How an outdated science manifested into racism and discrimination the University still contends with
Words by Navya Annapareddy and Aisha Singh.
As the University of Virginia marks its Bicentennial, the laying of its cornerstone will be celebrated by old and new Hoos alike. The University’s history is long and rich, as is with any any premier institution of learning almost as old as the United States itself.
A journey to the bottom floors of the University’s Shirley Small Special Collections and the Claude Moore Health Science libraries reveals hundreds upon hundreds of journals, all giving a vivid glimpse into the University’s past. Not all the historical accounts are good, of course — there are controversial manuscripts and many journals and books depicting the brutalities of slavery. Texts relay accounts of the evolution of man from more “exotic” races. Some are centuries old, and some only decades.
Look even further at dusty anatomy books, containing pages upon pages of racist and ableist prose. Some describe methods of ensuring lighter skin in offspring. Others recommend forced sterilization of “defective women.”
This is the pseudoscience of eugenics, a collection of genetics practices based on mistaken facts — a so-called science propagated by a legion of the University’s best minds at the time. It is a science which promoted the falsehood of genetic purity and at its worst, lent its ideas to the Nazi movement. Eugenics was well in practice in the 20th century and even now its grasp on the University, in the wake of the self-reflection following the events of Aug. 11 and 12, is apparent.
At its simplest, eugenics aimed to increase the proportion of genetically healthy people in a population. In the late 1800s, English scientist Francis Galton published his beliefs that social improvement would only happen by improving the heredity of those who were having children. His ideas, which he termed the science of eugenics, took hold within the United States in the early 20th century.
Paul Lombardo, former director of the Law and Medicine Program at the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University, said one of the bases behind eugenics was population control.
“The theory was that you could engineer society in the long-term, to improve it … to do away with many of the problems like crime and poverty and disease,” Lombardo said.
In theory, the goal of improving society seemed a noble one. But in practice, eugenics intertwined with the ideologies of racism, ableism and Nazism, devolving into a science that promoted sterilization, coercive measures and ultimately a framework that proposed racial purity.
Virginia legislators were staunch supporters of eugenics. By 1912 and 1916, the state-funded Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-minded housed epileptic, disabled or otherwise “feeble-minded” individuals. These colonies housed people who proponents of eugenics deemed not fit to be in society – although there were fair numbers of the mentally ill, the only thing differentiating these people from everyone else was their lack of wealth and power.
“The comparative histologic study of pigmented skins was undertaken with the hope of discovering evidence that might throw more light on the problem of color inheritance among the descendants of crosses between whites and negros.”– Professor H.E. Jordan, University of Virginia, August 1911
Lawmakers did not stop at establishing institutions for people deemed unfit for society. The first sterilization legislation in Virginia, proposed in 1914, was fueled by notable eugenicists such as Albert Priddy and Joseph DeJarnette. Both also helped establish the Virginia Colony. On March 20, 1924, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Sterilization Act, which allowed for “sexual sterilization of inmates of State institutions in certain cases.” On the same day, the Racial Integrity Act was passed, which expanded Virginia’s ban of interracial marriage, posing stricter regulations on the classifications of “white” and “negro”.
In one fell swoop, the stage was set for another layer of institutional and legal discrimination of poor, mentally-ill and African American populations across Virginia.
At institutions like the Virginia State Colony, sterilization was a proposed procedure to ensure that its wards would never be able to have “morally corrupt” offspring. Colonies like the Virginia Colony were organized to separate patients from the general population.
Carrie Buck, a Charlottesville native, was removed from the care of her mother, Emma, and taken in by foster parents soon after Emma was committed to the Colony in 1920. At school, Carrie showed promise, but just a few years after moving in with her foster parents, she was raped — supposedly by the foster family’s nephew. With a baby on the way, her foster parents condemned Carrie to the Colony, citing her “promiscuity” and “feeblemindedness” as reason for her banishment.
“Her foster parents said that she was a moral delinquent, and she had different problems and disabilities … but the biggest problem was that … she got pregnant,” Lombardo said. “She had a baby but she wasn’t married.”
At the same time as Carrie’s departure to the Colony, the Sterilization Act of 1924 was passed, and Carrie became the test subject for a law that would serve as a basis for the discriminatory policies of the time period.A court appeal filed on behalf of Carrie Buck objecting to the sterilization process for reasons including it imposing “a crel and unusual punishment.” Circuit Court of Amherst County.
