Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Segregation's Science

Segregation's Science: Eugenics and Society in Virginia

Gregory Michael Dorr
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 312
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Segregation's Science
    Book Description:

    Blending social, intellectual, legal, medical, gender, and cultural history,Segregation's Science: Eugenics and Societyin Virginia examines how eugenic theory and practice bolstered Virginia's various cultures of segregation--rich from poor, sick from well, able from disabled, male from female, and black from white and Native American. Famously articulated by Thomas Jefferson, ideas about biological inequalities among groups evolved throughout the nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century, proponents of eugenics--the "science" of racial improvement--melded evolutionary biology and incipient genetics with long-standing cultural racism. The resulting theories, taught to generations of Virginia high school, college, and medical students, became social policy as Virginia legislators passed eugenic marriage and sterilization statutes. The enforcement of these laws victimized men and women labeled "feebleminded," African Americans, and Native Americans for over forty years.

    However, this is much more than the story of majority agents dominating minority subjects. Although white elites were the first to champion eugenics, by the 1910s African American Virginians were advancing their own hereditarian ideas, creating an effective counter-narrative to white scientific racism. Ultimately, segregation's science contained the seeds of biological determinism's undoing, realized through the civil, women's, Native American, and welfare rights movements. Of interest to historians, educators, biologists, physicians, and social workers, this study reminds readers that science is socially constructed; the syllogism "Science is objective; objective things are moral; therefore science is moral" remains as potentially dangerous and misleading today as it was in the past.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3034-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction: “You Are Your Brother’s Keeper!”
    (pp. 1-20)

    In the early twentieth century, America witnessed the emergence of a new faith. The rise of empirical science had a profound impact on cultural practices and social structure. Scientists’ increasing understanding of and control over the natural world became the focus of intense public interest. Laypeople began turning toward scientists in many disciplines for solutions to the problems created by the swiftly changing currents of modern life. The life sciences (biology, medicine, public health) and the social sciences (economics, sociology, psychology, and educational theory) contended for status. Each field hoped to be voted “most likely to be of service” by...

  5. 1 “THE SACRIFICE OF A RACE” Virginia’s Poto-eugenicists Surve Humanity
    (pp. 21-47)

    In February 1900, Dr. Paul Brandon Barringer—chairman of the faculty at the University of Virginia and professor of medicine—took the stage before the Tri-State Medical Association of Virginia and the Carolinas. His task was to explain what he, and many other whites of the era, considered to be “the rapid increase of the negro and his relatively greater increase in crime.” According to Barringer, rigid hereditary determinism held dire consequences for African Americans because it predetermined the absolute limit of blacks’ social advance. African Americans’ “ generic tendency” to “savagery” doomed them to revert to the “primitive” and...

  6. 2 “REARING THE HUMAN THOROUGHBRED” Progressive Era Eugenics in Virginia
    (pp. 48-69)

    From its Jeffersonian founding, the University of Virginia commanded immense respect in the South. For a time in the nineteenth century, Virginia’s master’s degree, which required a student to pass every course offered at the university, was considered one of the most difficult degrees in American higher education. At the turn of the twentieth century, Virginia was the largest school in the South, with a reputation for an elite, hard-drinking student body. Despite its place in regional myth and memory, by 1900 Virginia’s administrators were feeling the pressure to maintain pride of place and the institution’s national profile.¹

    Awash in...

  7. 3 “DEFENDING THE THIN RED LINE” Academics and Eugenics
    (pp. 70-106)

    The dawn of peace and the new year find the principles of eugenics more strongly than ever entrenched upon the field of science and ready to play their role in national reconstruction,” Harry Hamilton Laughlin announced in the January 1919 issue of theEugenical News.“In constructive or aristogenic eugenics,” Laughlin crowed, “one after another our colleges are offering instruction in genetics and eugenics.” For eugenics to become effective, it had to reach those most likely to shape public policy—college and professional students. In an era when only 40 percent of seventeen-year-olds were in school and only 1 percent...

  8. 4 “STERILIZE THE MISFITS PROMPTLY” Virginia Controls the Feebleminded
    (pp. 107-136)

    The “Roaring Twenties” prompted massive social dislocations in American life. The economy soared as industries transformed from wartime production to creating consumer goods for the masses. Mass production and mass consumption engendered “mass amusements” that prompted cultural homogenization as people consumed identical entertainment. Charles Lindbergh became the first truly national celebrity, idolized as the epitome of American technical ingenuity and rugged individualism. Despite all these signs of progressivism’s triumph, tensions strained American prosperity. Many people suspected that women voting, changing moral codes, socialism, communism, and increased militancy among African Americans were all symptoms of American declension. Europe, devastated by the...

  9. 5 “MONGREL VIRGINIANS” Eugenics and the “Race Question”
    (pp. 137-166)

    The self-styled ethnologist Earnest Sevier Cox announced Virginia’s eugenic fears regarding the race question. Introducing his bookWhite America,Cox wrote: “the Negro problem is a part of the greater problem of heredity. When eugenics seeks to eliminate the unfit and establish the fit it has for its purpose not the betterment of physical types merely, but the establishment of those types of greatest value to progressive civilization.” In Cox’s eyes, African Americans represented “an unfit type” and were “a matter of concern for the eugenist.” According to Cox: “Those who seek to maintain the white race in its purity...

  10. 6 “A HEALTHIER AND HAPPIER AMERICA” Persistent Eugenics in Virginia
    (pp. 167-194)

    Writing a term paper for Ivey Lewis’s eugenics course, a University of Virginia undergraduate remarked: “In Germany Hitler has decreed that about 400,000 persons be sterilized. This is a great step in eliminating the mental deficients.” The student acknowledged that, “the wide scope of the law may permit it to be used politically,” yet, “the eugenic result will outweigh any evil practice, if any [should occur].” This paper was written in May 1934, ten months after Adolf Hitler signed Nazi Germany’s “Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring.” A 1935 student paper hailed the Nazis’ mass sterilization program: “such...

  11. 7 “THEY SAW BLACK ALL OVER” Eugenics, Massive Resistance, and Punitive Sterilization
    (pp. 195-220)

    On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court forever changed the rules governing southern society. Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for a unanimous Court, declared that compulsory segregation of black schoolchildren “generates a feeling of inferiority” that “affects their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone.” The Court concluded that school segregation deprived African American students of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Henceforth black children and white children would, in theory, sit side by side in America’s public schools.¹

    The culmination of the legal campaign against Jim Crow by the...

  12. Conclusion: “I Never Knew What They’d Done with Me”
    (pp. 221-230)

    Virginia’s involvement with eugenics continues into the present. By the late 1960s, the rise of the counterculture and the sexual revolution moved human sexuality temporarily beyond the purview of social engineers and into the realm of individual conscience. In Virginia, after the last attempts for a punitive sterilization law failed as part of the “Conservative Party” platform in late 1964, all that remained was the confrontation of the eugenic past. The “rediscovery” of eugenic sterilization would appear to end the history of eugenics and hereditarianism in Virginia.

    The final eugenic sterilizations in Virginia’s state hospitals took place between 1972 and...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 231-268)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 269-288)
  15. Index
    (pp. 289-298)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 299-300)