Now just coming to light, the Tar Heel State’s genetic agenda was a horrifying chapter in U.S. history. But few people realize similar programs prevailed in more than 30 other states – with many receiving support from some of America’s most prominent philanthropists.
Defined as “good breeding,” eugenics has been a part of the U.S.’s fabric for close to a century. Eugenics laws popped up across the country, starting in Indiana around 1907.
It wasn’t long before the idea of better breeding quickly gained popularity in states like California, New York, Washington State, Virginia, North Dakota, Oregon and Oklahoma.
Compulsory sterilization, strict immigration policies and intelligence testing were all considered acceptable weapons against the “rising tide of feeblemindedness.”
Organizations like the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, the American Breeder’s Association (ABA), the Race Betterment Foundation and the American Eugenics Society steadily gained popularity. U.S. citizens were warned that immigrants and African-Americans were responsible for crime, alcoholism and mental illness.
Something needed to be done quickly to protect pure American bloodlines. Eugenics supporters like primatologist and ethologist Robert Yerkes believed immediate action was necessary. “No citizen can afford to ignore the menace of race deterioration,” he wrote.
Raped by the State of North Carolina
Sterilizing individuals considered unfit to reproduce was a policy that took hold in North Carolina in 1929. Within four years, the state created The Eugenics Board of North Carolina to make sterilizations legally compliant.
If individuals refused to give permission, consent from next of kin, a spouse or legal guardian was an alternative. Petitioners usually had 10-15 minutes to discuss their case before a decision from the board of five members was meted out.
Some states promoted “positive eugenics” to encourage better bloodlines. But North Carolina practiced “negative eugenics” – the removal of unwanted genes through sterilization.
Race may have played an issue in later years but The North Carolina History Project Reports that from 1929-1940 Caucasians made up close to four-fifths of forced sterilizations.
North Carolina’s program took an interesting twist. Starting in the 1960s, social workers could petition authorities for client sterilizations. Suddenly, the number of African-American women undergoing sterilization skyrocketed.
Poor black women eventually comprised six out of seven of all forced sterilizations in North Carolina until the state’s Eugenics Board disbanded in 1977.
Elaine Riddick was one such victim. Raped at the age of 14, the poor and pregnant Riddick was sterilized after giving birth. The scared teen’s illiterate grandmother, “Miss Peaches,” had naively granted permission for the state to perform a “procedure.”
“I was raped twice,” says the now 57-year-old Riddick. “Once by the perpetrator and once by the state of North Carolina.”
In January 2012, the North Carolina Eugenics Compensation Task Force recommended paying surviving victims $50,000 each. Governor Bev Perdue has received the recommendations, will add her own and present them to the General Assembly for a final decision.
“The state recognizes that a wrong has been done and while these actions can never be reversed, the governor has made it a priority to reach out and help identify and compensate victims for their experience,” said Jill Lucas, communication director for the North Carolina Department of Administration.
Rockefeller, Carnegie and Kellogg
Eugenics may have been a growing social movement at the turn of the century, but it had help from big money. Researcher Nicholas Scott explained:
“It is clear that without the backing of rich elite in both capital and in name, the eugenics movement would not have had the financial stability or the assurance of the public to exist as a large-scale entity.”
Clearly, eugenics struck a chord with America’s elite. Millionaire John D. Rockefeller explained that proactive eugenics programs were necessary to “search for cause, an attempt to cure evils at their source.”
Scott asserts that American eugenicist Charles Davenport successfully convinced financiers that eugenics was the path to creating a more prosperous country.
Davenport worked with famed cornflake-maker John Harvey Kellogg’s Race Betterment Foundation which supported eugenics conferences and studies across the United States. Davenport also appealed to the Carnegie Institution and the widow of railroad tycoon E.H. Harriman to gain funding for New York’s Eugenics Record Office (ERO) in Cold Spring Harbor.
In 1913, the paper reported that the ERO’s goals included the “study [of] America’s most effective blood lines,” determining the “best methods of restricting the strains that produce the defective and delinquent classes of the community,” and studying the bloodlines of immigrants.
“War Against the Weak” author Edwin Black wrote that Harriman was such a supporter of eugenics that she paid New York charities to find Italian and Jewish immigrants for sterilization and deportation.