The Virginia legislature, armed with lawyer Aubrey Strode, used the stigma of being an unwed, lower-class woman to deem Buck a candidate for sterilization – a series of medical procedures that would render her infertile.
Against her will, on Oct. 19, 1927, Carrie Buck was the first woman in Virginia to be sterilized under eugenics law.
Oliver Holmes, the chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals said of the case, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Lombardo emphasized the national importance of the Buck v. Bell ruling.
“[The ruling] formed a precedent for the whole country, saying that laws that would allow the state to sterilize people in institutions or hospitals or asylums, was [sic] constitutional,” he said. “The Buck case became the national precedent really for the whole practice [of eugenics].”
Lombardo also noted how the eugenics laws complemented other racially charged structures at the time.
“In a setting where Jim Crow laws are the rule, where racism is institutionalized in the law, eugenics comes along to provide an extra argument and a more focused argument about race,” he said.
At the height of its power, eugenics reinforced the concept of racial superiority and anti-Semitism at the University of Virginia and the Southern aristocratic families it served. In Virginia, 7,325 people were sterilized, although nationally the number is estimated to be as high as 60,000. The majority of those affected in Virginia — about 62 percent — were women.
Throughout the country, eugenics legislation was pushed forward and sterilizations were forced upon many marginalized groups, such as the poor, mentally ill and African-Americans. In Virginia, however, most of the sterilizations were done on white people, according to Lombardo, because there were not as many institutions for people of color.
“Do you realise that about 10 percent of our population is defective, an economic and social burden, and a constant source of racial menace and contamination?”– Twelve University Lectures, 1914
However, in both black and white institutions around the Virginia area, the subject of eugenics was extremely prevalent. At both the University of Virginia and the all-black Howard University, among others, classes for eugenics were added to curriculums and students began writing papers and theses on the topic.
Eugenics at the University
Throughout its rise and fall, the University was notably silent in publicly addressing its involvement in eugenics as controversy over the movement mounted. In fact, notable eugenicists in Virginia permeated the core of the University’s leadership.
The University’s first president, Edwin Alderman, as well as the fourth dean of the University’s medical school, Harvey Jordan, were both fervent eugenicists. When the eugenics movement in the U.S. started faltering during World War II, even as Hitler’s regime rose to power and embraced its ideas, faculty at the University continued to include eugenics in curriculums and instruction.
“When Hitler embraced eugenics, it was so apparent that it was part of a racist ideology … But people here supported it,” said Dr. Preston Reynolds, a professor in the division of General Medicine, Geriatric and Palliative Care at the University’s School of Medicine. “In their courses, students writing papers supported Hitler’s regime and wished the U.S. could embrace Hitler’s programs.”
Harvey Jordan, although a stark opponent of interracial marriage, once claimed in a 1913 issue of The Literary Digest that the African American could be “saved” and purified by reproducing with caucasians.
“The mulatto, measured by present day standards of Caucasian civilization, from economic and civic standpoints, is an advance upon a pure negro,” the former dean said in the interview with the publication.
In 1972, the University named the building that serves as the home of the School of Medicine after him.
Ivey Lewis, vice president of the biology section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, was asked to give an address to his section at the University in 1953 extolling the premise of eugenics. This talk was given after World War II, when the principles of eugenics were falling out of fashion.
“People were so outraged that they actually refused to publish his address in science [journals],” Reynolds said.
“Eugenics was the scientific foundation that justified the development of [discriminatory] policies and those structural barriers. Eugenics justified it.”– Dr. Preston Reynolds, Professor in the Division of General, Geriatric, Palliative and Hospital Medicine
Reynolds, who is Associate Chair for Professionalism and Diversity in the School of Medicine, gave a lecture on the past and future of eugenics last fall in the now renamed Pinn Hall maintains that eugenics propagated systemic issues in racism. The University’s decades-long affair with eugenics significantly slowed the University’s racial integration, as well as its admittance of women, across the University.
“Eugenics was the scientific foundation that justified the development of those policies and those structural barriers,” Reynolds said. “Eugenics justified [them].”
Both Reynolds and Lombardo also agree that the University has been forced to grapple with how its past in eugenics affected its practices both in the past and present.
“Because it continued into the 60s, it justified a lot of what we would call racist instruction,” Reynolds said.
