jordan was not pleased, however, about the idea of appointing Plecker to a Virginia committee of the American Eugenics Society, thinking that would be too incendiary.

Plecker was invited to describe Virginia’s experience to national audiences. He addressed the American Public Health Association in 1924 on “Virginia’s Attempt to Adjust the Color Problem” and a major New York conference on eugenics in 1932.

Wrote Harry Laughlin, “Doubtless the best headquarters in the world [for studying racial integrity] would be Dr. Plecker’s office in Richmond, Va.”

* * *

Tennessee-born Earnest S. Cox, a real estate agent and self-described ethnologist, found a hospitable home in Richmond for his supremacist and eugenic ideas.

He moved there and published in 1923 the book “White America,” warning against destruction of the white civilization from racial intermarriage.

A co-founder with Plecker of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America, Cox provided much of the ideological firepower behind the Racial Integrity Act.

Cox also teamed up with racist Theodore Bilbo, a U.S. senator from Mississippi between 1935 and 1947, to promote bills for returning blacks to Africa. His book became a textbook for many university professors and was distributed, with funding from Wickliffe Draper, to members of Congress.

The Virginian enjoyed support in high ranks of the national eugenics movement and was invited to address the Eugenics Research Association, a mainline group, in New York in 1936. Plecker went along. They visited the homes of national leaders including Draper and Laughlin.

Later Cox made contact with two Nazi racial theorists. One was Wilhelm Frick, the Nazi secretary of the interior, to whom he mailed a copy of “White America.”

In a 1938 letter to Frick, Cox spoke of the “common Teutonic heritage” of Southern whites and western Germans, and added, “Personally, I hold a high admiration for your country and an affection for your people.”

For Frick’s activities as a Nazi administrator during the Holocaust, he was convicted during the Nuremberg trials and executed in 1946.
Years after World War II, Cox wrote “Teutonic Unity,” a book about uniting people of Germanic descent.

Cox corresponded with former Nazi officials. He was advised by one of them, who was living in Argentina, of his “surprise that more or less all what was the central idea of our thinking and indoctrination I find again in the book of an American writer.”

Cox died in a Richmond area hospital in 1966. A retired Army officer, he is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

* * *

Of some 30 states with similar laws, Virginia lagged behind only California in the nation for sterilizations; more than 20,000 people were sterilized in California, and more than 60,000 nationwide.

Germany, which was influenced by Harry Laughlin’s model sterilization law, sterilized between 360,000 and 3.5 million victims from 1933 to 1945, according to Lombardo.

The U.S. rate didn’t seem to satisfy Dr. Joseph DeJarnette, director of Western State Hospital in Virginia, when he drew this comparison in 1938:

“Germany in six years has sterilized about 80,000 of her unfit while the United States with approximately twice the population has only sterilized about 27,869 to January 1, 1938, in the past 20 years. . . .

“The fact that there are 12,000,000 defectives in the United States should arouse our best endeavors to push this procedure to the maximum.”

Another eugenics adherent, a superintendent of the Virginia “Colony,” theorized about global acceptance of sterilization.

Dr J.H. Bell wrote in an annual report on the asylum for fiscal 1933:

“The fact that a great state like the German Republic, which for many centuries has helped furnish the best that science has bred, has in its wisdom seen fit to enact a national eugenic legislative act providing for the sterilization of hereditarily defective persons seems to point the way for an eventual worldwide adoption of this idea.”

Decades hence, long after Americans recoiled at the horrors of the Holocaust and the United States entered the civil rights era, that kind of thinking has been relegated to the museum.

Dr. Dorr, now teaching at the University of Alabama, looked closely in his research at the interplay of culture and science that fueled adoption of eugenics and its influence upon social policy.

The history of forced sterilizations and race-purity law in Virginia offers important lessons for modern times, he and Lombardo believe.

Dorr concluded, “Understanding the relationship between Virginia eugenicists, their science, teaching and the segregated culture in which they lived helps clarify our own valuation of science today, and hopefully, the role it plays in determining liberating, rather than oppressive, public policy.”

* * *

When the despairing mother from Pocahontas made her plea to Gov. Harry Byrd, she enclosed a lucid, handwritten letter by her teen-age daughter to “prove” the girl wasn’t at all “feebleminded.”

“Moma, I declare I do wish I could come home.

“I do hate to be sterlized but it is the only way to come home. I absulitily would be willing for them to cut my head off if I could only come home.”

She dreamed of going home for Christmas, of presents and siblings and the parents whom she missed.

There was a frightened side to her letter.

“If I don’t see you any more in this world I hope to meet you all in another one hope God will help all of you and be with us.”

After writing seven Xs for kisses, the girl added this postscript:

“Locks and keys may parts us. and we are far apart but your name in golden letters still linger around my HEART”

Posted in My Work, Thu, 28/05/09