Source – salon.com
– Growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the early 1900s, young Carrie Buck impressed those she met as serious and self-possessed, someone whose quiet demeanor hinted at a life filled with challenges. Of humble origins—her widowed mother had given her up to foster care as a child—the stocky, darkhaired girl didn’t let her difficulties get her down. She enjoyed reading the newspaper, liked to fiddle with crossword puzzles, and always made herself useful around the house. She was a bit awkward in social situations, but otherwise she was a thoroughly average teenager. No one had any reason to think differently of her. Then something terrible occurred that changed Carrie’s life forever.
In 1923, when she was seventeen, Carrie Buck was raped by a nephew of her foster parents. The girl became pregnant, and her foster parents—perhaps embarrassed by what their nephew had done—decided to hide the girl away by committing her to the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded, a mental facility in the town of Lynchburg. Carrie’s birth mother had previously been committed to the same institution, accused of being mentally deficient and promiscuous. The same reasons were given for Carrie’s incarceration. It was a classic case of punishing the victim.
Carrie had her baby in the spring of 1924, the same year that Virginia passed a law permitting the involuntary sterilization of those judged to be mentally impaired. The statute grew out of the early twentieth century’s widely influential eugenics movement, a now discredited cousin of genetics that attempted to improve American society by “breeding out” a long list of undesirable traits ascribed to minorities, the poor, and certain immigrant populations. At the same time, eugenicists hoped to foster the increase of good breeding traits by encouraging “high-grade” citizens to go forth and multiply (the word eugenics means “well born”).
It’s no surprise that complacently comfortable white folks conceived and promoted this scheme of biological discrimination. According to eugenicists, if you weren’t of Nordic or Anglo-Saxon heritage, your genes were second rate. Even if you were white, if you happened to be epileptic, mentally ill, illegitimate, unemployed, homeless, a sexually active single woman, an alcoholic, a convicted criminal, or a prostitute—all signs of “feeblemindedness” or “hereditary degeneracy”—you were a threat to the purity of the nation’s gene pool. Eugenicists advocated three ways of dealing with the perceived problem of bad genes: immigration restrictions, the prevention of “unfit” marriages, and involuntary sterilization of “defective” individuals in state care, chiefly mental patients and prison inmates.
Carrie Buck had the misfortune of being the first Virginia resident chosen for compulsory sterilization. Her case became a test of the constitutionality of the state’s new law, a challenge that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. With little justification beyond a family history of poverty and illegitimacy, Carrie and her birth mother were both portrayed as sexually deviant simpletons. Even Carrie’s baby girl was said to be “not quite normal.” Years later, researchers determined that all three family members were of average intelligence, and that the arguments for Carrie’s sterilization were based on faulty, biased testimony. “These people belong to the shiftless, ignorant and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South,” one so-called expert declared—without ever having met Carrie Buck or her mother.
Despite the flimsy testimony presented in the case, the Supreme Court upheld the Virginia law in 1927 by an eight-to-one margin, with justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. issuing this shocking pronouncement: “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Shortly afterward, Carrie Buck, a perfectly normal citizen of the United States, was sterilized against her will. It was an outrage destined to be repeated many times over—mostly against poor, uneducated women—as the dark age of eugenics spread across the land in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s.
Thousands of activists had a hand in creating the conditions that permitted the abuse of Carrie Buck and others like her, but few bear a greater measure of responsibility than biologist Charles Davenport, a man who spent more than three decades leading the campaign for racial purity in the United States. In essence, Davenport and his fellow eugenicists sought to create a master race of white Protestant Yankees, with all the frightening ramifications that implies. (Imagine the banality of an entire nation of Ward and June Cleavers.) Aside from being morally repulsive, their goal amounted to second-rate science, since biological strength lies in genetic diversity, not sameness.
Davenport’s offenses went beyond the harm he caused here at home. His lengthy collaboration with eugenicists in Nazi Germany contributed to that country’s brutal racial policies. Today, we rightly reject what Davenport and others like him stood for as white supremacy gone berserk. In his own time, though, Davenport was hailed as a trailblazer, an honorable scientist who studied and taught at our nation’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning. Davenport’s chilling story demonstrates that when prejudice and public policy mix, the result can be a humanitarian nightmare.
