The American eugenics movement after World War II (part 1 of 3) | News Feature | Indy Week
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The American eugenics movement after World War II (part 1 of 3) 

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African-Americans supported eugenics, too

Involuntary sterilization clearly targeted minority women during the 1960s and 1970s, and for almost 50 years people have voiced outrage over the practice. But there was a long history of support for eugenics within the African-American community, too.

A prominent African-American scientist taught eugenics in his classes, says historian Gregory Michael Dorr, contributor to the new book A Century of Eugenics in America. Dr. Thomas Wyatt Turner was a founding member of the NAACP and a professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. On a 1915 exam, Turner asked his students to "Define eugenics. Explain how society may be helped by applying eugenic laws."

Dorr says Turner learned about eugenics by studying with one of the leaders of the movement, Charles Davenport of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. "He literally drank at the fountain (of eugenics) in the early 1900s. Here's a guy who literally taught mainline eugenics—he was talking about it in exactly the same terms as white mainline eugenicists, just absent race."

That doesn't mean Turner condoned whites who discriminated against blacks, Dorr says. Nor does it deny that sterilizations had a deeply racist bent in the 1960s and 1970s. Rather, it's proof that eugenics appealed to people of all races. "We're horrified by eugenics now, but a couple of generations ago, sacrificing the individual for the greater good was the more common position. Eugenics is so appealing because it starts with such a basic premise: Do you want to have healthy children who grow up to be productive members of society? And you follow that question up with, 'Well, I've got a pretty simple way to do that.'"

Eugenics, at its root, divides people into positive and negative groups, and the legendary historian and civil rights leader W.E.B DuBois did just that in his 1903 essay The Talented Tenth. "The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races." DuBois believed that the top 10 percent of African-Americans were the key to prosperity, and he also warned of the "submerged tenth"—the "lowest class of criminals, prostitutes, and loafers," Dorr says.

New research also shows that a controversial experiment in North Carolina to target schoolchildren for sterilization promoted exceptional blacks—an example of positive eugenics. Birthright's field reports note that the N.C. tests found "highly superior children of both races," and that "new plans for these making full use of their abilities are being devised with such enthusiasm on the part of teachers and parents."

Birthright also reached out to the African-American community in early 1946 and reported a warm reception. "During May I had the opportunity of speaking to the entire student body and faculty of the North Carolina Teachers' College, at which there was an estimated attendance of well over five hundred persons. The response of the audience was good ... The Negro Ministers' Alliance also invited me to meet with them; nineteen ministers were present, including the Executive Secretary of the Negro YMCA." The invitation to speak came from the president of the college, the fieldworker noted.

"The people who were in favor for example, of sterilization, or just in favor of the general idea of the best people have more children and the worst people have fewer—that didn't break out by race. There was a kind of black eugenics in the same way there was a white eugenics," says Paul Lombardo, a professor of law at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

In the 1960s, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. noted that poverty, discrimination and birth control were all legitimate topics of discussion. Planned Parenthood gave King an award in 1966, and his acceptance speech (delivered by his wife, Coretta Scott King) bluntly suggested that the large families, which had been the norm in the rural South, were now a problem for urban African-Americans. "The size of family that may have been appropriate and tolerable on a manually cultivated farm was carried over to the jammed streets of the ghetto," King noted. "Like all poor, Negro and white, they have many unwanted children. This is a cruel evil they urgently need to control."

King added that "unrestrained exploitation and discrimination" fueled such problems in the black community, and DuBois made similar points. But King also brought up an issue that many contemporary critics of eugenic sterilization refuse to acknowledge: that some poor black women in the 1960s, just like some poor white or Hispanic women, did in fact desire the operation.

Or to put it another way, if a 34-year-old black woman with 10 children chose to have her tubes tied today, few would blame "eugenics" or claim that racial bias was at work. The only surprise might be that she had waited so long. Yet that summary comes from a 1964 North Carolina Eugenics Board case, which noted that the woman "came to the Welfare Department to request sterilization. She is industrious and works at farm work and simple domestic work when this is available and sees that her children attend school regularly. Both _____ and her parents feel that she already has more children than she can support and does not want more."

Dorr says some minority women clearly sought the operation in the 1960s and 1970s because they couldn't access reliable birth control in any other way. "My argument is, of course abuse occurred. Of course those populations were targeted. In the majority of instances, it was indeed abusive." But some minority doctors and nurses also supported the operation, truly believing it was the best option.

A 1968 New York Times article from Pittsburgh noted that after a black leader accused the local Planned Parenthood office of "genocide" and pushed for it to be shut down, neighborhood women criticized him and demanded it be kept open. "He's only one person—and a man at that—and he can't speak for the women ... Birth control is none of his business," said the leader of the black women's group.

More proof of the hazy line separating involuntary sterilization from legitimate birth control came in the fall of 1966. The eugenics group that began as The Sterilization League of New Jersey now had offices on Madison Avenue in New York and a new name: The Association for Voluntary Sterilization. Their executive director invited King to speak at a national conference on "Population, Voluntary Sterilization and the Quality of Life." On Southern Christian Leadership Conference letterhead, King responded with a polite letter saying he was "deeply grateful" for the invitation, yet unable to attend. "I do hope I have an opportunity to speak under your auspices sometime in the future," he added.