The University administration has garnered criticism for its perceived lack of recognition of its past. Reynolds, for example, described how her lecture on eugenics was controversial because of the light in which it depicted the University.
Alice Burgess, a Class of 2017 graduate of the University, knows both the difficulties and importance of depicting the University’s past accurately. Burgess, who participated in the University Guide Service, a University-designated special status organization, believes the main priority of those showcasing the University’s history should be to present a picture that is accurate and detailed.
“This means including both positive and negative aspects, but the main goal is just to be honest, open, transparent, and not to look upon U.Va.’s past with rose-tinted glasses,” she said. “Conveying the scope and lived realities of these periods of history is a challenge, but opening up the discussion on U.Va.’s distressing … past is crucial for the creation of a better university climate.”
Current University Guide and third-year College student Jillian Randolph contends with two views of the University: the ideals it promoted, and the racism and ableism it exhibited in practice.
“The University was built on these ideals, with good intentions. But those aren’t necessarily mirrored in the practice of how they came to be,” Randolph said. “And it just so happens that with what it wanted to be and how it came to be tend to be ironic themes. You want illimitable freedom of the pursuit of knowledge, but then you have enslaved laborers building the entire University.”
“I’ve now given this lecture, and people say, ‘How can you pull that off?’ And I said, ‘Because I’m a trained historian, I’m a scientist, and I’m tenured. So I can speak the truth,'” Reynolds said.
Reconciling an Inconsistent Past
After the events of Aug. 11, when white supremacists marched on the University’s Lawn, it is difficult to ignore the sentiments that have permeated the University since it was founded. With an increase in the visibility of white supremacy and neo-Nazism, not only here but across the nation, people are looking for an explanation for why the events in Charlottesville took place.
“I think that eugenics being so prominent here is a direct extension of that idea of white supremacy that Jefferson boldly detailed in his writings,” Randolph said. “The fact that he was one of the first people to introduce the biological debate on racism, and that we become a world leader in eugenics …. It’s not surprising that that’s why this was a breeding ground for it, and that on August 11 and 12, white supremacists found a home for it here.”
Some believe the University is too passive in its acknowledgment of its past. In recent years, Lewis Hall was renamed to Yen Hall, after the first Chinese student to graduate from U.Va., and Jordan Hall was named Pinn Hall, after Vivian Pinn, the only African-American and woman to graduate from the Medical School in 1967. Some people feel that conversations about the eugenicist beliefs of the men the buildings were originally named after should have held a more prominent place in discussions and announcements about these renamings.
“It’s fine if you want to change the names, but you should have a marker on the building saying why you changed the name, rather than just trying to erase it and hoping that everyone forgets it,” Lombardo said. “I’ve never been in favor of changing the names of buildings as a way of avoiding talking about some of the horrific things that happened in the past.”
Regardless of the University’s slow progress, it is important to understand the continuance of the discriminatory ideas from Jefferson’s time, to the time of eugenics, to today.
“We don’t have to use the word ‘eugenics’ to condemn the kind of hatred that was propagated on the Lawn last year, but it would be helpful if we realized that the same kind of sentiments that brought Hitler to power are very much alive in society today,” Lombardo said. “I think what you get if you forget about it is people marching with tiki torches on the Lawn.”
He also stated that those marching mistakenly believed stigmatizing groups of peoples is part of the American way.
Randolph said one way to confront racism and other systemic issues that propelled eugenics forward is to face these ideas head on and encourage dialogue and instruction among students and the administration. For example, University president Teresa Sullivan recently formed a new President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation, which aims to explore the University’s role in the racial segregation that occurred in the 19th and 20th century.
“We’re in a really interesting place, as college students, to have these conversations and push these barriers,” Randolph said. “No matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, you can agree that the events of August 11 and 12 were tragic, and should’ve never happened here.”
“I think what you get if you forget about it is people marching with tiki torches on the Lawn.”– Paul Lombardo, former Director for the Law and Medicine Program at the University
The discriminatory policies of the past and their effects today have been difficult for the University to address in previous years, but the steps it is taking now to address its history are ones that aim to make the community a more inclusive and understanding place.
“In the University administration as well, the fact that we’re starting to offer classes on eugenics, that we’re starting to just acknowledge it in the greater role that it had on the Charlottesville community, especially the Charlottesville community, actually, is sort of this turn in the University,” Randolph said. “I think that with the new president coming in we’re poised to make this large turn into our third century.”