Grayscale graphic of Eugenics tree

September, 1921 was unusually hot and New York was sweltering. For the many immigrants who crowded the city's tenements and pavements, one of the few places for relief from the incessant heat was the American Museum of Natural History. That summer the museum presented a new exhibition with rows of human skulls, snapshots of patients in psychiatric institutions, and the preserved brain of a serial killer. It was all terribly macabre. The immigrants among the museum's visitors who read the leaflet distributed at the entrance soon discovered that this exhibition was all about them. It included charts showing how migration eroded societies, statistics from IQ tests of arrivals at Ellis Island, and posters spouting anti-migrant rhetoric. All conveyed the same message: “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” were not welcome here.

Meanwhile, just upstairs the Second International Eugenics Congress was in full swing. The ramifications of this conference would be felt across the world. Leading eugenicists at the conference argued that the science of eugenics would enable the betterment of the human “race” by selective...