Eugenics Movements (Virginia Eugenics)

Eugenics Movements (Virginia Eugenics)



Eugenics Movements (Virginia Eugenics)


Eugenics is a practice that involves improving the human genes through the elimination of the inferior ones or sexual reproduction of those with desirable genetic traits. A science deals with the improvement of the human race by controlling genetics. This can be done through promoting the sexual reproduction of those with attractive traits, and sterilizing those considered to have inferior or are unfit. Those deemed unfit are those with undesirable traits such as physical and intellectual disabilities, imbecility, mental illnesses, and criminals among others. Eugenics improves the quality of the human gene. This is done through sterilization, and many countries adopted the practice especially in the 20th century. Eugenics was introduced in Virginia in 1924, under the Sterilization Act. The law introduced the compulsory sterilization of the targeted groups. In Virginia, eugenics was embraced by the government as a way of making sure that the populations brought forth generations that had desirable genes and that there was a distinction in the race and social groups of people. The other intention was to ensure racial purity of the whites in Virginia. The Sterilization Act of 1924 allowed for the sterilization of the weak and feeble minded, citing that it would be for the common good.


Sterilization in Virginia became established prominence after the Sterilization Act was passed after the Carrie Bucks case of 1927. Bucks was deemed a feeble-minded woman who gave birth to an illegitimate child who was also deemed feeble-minded. Carrie was a victim of incestuous rape in her foster home and was confined to the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded in Lynchburg (Black, 2003). She was considered feeble-minded, promiscuous, and criminal. She was ruled out to have a mental age of nine and viewed as a genetic danger to members of the society. The law was passed, and Bucks was sterilized nonetheless. This provided the necessary legitimacy in propelling eugenics in Virginia and subsequently the rest of the United States. In the 1927 Supreme Court ruling of the Buck v Bell case, Justice Holmes said, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough” (Lombardo, 2008). The aim of eugenics is to eliminate those undesirable genes such as recurrent imbecility, idiocy, feeble-mindedness, and epilepsy. The target groups included the physically handicapped, people with intellectual disabilities, mentally challenged and non-American races that were considered inferior. Inferior whites were referred to as mongrels. Inferior whites were labeled so because of their low economic status.

 In Virginia, the white elites were consumed with the idea of retaining and protecting the originality of the Americans. By that, they meant the Anglo-Saxon whites. Therefore, other races such as Far Easterners, Indians, Asians, and African Americans were considered undesirable and should have been wiped out. Indians were considered to have black ancestry and trying to pass off as Americans (Brocato, 2008). This was according to Ashby Plecker, the then Virginia registrar of statistics at the time and had them named colored. He introduced the Racial Integrity Act that described one as either white or colored. This had a very quick effect. Records show that there were at least 779 Indians in Virginia and by 1940, their number had reduced to about 200. The Act was indeed effective as Indians were being erased from Virginia. He took the whole matter so personally that he would write letters to white mothers who had given birth to children. In a letter to a white woman who had a child by a black man, he categorically states that the child was, in fact, a Negro, not white, and she should do something to make sure ‘it’ does not mix with the white races. Joseph DeJarnette, director of the Western State Hospital in Staunton, Virginia, once wrote how Germany had managed to sterilize at least 80,000 unfit citizens in six years yet the United States had only managed to sterilize 27,800 people. He urged the United States to intensify efforts in eugenics seeing as Germany was beating them at their own game. He was among the greatest advocates for eugenics in the United States. Eugenics seems to have been almost a personal affair especially in Virginia as the powerful leaders took it upon themselves to ensure there was distinct segregation of the minorities, inferior whites and the Virginian whites (Dorr, 2008). Classic examples of such leaders were Joseph DeJarnette and Ashby Plecker. The whites in Virginia were the superior race and intended to maintain their racial purity. Eugenics was the only way out, and since it had been legitimized, the minorities were brutally targeted. Inferior whites were subjected to involuntary sterilization where they were either coerced or forced to undergo procedures.

The law had an exception. The elite families of Virginia believed they were descendants of Pocahontas. Therefore, anyone who had a sixth of American ancestry was considered white. Anyone who had an eighth or less of African descent was also considered white. Those were the two exceptions from the target groups. Inferior whites were referred to as “mongrels” as they did not possess any American heritage (Lombardo, 2008). Sterilization rate was proportional to the population representation, and hence there were a large number of targets. The most common targets were the minorities and the poor whites. The elite desired continuity in their social class, hence the poor and inferior whites were considered worthless. More often than not, they were not aware of the repercussions of sterilization. For instance, they would be picked up by the authorities and undertaken through the sterilization procedures, which were commonly referred to as a “mountain sweep” (Black, 2003). Most of the eugenics in Virginia was mostly on racial grounds. It was observed that the African, Far Eastern, Indian, and African American communities were growing at an alarming rate. It was then proposed that laws should be put in place for the provisions of punitive measures for women who had illegitimate children. They were to be sterilized as well in a bid to curb the expansion of these communities in Virginia. These laws were proposed in 1962 and 1964.