Chapel Hill, UNC and Orange County: Leaders in the eugenics movement

In 1936, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill noticed that Orange County was one of the first counties in the state to target people in the general population for sterilization, as opposed to those in institutions.

"In Orange County the great program of non-institutional sterilization is being put into practice. It has been this spirit, characteristic of the personnel of the Welfare Department that has placed Orange County as the leader in the program of eugenic sterilization in the state of North Carolina," wrote J. McLean Benson.

When Clarence Gamble and others launched a new campaign to promote eugenics in 1942, Orange County residents played a major role. Robert Madry, mayor of Chapel Hill from 1942 to 1949, used his position as head of the UNC News Service to send sterilization news releases to the media, met with editors and helped organize speaking engagements.

The director of the Institute for Research in Social Science at UNC approved of several projects designed to boost sterilizations, and researchers at the school conducted studies to screen schoolchildren for possible future sterilization. In Orange County, researchers suggested that more than 3 percent of the county's inhabitants might need the operation. In 1946, local supporters of eugenics arranged for 115 students in the graduating class of UNC to get copies of the pamphlet "Survival of the Unfittest."

Support continued after the war. Members of the UNC School of Medicine met regularly with N.C. Eugenics Board staff throughout the 1950s and distributed copies of eugenics literature to students.

Orange County also had one of the most infamous cases in the history of the N.C. Eugenics Board. Officials recommended that an entire family be sterilized—except for the father. The Eugenics Board approved the mass sterilizations, but Benson notes that "before this last step was completed, the family had become suspicious of this whole affair and had moved from the county during the darkness of some night. But even so, Orange County has made arrangements, and if they ever come back into the county and have not been sterilized before returning, Orange County is ready for them," she wrote.

Benson suggested the wholesale sterilization of criminals. "In all, this group constitutes a veritable army of people that should be controlled by not being permitted the privilege of reproduction. Every person who is convicted of a major crime should be sterilized by whatever method the institution thinks best, and all other criminals who are recidivists would be sterilized by vasectomy. Like many others in the 1930s, she praised Nazi sterilization programs. "So great and effective has been the program in Germany that it far overshadows the entire program of the combined states in the United States," she wrote, suggesting it was a model for the U.S. to follow.

Eugenics timeline

1883 Sir Francis Galton coins the word eugenics, meaning "well born"

1907 Indiana passes first eugenics law in U.S.

1909 California passes a eugenics law

1912 First International Congress of Eugenics

1927 U.S. Supreme Court upholds involuntary sterilization in Buck v. Bell

1929 Human Betterment Foundation established in Pasadena, Calif.

1937 Georgia is the 32nd and last state to pass a eugenics law

1937 Sterilization League of New Jersey founded

1943 Sterilization League changes name to Birthright and becomes a national organization; Cecil Gamble makes first major donation

1943 Human Betterment Foundation ceases operation in California, but several of its leaders join Birthright, bringing along their contacts and mailing lists

1947–51 Clarence Gamble funds and launches state Human Betterment League chapters in North Carolina, Iowa, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas and Nebraska

1950 Birthright changes name to Human Betterment Association of America

1962 Human Betterment Association renounces involuntary sterilization

1964 Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee issues "Genocide in Mississippi" to protest involuntary sterilizations in that state

1972 Nixon aides suppress release of new federal guidelines to prevent sterilization abuse

1972–75 Protests over sterilization of Native American women at Indian Health Service hospitals

1973–74 U.S. Senate hearings over use of federal funds to sterilize minors; multiple lawsuits filed by victims

1973 Committee to End Sterilization Abuse founded in NYC, focus on Latina women

1974 Weather Underground bombs San Francisco office of U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, in part to protest sterilization of two Alabama girls, age 12 and 14

1975 Women in California file involuntary-sterilization suit against Los Angeles County Hospital

1975 New York City reforms medical guidelines to guard against involuntary sterilization


Author's Note: This series contains excerpts from my book in progress, Eugenics: The Second Wave in America (1942 to 1975). I used historical material from numerous sources, including the following institutions and individuals.

The Association for Voluntary Sterilization collection at the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota; Clarence Gamble's papers at Harvard's Countway Library of Medicine; the Julius Paul Collection, which is under the care of Paul Lombardo at the Georgia State University College of Law (Lombardo also gave me access to the Georgia Eugenics Board records, which were donated by Gayle White); North Carolina Eugenics Board records from the N.C. State Archives, Iowa Eugenics Board records from the Iowa State Archives; and the Human Betterment League records at the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Johanna Schoen of the University of Iowa kindly shared her interview with Clarence Gamble's fieldworker; Steven Bucklin of the University of South Dakota shared his research on the Iowa eugenics program, and William VanEssendelft shared previously unpublished interviews he conducted with Birthright's founders in the 1970s. —Kevin Begos


Correction (May 25, 2011): Georgia in 1937 (not South Carolina in 1935) was the last state to pass a eugenics law.

  • Bankers, ministers, journalists and politicians nationwide rallied behind a second wave of forced sterilization

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