Wealth opened doors to more wealth with other millionaire benefactors joining the eugenics bandwagon. Mrs. H.B. Du Pont, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Mrs. E.B. Scripps and J.P. Morgan were just a few who supported eugenics.
Carnegie cash funded the study “Preliminary Report of the Committee of the Eugenic Section of the American Breeder’s Association to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population,” which focused on erasing the “socially unfit from the defective inheritance.”
The research paper even presented the alternative of euthanizing anyone deemed genetically inferior.
Philanthropy Daily writer William Schambra’s “How the Carnegie Corporation Contributed to NC’s Shameful Past,” reveals the tycoon believed charitable donations did little to combat the true roots of society’s gravest problems and only served to fund “…the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy.”
Eugenics advocate and Carnegie Corporation trustee Frederick Osborne took Carnegie’s beliefs to heart by awarding several grants to major universities and medical schools that studied ways to improve American blood.
Osborne’s clever tactic transitioned the freakish pseudoscience of eugenics from a hobby of the wealthy to a formal field study.
In 1940, Osborne explained his own personal beliefs in the preface to Eugenics.
“The inexcusable process of allowing feebleminded persons … to reproduce their kind is on the way to being checked in a number of states in which such persons may be sterilized.”
Philanthropy’s Dark Side in North Carolina
One of the colleges supported by the Carnegie Institution was the Bowman Gray School of Medicine in North Carolina.
Bowman Gray’s director, Dr. William Allan, was a devout geneticist obsessed with improving human pedigrees. Allan’s goal was simple: weed out human “defectives” from North Carolina.
Allan worked with sterilization researcher Dr. C. Nash Herndon. Thanks to Osborne’s largesse, Allan’s beliefs and Herndon’s drive, schools like Bowman Gray used their genetic “expertise” to train fellow “scientists” and develop sterilization programs that went after anyone deemed unfit.
Students at the Caswell Training School for the developmentally disabled, the Stonewall Jackson School for juvenile delinquents, the Goldsboro Training School for disabled and poor African-Americans like Elaine Riddick were all sterilized.
Bowman Gray’s sterilization experiments also received funding from Wickliffe Draper, a multimillionaire obsessed with white supremacy.
But Carnegie monies weren’t the only funds used to sterilize North Carolina’s disadvantaged residents. Dr. Clarence Gamble from the Proctor and Gamble fortune and hosiery heir James G. Hanes founded the Human Betterment League of North Carolina.
The Human Betterment League was accused of having a role in forced sterilizations and working with Bowman Gray School of Medicine. Hanes supported the North Carolina program with money and clever PR created by a Manhattan ad agency while Gamble spent his time trying to promote sterilization through personal writings.
In 1947 Gamble wrote “The ‘Lucky’ Morons,” a poem that describes how society disintegrates when two “morons” meet and fall in love. While Gamble hoped the North Carolina Mental Hygiene Society would use the poem to promote sterilization, his writing was considered so negative that it was turned down.
Eugenics Donations: A Terrifying Legacy
The impact of funding America’s eugenics programs and forced sterilizations had larger, more dangerous results. Several big American donors helped fund many of Germany’s eugenics experiments.
Edwin Black reports the Rockefeller Foundation supported German doctor Josef Mengele’s eugenics research before Auschwitz.
Hitler remarked to a colleague that he’d studied American sterilization laws with “great interest.” Hitler also mentioned that he’d carefully reviewed “the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock.”
By 1934, Germany was performing up to 5,000 forced sterilizations a month on anyone who didn’t meet Aryan perfection.
Ironically, while U.S. citizens criticized the cruelty perpetrated by the Third Reich, they allowed many similar policies to flourish in places like North Carolina.
Concludes Elaine Riddick’s son Tony ,“The work of the Eugenics Board was not far from the thinking of Hitler.”
References & Image Credits:
(1) Wikipedia – Map of States
(2) ABC News
(3) John D. Rockefeller
(4) John Kellogg
(5) Bowman Gray Medical School
(6) Do You Know About Sterilization?
(7) Wikipedia – Wickliffe Draper