According to the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, women who had been confined in institutions stood higher chances of being sterilized. This is so as they were imagined to be involved in promiscuous relations with the “normal” whites. The “normal whites” in this case referred to the elite whites, of Anglo-Saxon origins. The goal was to maintain and improve the genetic stock in Virginia by preventing racial mixture. Women were steadily growing independent, and there was fear that they would intermarry with other races. Events such as the World War II had devastating effects on the men in Virginia (Black, 2003). Most of the ex-soldiers turned to alcoholism and developed mental problems due to post traumatic disorders. They soon became a target for eugenics as they were now considered feeble-minded and anti-development (Brocato, 2008). Most of the targeted men underwent procedures such as vasectomies. Albert Priddy was a key player in the adoption of eugenics in the state of Virginia. He was the Superintendent of the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded in Lynchburg, Virginia. He firmly supported the confinement and institutionalization of the feeble-minded, poor, and inferior whites. It is estimated that he sterilized close to 80 women between 1916 and 1917. He was sued in 1917 (Brocato, 2008).

In 1924, the Racial Integrity Act was signed into law in Virginia. It supplemented the Sterilization Act. Under this law, it was illegal for a white person to marry a non-white or anyone considered part of the minority group. This catalyzed high rates of sterilization among the minorities. According to scientists, eugenics was important for various reasons, which include:

  • Human intelligence was considered hereditary; therefore, women who gave birth to children with limited intelligence had to be sterilized. The children were also sterilized to prevent them from bringing forth another generation of unintelligent human beings. This was extremely favorable for the state, as only those with desirable genes would prevail.
  • Inborn intelligence propelled civilization. Civilization implied positive development in all aspects of life. That had to be maintained, as, without innate intelligence, civilization was impossible (Brocato, 2008). Therefore, people without inborn intelligence had to be eliminated. Eugenics was the best method to accomplish this.
  • Civilization implied better living standards for the people. The elite in Virginia was aiming for that. The minorities and poor whites were perceived as a hindrance to civilization as they were not considered intellectual and had no value to the society. The stern action had to be taken and, therefore, eugenics was the ultimate solution.
  • It was observed that with time, each generation presented less intelligent populations. This had to be stopped before it got out of hand in future. Therefore, women with limited intelligence together with their offspring were sterilized. This would prevent the continuity of those perceived less intelligent generations. This translated into a world filled with intellectual people and pure race.

The above reasons were considered very strong grounds for practicing eugenics. The government in Virginia found it justifiable to eliminate the inferior groups of whites and other minorities based on the reasons mentioned. The world was going to be a better place without the unwanted populations. Several institutions were put up for eugenic procedures. The largest institution was the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded in Lynchburg that housed epileptics who had been previously jailed together with criminals. Carrie Bucks had been confined in it for some time. Several other institutions were former asylums turned into institutions where eugenics procedures were conducted.

By 1957, about 6,700 persons had been involuntarily sterilized. Out of those, more women had been sterilized than men had. Various reasons were cited for sterilization. Most of them read mentally ill or deficient. Since the law was enacted in Virginia, it is estimated that at least 7325 people were sterilized. The sterilization was rampant between 1924 and 1979 and had reduced slowly with time. Out of those sterilized, about half were considered to be mentally unfit and the rest mentally deficient (Dorr, 2006). Several institutions were put up for eugenic procedures. The largest institution was the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded in Lynchburg that housed epileptics who had been previously jailed with criminals.

Eugenics is perceived as more of a political tool than a science. Sterilization procedures are deemed inhuman, as no human being is superior to the other. Today, eugenics is still practiced. However, friendlier methods have been adopted. For instance, provision of sex education in school, promotion of the use of contraceptives, emergency contraception among others, are some of the negative eugenics. Negative eugenics is those that aim to reduce sexual reproduction. Positive eugenics aims to increase sexual reproduction thus improves the quality of genes. Some of the methods include incentives for women to give birth and taxing the childless.


The eugenics in Virginia in the years 1924- 1979 was detrimental and severely undermined human life. There have been a few amendments and changes in the law regarding eugenics. Involuntary sterilization has been abolished, and some of the fundamental human rights restored. In 2015, the Justice for Victims of Sterilization Act was reintroduced, and amendments were made to compensate all involuntary sterilization victims with a sum of up to $25,000. This certainly does not erase the damage done over the years; however, it indicates hope for a world that is much safer and liberal. Eugenics has been camouflaged as science, however; it is a social philosophy has been used as a political tool to propagate racism and discrimination.


Black, E. (2003). War against the weak: Eugenics and America’s campaign to create a master race. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.

Brocato, Amanda D. (2008). The Campaign for Eugenics in Virginia: The Influence of Dr. J.S. DeJarnette: Augusta Historical Bulletin

Dorr, G. M. (2006). Defective or Disabled? Race, Medicine, and Eugenics in Progressive Era Virginia and Alabama. Journal of the Guilded Age and Progressive Era, 5, 359-292.

Dorr, G. M. (2008). Segregation’s science: Eugenics and society in Virginia. Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press.

Lombardo, P. A. (2008). Three generations, no imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck v. Bell. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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