My smart and charming Honors students (and yes, that is how I address emails to them) have been learning about the history of eugenics in America this semester. First-year Honors students start off with a one credit-hour course in the fall and mine is called Crafting People. We read historical accounts of eugenics models—Plato, and on the other end of nature versus nurture, Sparta—then we dove right into the writings of Sir Francis Galton, founder of modern eugenics and coiner of the term (plus cousin of Charles Darwin). Then we took a spin through the Oneida Community’s eugenics program called “stirpiculture” and saw what a voluntary, religiously-based eugenics program might look like and spent some time with Victoria Woodhull, one of the few outspoken female eugenics advocates.
For the last month, however, we have been reading about government-sponsored eugenics programs that took place in America from the 1920s straight through the 1970s in some cases. The college sits right in the epicenter of the Supreme Court case that made involuntary sterilizations of the “feeble-minded” legal: Carrie Buck, the test case for the court, came from the area and was held at the infamous Colony in Lynchburg where sterilizations were performed and all of the trial materials were delivered at the Amherst County courthouse, five minutes from campus. The Virginia Eugenics Sterilization Act was passed in 1924, and in 1927 it was taken to the Supreme Court where it was upheld in an 8-1 decision, famously summarized by Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who declared that “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” (For a great source of information on this period, the folks at the historical collections of UVA’s medical library have put this site together: http://www.hsl.virginia.edu/historical/eugenics/3-buckvbell.cfm .)
We had the extraordinary good luck to give a screening of Rothstein’s First Assignment, a documentary about Arthur Rothstein, the photographer famous for capturing the Depression era on film. The filmmaker, Richard Robinson, set out to explore the idea of truth in documentary and discovered a terrible secret behind his subject—many of the people photographed by Rothstein came from the same family, one that had been plundered of its children who were sent to The Colony and sterilized there. With thanks to our good friend Paige Critcher, photography professor and director of the BFA here, Mr. Robinson spent the evening with my class at a pizza party and my students were able to ask him first-hand about the people he had met. The screening was very well-attended and it is a fascinating piece. I recommend this documentary to anyone interested in art, eugenics, or both—Richard’s blog about the screening is here: http://rothsteinsfirstassignment.blogspot.com/ and you will see that we had another very special guest, Mary Francis, one of the survivors of The Colony. One does not get a learning opportunity like that every day.
The graveyard at sunset.
Because my smart and charming students were so enthusiastic and they were asking to take a field trip, this year we got a private tour of the buildings and grounds of the former Colony, now the Central Virginia Training Center where they do great work in helping both residential and community members with disabilities. Today we toured the grounds of the former Colony, where we got to see the building that the sterilizations were performed in (it was appropriately eerie and dilapidated, as several of the students noted). We were brought around in a bus to see much of the 300-plus acre grounds where the people we have studied would have lived and worked on the farm and even spent time in The Colony’s version of solitary confinement for bad behavior. We were given an awesome tour of the beautiful cemetery there, refurbished entirely by the gentleman who acted as our guide. Carrie Buck’s mother, Emma, was buried there (the alleged first generation of imbeciles) and we knew only that she died in 1944.
Students hunting for Emma Buck's grave.
Luckily the graves were in perfect chronological order and my student Fiona managed to find her, much to the delight of the CVTC staff as well. Finally, we went to the on-site little museum where the staff had been kind enough to make a special history of eugenics display in their library and we got to see things used and made by the people of The Colony and its later patients.
We have learned a lot, the students and I, this semester, and seen much of it first-hand. This largely obscured corner of American history has had a lifetime impact on many people we have studied and even met and so much of it has occurred in our own backyards.
My Honors students.