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The legacy of eugenics at U.Va.

A look into the University’s past and issues it raises today


In a majority opinion written in 1927 for the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that “if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility,” it would be “better” if “society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” 

This case ushered in a form of legal sterilization into the U.S. After the Supreme Court deemed the practice constitutional, over 30 states adopted laws allowing for the legal forced sterilization of individuals society deemed “unfit” to reproduce. From 1924 to 1979, an estimated 8,000 people were sterilized in the Commonwealth of Virginia alone.

This infamous court case involved 17-year old Carrie Buck, a Charlottesville local. After Buck was assaulted and impregnated, the Supreme Court used the case as an opportunity to constitutionalize eugenic practices that were already occurring within Virginia. 

Holmes’ majority opinion reflects white America’s push to uphold a racial hierarchy through sentiments of biological inferiority, which included a wide range of supposed deficiencies from “feeble-mindedness” to physical inferiority. The victims of the resulting sterilizations usually included impoverished communities, prisoners and women accused of promiscuity. 

Paul Lombardo, law professor at Georgia State University, went to the University’s School of Law, where he became increasingly interested in the University's connection to the eugenics movement and Buck’s Supreme Court case. While at the University, Lombardo investigated documents from lawyers representing the Virginia State Colony for the Epileptics and Feebleminded — a chief site for sterilizations at the time. This line of investigation led him to write several articles and books on the topic of eugenics, eventually leading him to meet Buck herself.

“I drove out there right after Christmas and spent some time talking to her and one of her friends,” Lombardo said. “She was willing to say how she got involved in the case. She said that [her foster parent’s nephew] essentially assaulted her and [took] advantage of her.”

Carrie Buck passed away Jan. 28, 1983  — just three weeks after Lombardo met her. 

Eugenics at U.Va. and in Charlottesville

In many ways, Buck’s story embodies Charlottesville's history of racism and eugenics. While the Buck v. Bell court case had national implications, Buck’s hometown was an epicenter of eugenic sentiments long before she was born. 

Anthropology Prof. Getrude Fraser described how eugenic sentiments can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson, the University's founder and the nation’s third president.

“Jefferson’s idea was that African Americans were an inferior race that could not have abstract thoughts … and that there were scientific reasons for structural inequities,” Fraser said. 

Though more than 4,000 enslaved Black laborers lived, built and maintained the University, Jefferson also directly enslaved more than 600 individuals throughout the course of his life at his home of Monticello.

Eugenic sentiments can also be traced through to notable former University president Edwin Alderman, the namesake of Alderman Library. Alderman served as the first president of the University from 1905 until his death in 1931. 

“Alderman began to recruit scientists from across the country, many of whom were practicing eugenics,” Fraser said. “He began to create a kind of University of Virginia as a hub for the best in science — the best in eugenic science.” 

The University’s biology department originated within this context — its founder Ivey Lewis adhered to and taught eugenicist ideas. Research conducted by University faculty at the time supported disastrous national laws ranging from the Racial Integrity Act, which prohibited interracial marriage, and the Eugenical Sterilization Act, which followed the Buck v. Bell case. The work of eugenists at the University also provided the ideological groundwork for over 400,000 sterilizations performed in Germany under Nazi leadership. 

Biology Prof. Keith Kozminski explained how eugenic sentiments were not simply confined to figures like Alderman or Lewis.

“In the first half of the 20th century, eugenics was a required course,” Kozminski said. “We did not leave U.Va. without taking mandatory returns, so this was not a few isolated faculty who happened to have a very distinct take on science. To do this was a really institutional endeavor.”

Kozminski said how researching the history of the University felt when he first received his teaching position. 

“When I came to U.Va., no one gave me a tour of Grounds and said, ‘oh, here's all the eugenics that's happening.’” Kozminski said. “It's not in the brochures.” 

Likewise, the layout of the U.Va. Health was also created with “both genetic and economic models in place,” Fraser added. 

“The African wards were actually the basement of what they used to call the old hospital,” Fraser said.

Although it is no longer segregated, this section of the hospital was kept in horrid conditions for patients of color. 

“In the community, [it] was known as a place that you went to die,” Fraser said. 

Addressing the past

As these echoes of the University’s past can be found anywhere one goes on Grounds, the question of how Charlottesville and the University should interact with its history moving forward is essential to navigate. Acknowledging its central role in the eugenics movement, the University’s biology department published a mission statement online in August 2020 that describes its goals of actively working against these sentiments. 

“Being passively non-discriminatory cannot break down the systemic racism and inequities that exist in academia and society more broadly,” the statement reads.

The statement outlines the specific goals of the department going forward, which include efforts to increase members in the department from underrepresented groups, increase training for members on concepts of race and the department’s history, and to overall design the space to be more inclusive. 

In light of the biology department's role in eugenics, Kozminski believes that he and other professors need to be actively working against the history that the department has inherited. 

“We have to talk about it,” Kozminski said. “I'm really pleased to see more of my colleagues, especially colleagues who are new to [the] University, taking note of this history and using it as a teaching moment.” 