A lanky, goatee-sporting man who favored all-white suits, Charles Benedict Davenport was the product of a puritanical upbringing. He was born in 1866 on his family’s farm near Stamford, Connecticut. In his childhood and early teens, he spent the spring and summer months working on the farm. The rest of the year, he lived in Brooklyn, where his domineering father ran a successful real estate and insurance business. Davenport attended Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, earning a bachelor of science in civil engineering in 1886. In 1889, he received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, followed by a doctorate in zoology in 1892.
Even as a student, Davenport wrote prolifically, which he continued to do after being hired as an instructor at Harvard in 1893. A primary area of interest for the young scholar was the study of heredity and selective breeding in animals, a topic his years on the farm gave him practical insight into. His writing earned him a favorable reputation, and in 1899 the University of Chicago offered him an assistant professorship. In 1904, Davenport left Chicago to become the director of the new Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, a genetics research center funded by the Carnegie Institution. It was the perfect place for Davenport to cultivate his interests in evolution, heredity, and eugenics.
In 1910, Davenport founded the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, a facility that became the epicenter of the American eugenics movement. By compiling detailed “pedigrees” on thousands of families, the office sought to document how desirable or undesirable traits are passed from one generation to the next. In addition to physical characteristics, Davenport and his staff considered a wide range of behavioral and cultural traits to be genetic in origin, including personality quirks such as a love of the sea, a fondness for songbirds, and a preference for city life.
As wacky as that sounds, many of the country’s brightest leaders in education, politics, and business thought it was true. Moreover, those same people were convinced that some character traits are more prevalent in certain ethnic and socioeconomic groups than others. Specifically, they believed that good traits—intelligence, honesty, industriousness—are predominant in middle and upper-class WASPs, and that bad traits—criminality, immorality, shiftlessness—tend to be found in just about everyone else, especially the poor and the disadvantaged.
Englishman Francis Galton—a cousin of Charles Darwin—started this whole spurious exercise in 1883 when he came up with the concept of eugenics. It was Galton who first suggested that society could be improved by encouraging intelligent, successful couples to marry and have children in order to perpetuate their superior qualities. Researchers in Britain and the United States quickly drew a link between Galton’s idea and the genetic mechanisms of heredity outlined twenty years earlier by Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel. Suddenly, the advancement of society through science seemed possible.
Actually, Galton’s concept of pairing individuals who might pass on desirable traits is practiced every day in cultures around the world. Whenever two bright, successful people get married, we look upon it as a “good match.” Many early eugenicists emphasized this simple, positive goal. Where Charles Davenport and his cohorts went astray was to focus on the negative side of eugenics: attempting to eliminate “bad matches” by determining who, in their opinion, should not have children and doing all they could to prevent that from happening.
The negative approach to eugenics flourished in the United States thanks to the financial support of major philanthropic organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Institution, as well as a pool of wealthy backers that included breakfast cereal tycoon John Kellogg and railroad fortune heiress Mary Harriman. Respected public figures the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and Alexander Graham Bell supported the aims of the American eugenics movement, and courses in the subject were taught at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Columbia, and other top universities. (Many colleges adopted Charles Davenport’s 1911 textbook “Heredity in Relation to Eugenics,” a book filled with inaccurate, oddball opinions about inherited traits within families.)
What’s indisputable about the eugenics movement in this country is that it was driven by racial and class prejudice. At the dawn of the twentieth century, white Protestant Americans feared being overrun by immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, people who traditionally had large families. Groups such as the Race Betterment Foundation and the American Eugenics Society stoked those fears by suggesting that the superior traits of industrious Anglo-Saxons were being undermined by the lazy, degenerate masses showing up on their shores. Charles Davenport articulated the goal of encouraging white Americans to have more children and stemming the invasion of undesirables in his “eugenics creed”: