- Racial Integrity Act of 1924
March 20, 1924the VirginiaLegislature ( United States) passed two closely related eugenicslaws: SB 219, entitled "The Racial Integrity Act [Racial Integrity Act of 1924, at Wikisource.org] " and SB 281, "An ACT to provide for the sexual sterilization of inmates of State institutions in certain cases", henceforth referred to as "The Sterilization Act".
The Racial Integrity Act required that a racial description of every person be recorded at birth, and felonized marriage between white persons and non-white persons. The law was the most famous ban on
miscegenation( anti-miscegenation law) in the United States, and was overturned by the United States Supreme Courtin 1967, in " Loving v. Virginia".
The Sterilization Act provided for
compulsory sterilizationof persons deemed to be "feebleminded," including the "insane, idiotic, imbecile, feebleminded or epileptic" [HOUSE JOINT RESOLUTION NO. 607 (HJ607ER), "Expressing the General Assembly's regret for Virginia's experience with eugenics", [http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?011+ful+HJ607ER Virginia Legislative Information System] ] . These two laws were Virginia's implementation of Harry Laughlin's "Model Eugenical Sterilization Law" [Harry H. Laughlin, Eugenical Sterilization in the United States, 1922, [http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~wellerst/laughlin/ Chapter XV] ] , published two years earlier in 1922. The Sterilization Act was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Buck v. Bell274 U.S. 200 ( 1927), which appealed the order to involuntarily sterilize Carrie Buck and her family, who were inmates in the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded.
Together these laws imposed the practice of "scientific eugenics" in the Commonwealth.
History leading to the laws' passage: 1859–1924
The Virginia Legislature's later explanation for these laws summarizes their development:
The now-discredited pseudo-science of eugenics was based on theories first propounded in England by
Francis Galton, the cousin and disciple of famed biologist Charles Darwin. The goal of the "science" of eugenics was to improve the human race by eliminating what the movement's supporters considered hereditary disorders or flaws through selective breeding and social engineering. The eugenics movement proved popular in the United States, with Indiana enacting the nation's first eugenics-based sterilization law in 1907. [HJ607ER, [http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?011+ful+HJ607ER Paragraphs 1-3] ]
In the following five decades other states followed Indiana's example by implementing the eugenic laws.
Wisconsinwas the first State to enact legislation that required the medical certification of persons who applied for marriage licenses. The law that was enacted in 1913 generated attempts at similar legislation in other states.
The Racial Integrity Act cited "scientific" eugenics arguments for prohibiting marriage between whites and non-whites. However, anti-miscegenation laws, banning
interracial marriagebetween whites and non-whites, had existed long before the emergence of eugenics. First enacted during the Colonial era, such laws were in effect in Virginia and in much of the United States until the 1960s. The first law banning all marriage between whites and blacks was enacted in the colony of Virginia in 1691, and this example was followed by Maryland(in 1692) and several of the other Thirteen Colonies. By 1913, 30 out of the then 48 US states (including all Southern states) enforced such laws.
Laughlin's Model Eugenical Sterilization Law
During this time period Harry H. Laughlin, who was the director of Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, was concerned that states were not enforcing their eugenics laws. In 1922 he published his book "Eugenical Sterilization in the United States" which included a "MODEL EUGENICAL STERILIZATION LAW" in Chapter XV [Laughlin, [http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~wellerst/laughlin/Laughlin_Model_Law.cgi Chapter XV] ] .
By 1924, 15 states had enacted similar legislation; however, unlike Virginia, many or most or all of those states failed to rigidly enforce their laws requiring specific qualities in all persons seeking to marry. Forced sterilization, however, was much more common. By 1956, twenty-four states had laws providing for involuntary sterilization on their books. These states collectively reported having forcibly sterilized 59,000 people over the preceding fifty years [Bernhard Schreiber, THE MEN BEHIND HITLER: A German warning to the world, Trans. by H. R. Martindale, [http://www.toolan.com/hitler/append1.html "Appendix 1"] ] .
Virginia implemented Laughlin's "Model Eugenical Sterilization Law" with little modification two years after it was published. New York eugenicist
Madison Grantworked to ensure his model of the " one-drop rule" was implemented by the Virginia Registrar of Statistics, Walter Ashby Plecker, who developed the racial criteria behind the act [Warren Fiske, [http://www.weyanoke.org/pdf/plecker1.pdf "The Black and White World of Ashby Plecker: Part 1"] , " The Virginian-Pilot", August 18, 2004] .
The Racial Integrity Act was subject to the "Pocahontas exception"—since many influential families claimed descent from
Pocahontas, the legislature declared that a person could be considered white with as much as one-sixteenth Indian ancestry.
Dr. Plecker, a leading Eugenecist physician who was the Registrar of Vital Statistics from 1912 to 1935, lobbied for years to get the eugenics laws passed into Virginia Law. Once these laws were passed, Dr. Plecker was in the position to enforce them; and enforce them he did with great zeal.
Gov. E. Lee Trinkle, a year after signing the act, asked Registrar Ashby Plecker to ease up on the Indians and not “embarrass them any more than possible.”
Plecker fired back an angry letter. “I am unable to see how it is working any injustice upon them or humiliation for our office to take a firm stand against their intermarriage with white people, or to the preliminary steps of recognition as Indians with permission to attend white schools and to ride in white coaches,” Plecker wrote. [Warren Fiske, [http://www.weyanoke.org/pdf/plecker2.pdf "The Black and White World of Ashby Plecker: Part 2"] , "The Virginian-Pilot", August 18, 2004]
Unsatisfied with the "Pocahontas Exception", eugenicists introduced an exacerbating amendment to the Racial Integrity Act which was considered by the General Assembly in February, 1926 but failed to pass. [The Washington Post, February 9, 1926] If adopted, the amendment would have reclassified thousands of "white" people as "colored" by more strictly implementing the "one-drop rule". [The Richmond News Leader, February 1926, ?]
Implementation and Consequences: 1924-1979
The combined effect of these two laws was devastating to Virginia's American Indian tribes. In putting the Racial Integrity Act into practice, the Virginia Registrar of Statistics simplified the original six racial categories to "white" and "colored" on birth certificates.Fiske, Part 1] Dr. Plecker, the Virginia Registrar of Vital Statistics, enforced the Racial Integrity Act with a vengeance extending far beyond his jurisdiction, as even he admitted.Fiske, Part 2] Plecker pressured school superintendents to exclude mulatto children, and even had dead people of questionable color exhumed from white cemeteries and buried elsewhere.
Indians Reclassified as Colored
As Registar of Vital Statistics, Plecker was able to reclassify nearly all Virginia Indians as "Colored" on their birth and marriage certificates. Consequently, two or three generations of Virginia Indians had their ethnic identity altered on these public documents. It has been reported by Fiske that Plecker's tampering with the vital records of the Virginia Indian tribes has made it impossible for descendants of six of the eight Virginia tribes to prove their American Indian ancestry under the federal rules.
It is difficult to estimate how many people were deterred from getting marriage licenses as a result of failing to meet the racial criteria of this law. However there are records of the number of people who were involuntarily sterilized during the years these two laws were in effect.
Of the involuntary sterilizations reported in the United States prior to 1957, California was first, having involuntarily sterilized 19,985 people, and The Commonwealth of Virginia was second, having sterilized 6,683. Other states reported having involuntarily sterilized similar numbers of people as Virginia. [Schreiber, [http://www.toolan.com/hitler/append1.html "Appendix 1"] ]
Eugenics Activists Bend the Law to Target Minorities
From the very beginning the motive behind the Eugenics laws had been to eliminate ethnic minorities, especially "negroes."
Writing in a now-infamous 1893 "open letter" published in the Virginia Medical Monthly, Hunter Holmes McGuire, a Richmond physician and president of the American Medical Association, asked for "some scientific explanation of the sexual perversion in the Negro of the present day." McGuire's correspondent, Chicago physician G. Frank Lydston, replied that African-American men raped white women because of " [h] ereditary influences descending from the uncivilized ancestors of our Negroes." Lydston's solution to this problem was not lynching, but surgical castration which "prevents the criminal from perpetuating his kind."cite journal|last=Dorr|first=Gregory M.|date=October 2006|title=Defective or Disabled?: Race, Medicine, and Eugenics in Progressive Era Virginia and Alabama|journal=Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era|publisher=Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era|location=Fremont, OH|volume=5|issue=4|pages=359-92|issn=1943-3557|oclc=54407091|url=http://www.historycooperative.org/cgi-bin/justtop.cgi?act=justtop&url=http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/jga/5.4/dorr.html|accessdate=2008-07-26]
In 1935, a decade after the passage of Virginia's eugenics laws, Dr. Plecker expressed the desire to use forced sterilization on minorities in correspondence with Walter Gross, director of Nazi Germany’s Bureau of Human Betterment and Eugenics. Plecker described Virginia's racial purity laws and requested to be put on Gross' mailing list. Plecker commented upon the Third Reich's sterilization of six hundred children in Algeria who were born of German women to black fathers. "I hope this work is complete and not one has been missed," he wrote. "I sometimes regret that we have not the authority to put some measures in practice in Virginia." [Michael Plunkett, Editor, Afro-American Sources in Virginia: A Guide to Manuscripts, The John Powell Papers, University of Virginia Press, 1995]
Despite lacking the statutory authority to sterilize black, mulatto and American Indian children simply because they were "colored", a small number of Virginia eugenicists in key positions found ways to achieve their end. The Sterilization Act gave State institutions, including hospitals, psychiatric institutions and prisons, the statutory authority to sterilize persons deemed to be "feebleminded"—a highly subjective criterion.
Joseph DeJarnette, director of the Western State Hospital in Staunton, Virginia, was a leading advocate of eugenics. DeJarnette was unsatisfied with the pace of America's Eugenics sterilization programs. In 1938 he wrote:
"Germany in six years has sterilized about 80,000 of her unfit while the United States—with approximately twice the population—has only sterilized about 27,869 in the past 20 years... The fact that there are 12,000,000 defectives in the U.S. should arouse our best endeavors to push this procedure to the maximum... The Germans are beating us at our own game." [DAVE MCNAIR, [http://www.readthehook.com/stories/2006/07/13/ONARCH%20dejarnette-B.doc.aspx Erasing history: Wrecking ball aiming for DeJarnette?] , The Hook, Issue 0528,
By "12 million defectives", DeJarnette was almost certainly referring to ethnic minorities, as there have never been twelve million mental patients in the United States.
Dr. DeJarnette wrote a poem expressing his devotion to eugenic sterilization, which he read aloud in public on several occasions:
Oh, why do we allow these people
To breed back to the monkey's nest,
To increase our country's burdens
When we should only breed the best?
Oh, you wise men take up the burden,
And make this you(r) loudest creed,
Sterilize the misfits promptly—
All are not fit to breed!
Then our race will be strengthened and bettered,
And our men and our women be blest,
Not apish, repulsive and foolish,
For the best will breed the best.McNair]
According to historian Gregory M. Dorr, The University of Virginia Medical School became "an epicenter of eugenical thought" that was "closely linked with the national movement." Dorr quotes a term-paper from a UVA student in 1934 that reads; "In Germany, Hitler has decreed that about 400,000 persons be sterilized. This is a great step in eliminating the racial deficients." (Emphasis added) [Gregory M. Dorr, "Assuring America's Place in the Sun: Ivey Foreman Lewis and the Teaching of Eugenics at the University of Virginia"]
A disproportionately high number of the six thousand forced sterilizations in Virginia were performed upon Black and American Indian women who had come to the hospitals for other reasons, such as giving birth and who were sometimes sterilized without their knowledge during other surgery. [
Daniel Kevles, "In the name of eugenics: Genetics and the uses of human heredity" (New York: Knopf, 1985)]
Carrie Buck - The Test Case
Minorities were not the only ones who suffered under these laws. About four thousand poor white Virginians had their ability to have children cut out by a government scalpel. When Laughlin testified before the Virginia Legislature in support of the Sterilization Act in 1924 he argued that the "shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of anti-social whites of the South," created social problems for "normal" people. "The multiplication of these "defective delinquents," Laughlin claimed, could only be controlled by restricting their procreation." [Gregory Michael Dorr, " [http://www.historycooperative.org/cgi-bin/justtop.cgi?act=justtop&url=http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/jga/5.4/dorr.html Defective or Disabled?] : Race, Medicine, and Eugenics in Progressive Era Virginia and Alabama", History Cooperative, Vol 5 No. 4, October 2006]
Carrie Buckwas the most widely-known white victim of Virginia's eugenics laws. Buck was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, to Emma Buck. After her birth, Carrie was placed with foster parents, John and Alice Dobbs. She attended public school until the sixth grade and then continued to live with the Dobbses, helping out with chores around the house. Carrie became pregnant when she was seventeen, as a result of being raped by the nephew of her foster parents. Subsequently, on January 23, 1924, Carrie’s foster parents, in embarrassment, had committed her to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded on the grounds of feeblemindedness, incorrigible behavior and promiscuity - without telling the court the real reason for her pregnancy. On March 28, 1924, she gave birth to a daughter, Vivian. Since Carrie had been declared mentally incompetent to raise her child, her former foster parents adopted the baby.
On September 10 of 1924, Dr. Albert Sidney Priddy, superintendent of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded and fervent eugenecist, filed a petition to his Board of Directors to sterilize Carrie Buck, an 18-year-old patient at his institution whom he claimed had a mental age of 9. Priddy maintained that Buck represented a genetic threat to society. While the litigation was making its way through the court system, Priddy died and his successor, Dr. James Hendren Bell, was substituted to the case.
The Board of Directors issued an order for the sterilization of Buck, and her guardian appealed the case to the Circuit Court of Amherst County, which sustained the decision of the Board. The case then moved to the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia where it was upheld and then appealed to the United States Supreme Court (
Buck v. Bell) where the order was again upheld.
The ruling was written by Justice
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.. In support of his argument that the interest of the states in a "pure" gene pool outweighed the interest of individuals in their bodily integrity, he wrote:
"We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. 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. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes."
Holmes concluded his argument with the infamous phrase:"Three generations of imbeciles are enough."
Carrie Buck was paroled from the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded shortly after her sterilization was performed. Her mother and three-year old daughter were also sterilized under the same statute. The daughter, Vivian Buck, died in 1932 of "enteric colitis", possibly as a delayed complication of her sterilization surgery.
Carrie Buck eventually wed William Eagle and they remained married for twenty-five years before he died. As scholars and reporters visited Carrie it became abundantly clear to everyone that Carrie Buck was a woman of normal intelligence.
The effect of "Buck v. Bell" was to legitimize
eugenic sterilizationlaws in the United States as a whole. While many states already had sterilization laws on their books, their use was erratic and effects practically non-existent in every state except for California. After "Buck v. Bell", dozens of states added new sterilization statutes, or updated their constitutionally non-functional ones already enacted, with statutes which more closely mirrored the Virginia statute upheld by the Court.
Carrie Buck’s younger sister, Doris, was also sterilized when she was hospitalized for appendicitis but was never told that the operation had been performed. In later years she and her husband tried in vain to have children. She did not discover the reason for her inability to bear children until 1980, and when she was finally told the truth she wept.
Repeal and Apology: 1967-2002
The Racial Integrity Act began to crumble on June 12, 1967 when the United States Supreme Court decided
Loving v. Virginia. The portion of the law which had prohibited marriages between "whites" and "nonwhites" was found to be contrary to the guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
In 1975, Virginia's General Assembly repealed the rest of the Racial Integrity Act. In 1979 the Sterilization Act was repealed. In 2001, a bill (HJ607ER [ [http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?011+ful+HJ607ER HJ607ER] ] ) passed by a vote of 85-10 in the House and 40-0 in the Senate. The bill expressed the General Assembly's profound regret for its role in the eugenics movement. On May 2, 2002, Governor Mark Warner issued a statement also expressing "profound regret for the Commonwealth's role in the eugenics movement," specifically naming Virginia's 1924
compulsory sterilizationlegislation [http://www.governor.virginia.gov/press_policy/releases/2002/May2002/May0202.htm] .
Buck v. Bell" ( 1927)
* [http://state.vipnet.org/dhr/arch_NET/timeline/modern_indian.htm Modern Indians]
* [http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/eugenics/ Eugenics archive]
* [http://www.eugenicsarchive.org/html/eugenics/essay7text.html "Eugenic Laws Against Race Mixing" by Paul Lombardo, University of Virginia]
* [http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?011+ful+HJ607ER "HOUSE JOINT RESOLUTION NO. 607, Expressing the General Assembly's regret for Virginia's experience with eugenics" Feb 14, 2001]
* [http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~wellerst/laughlin/ Harry H. Laughlin's "Model Eugenical Sterilization Law"]
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