According to student activists, one of the more visible ways the University can engage with its past is by changing the names of buildings that memorialize leaders of the eugenic movement. Although some buildings have already been renamed, many, such as the aforementioned Alderman Library, remain unchanged. 

“Some people say ‘well [remaining buildings] is just a gesture,’ but I think it has a huge weight,” Fraser said. “In terms of kind of opening up our history, to sort of critical inquiry, and then saying if our buildings represent the people we admire ... certainly we can’t admire these people.” 

Lombardo discussed how carefully the task must be navigated.

For example, in 2016,  Jordan Hall, named after eugenicist Harvey Jordan, was renamed to Pinn Hall. Dr. Vivian Pinn earned her medical degree from the School of Medicine in 1967 as the only woman and only African American student in her graduating class. She went on to champion women’s health initiatives.

“I'm all in favor of naming things after people with great accomplishments, like Pinn, but I think that when we make those changes in names the least we should do for historical purposes is to say why — why are we honoring one person now?” Lombardo said.  

Lombardo worries that simply renaming without explanation could lead towards more of a historical erasure rather than a reconciliation. 

“​​I'm most concerned that they not miss the opportunity to teach people why they're making a change,” Lombardo said. 

Lombardo does not want the University to forget its history. In 2002, 75 years after the Buck v. Bell decision, then-governor Mark Warner issued an apology denouncing eugenics. Lombardo, who was then attending the School of Law, and a colleague took a copy of this resolution and posted it in Venable, where Buck’s daughter went to school, to memorialize the resolution. 

“The last time I was there, I saw that it had been taken down,” Lombardo said. 

In dealing with all difficult histories, there is tension between the need to move forward and the need to conserve the collective memory about the reality of Charlottesville’s past.

As the community’s population grows and changes, many University and Charlottesville residents — especially white residents — might not even realise the true history of where they live. Additionally, there must be an active effort to contradict the sediments of this history — the University owes it to victims and their families to teach, remember, and redress this history.  

Scientific language

The history of eugenics has complicated society’s relationship with science. Kominiski said that after the Enlightenment, there was a sentiment that science was the best method for understanding the world. Science painted the world with images drenched in the language of objectivity and facts — its conclusions quickly became viewed as the truest way of understanding anything it investigated. However, Lombardo said, the study of science does not exist in a vacuum — it is embedded in the greater sociological and historical contexts of its time. Eugenics attempted to propagate racist views by using a scientific front to present them as facts. 

“Eugenics was a scientific veneer used to cover ancient prejudice,” Lambardo said. 

By tapping into the sentiment that anything conveyed as science fundamental truth, racist ideologies were able to be viewed by many as fact, justifying the prejudices of society at the time. 

“The problem is that we cannot disentangle what we call scientific pursuits from power from money, from social hierarchies and from all the rest of the ideas that float around in a society,” Lombardo said. “If you have a bigoted social context, it's not surprising with some of what you call science that comes out of that [context] reflects that bigotry.”

Kozminski discussed the tension between what is scientifically possible and the questions that should be asked when advancing scientific knowledge. 

“If we're creating new organisms and coming up with new applications for biology, yes, we can run into the lab to do that,” Kozminski said. “But we really have to stop and say, should we be doing the act? And furthermore … we have a professional — and I would argue a moral responsibility — to take a step back and say, could this research have a dual use? Could it be used for something that is not good for society?” 

Scientific advancement can spur progress, but it also presents a danger that new information can be taken and abused. Scientific facts are not put out into a void — they are expressed to a very specific social context full of people who have their own beliefs and agendas, which risks scientific facts as being morphed to support their worldviews.

To better understand the implications of their work, or how their work could be misused, Kozminski said that fields of science need to actively interact with other disciplines like philosophy and sociology. 

“It's not realistic to expect a scientist to be as well-versed in ethics and philosophy and sociology as their colleagues in those fields,” Kozminski said. “At the same time, they should be open to hear what people in these other disciplines are saying about their work when it's taken outside the context of a web report.”

The relationship between science, those who conduct it and the general public also becomes increasingly important during the pandemic. Fraser said it has forced science to be “a kind of public discipline.” 

Scientific jargon and excessively complicated concepts makes the general public feel removed from those who are actually conducting research, allowing for scientific findings to be easily taken out of context and interpreted inaccurately. By forging a stronger relationship with the public, it would be easier for scientists to be trusted outright, and with greater trust, it becomes more difficult to place scientific findings into a social context that warps findings to reproduce existing inequalities.

Kozminski, Fraser and Lombardo agreed that moving forward, there must be an active effort to cultivate an understanding of what happened in Charlottesville, at the University and in the U.S. as a whole as a result of the eugenics movement.

Likewise, the relationship between science and the public must be reworked as scientific language continues to be used to mask bigoted ideologies. Without grappling with what has happened and what could continue to happen, we fail to honor the memories of those victim to this movement, and remain complicit in this history.


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