Book Review: The legacy of the eugenics movement lives on in Virginia

Biopolitical Times
Cover of the book, "Pure America" that is blue with a white DNA helix running from left to right across the page

In 1916 a poor white woman named Willie Mallory was arrested in her home in Richmond, Virginia and charged with prostitution. She and her two teenage daughters were institutionalized at the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded; six months later she and one of her daughters underwent operations that left them infertile. Albert Priddy, the Colony’s superintendent and a prominent supporter of eugenics, claimed that infertility was a side-effect of the treatment he insisted they needed to cure other reproductive issues. 

In 1918 the Mallory family sued for damages related to Willie’s illegal sterilization and for the return of their younger children who had been put into foster care following Willie’s arrest and commitment. This caught the state off guard and infuriated Priddy, who was not used to answering to allegations made by people he considered degenerate. 

The Mallorys’ court challenge helped galvanize support among lawmakers and physicians to pass a state law permitting eugenic sterilization, a law eventually upheld by the US Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell in 1927. This infamous ruling argued that imbecility, epilepsy, and feeblemindedness are hereditary, and that inmates of public institutions should be prevented from passing these defects to the next generation. It set a precedent for dozens of other states and has never been overturned.

In Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia (Belt Publishing, 2021), historian Elizabeth Catte rebuts the tendency to situate eugenics in the remote past and to focus on the “ways eugenicists tried but failed, which sometimes obscures a way of seeing the world they actually made and how it lives on in the present.” She explores both the history and the endurance of eugenic beliefs in her adopted state of Virginia, finding its traces in the contemporary physical and psychic landscape of the state, and opening a window into the national obsession with these ideas in the early twentieth century. 

With straightforward prose and a blunt tone of voice, Catte seamlessly weaves her own process of discovery of Virginia’s eugenic history into the narrative, always connecting her current experience of the geography to how the region has been shaped by its eugenic past. Catte, a public historian and editor at West Virginia University Press, is also the author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (Belt Publishing, 2018), which was widely praised for dispelling many myths about the region. Her publisher, Belt, is a worker-owned, independent press based in Cleveland, which focuses on urbanism, history, and narratives that upend expectations about the Rust Belt and Midwest.

As Catte makes clear, Virginia was key in the US eugenics movement. Home to a number of prominent leaders dedicated to advancing the cause of genetic purity, it was one of the first states to legalize eugenic sterilization in 1924, and one of the last to officially allow the practice, repealing the law only in 1974. Some 8,000 individuals confined to state institutions were sterilized on the grounds that they were “afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity that are recurrent, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy.”

Catte begins the story of Virginia’s eugenic history with a tour of her own neighborhood. Just a few miles from her apartment in Staunton, a small city in the Shenandoah Valley, lies the original campus of Western State Hospital, where surgeons sterilized around 1,700 people without their consent between 1927 and 1964. Today, this shameful history is being actively erased by a project to transform the former hospital into an upscale property development marketed to retirees, along with a luxury hotel. Catte describes the plans in detail after spending a night looking for traces of the past among the architectural foundations. On her daily commute past Western State, she reflects on the ways in which eugenic policies not only alter the lives of people and the geography, but also embed themselves itself into current cultural norms and political rhetoric.

The eugenics movement aimed to "improve the quality" of the country’s population and "protect the purity" of the “American race,” typically code for white Anglo-Saxon. At least 30 states passed laws authorizing the forced sterilization of the “unfit” – non-white, immigrant, poor, disabled, mentally impaired, and sexually transgressive people – who were accused of creating a debt that would burden society for generations. One of Virginia’s prominent eugenicists calculated that it would cost $400 million to institutionalize or pay for the crimes of these future generations of genetic "undesirables." He publicly declared a goal of sterilizing 15 million people nationally.

Catte argues that eugenic ideas were particularly useful for Virginia and the rest of the South:

Eugenics soothed American anxieties by promising that social sickness, like ordinary diseases, could be cured. In Virginia, these ambitions about social uplift were intimately tied to larger ideas about Southern uplift as well. Embracing eugenics allowed Virginia’s leaders to have the best of both worlds. The philosophy’s racist and sexist underpinnings complemented a social hierarchy that they felt should be preserved, but the fact that eugenics would allow their efforts to be viewed as modern and scientific, in line with the march of time and progress, was a tremendous asset. (p.35)

In Virginia as elsewhere, Catte explains, the eugenics movement was closely connected to beliefs about white supremacy. While Virginia targeted a wide array of individuals for eugenic sterilization, it focused especially on those considered “mongrels” and poor whites.  For eugenic extremists, interbreeding between races was one of the greatest threats to social order. Not only were "mongrels" passing along defective and undesirable genes, they were also complicating the ability to see race – a clear threat to a society structured by racial hierarchy. On the same day in 1924 that the Eugenical Sterilization Act became law, Virginia also passed the Racial Integrity Act, which required all citizens to register their race and made it “unlawful for any white marry any person save a white person.” (A “Pocahontas exception” granted white identity to those with 1/16 or less “Indian blood,” allowing for the popular claim of being descended from the legendary Native American.) 

In May of 1924, just two months after Virginia’s General Assembly passed both the Eugenical Sterilization Act and the Racial Integrity Act, the city of Charlottesville hosted a parade attended by 25,000 people that culminated in the unveiling of a statue of Robert E. Lee by his three-year-old great-granddaughter. The procession covered blocks of the city’s downtown, the same streets that just three days earlier had been filled with marching members of the Ku Klux Klan. In the decades that followed, policing racial amalgamation and miscegenation was pursued in part by geographic segregation. Charlottesville used zoning restrictions and deed restrictions, manipulated the placement of utilities, and marked territory by Klan parades in an attempt to preserve "racial purity." In the mid-1960s, an urban renewal plan razed the Black neighborhood of Vinegar Hill to build a downtown mall, destroying many African-American businesses and homes. Only in 2011, after many decades of pressure, did the city council issue a public apology for the devastation of the neighborhood.

In the summer of 2017, the Unite the Right campaign brought hundreds of white supremacists to Charlottesville, allegedly to protect two Confederate statues that many were calling to be removed, including the statue of Robert E. Lee. Catte notes that many in the city spoke out against the rallies, some claiming that “this is not who we are,” while others recognized the white nationalist rallies as part of the city’s long history of racial exclusion and oppression. 

Lee’s statue was just removed this July, with Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker remarking, “Taking down this statue is one small step closer to the goal of helping Charlottesville, Va., and America, grapple with the sin of being willing to destroy Black people for economic gain.”

Catte argues that this history depicts “Charlottesville [as] a finely articulated white space moving through time, impinging upon Black lives, first with enslavement and violence, then through residential segregation, statues, and racial integrity laws.” She is among the public historians and activists calling attention to the ways history can be used to uphold an unjust status quo. Anti-racist activists have long called attention to the Confederate statues in Charlottesville and around the country as modern-day symbols for an increasingly empowered white supremacist movement that uses the coded language of cultural heritage while twisting history to suit their needs. Removing statues of figures commemorating slavery and colonialism is an important step toward recognizing past injustices and connecting them to those of the present. 

As Gary Younge astutely notes in a recent Guardian essay calling for the removal of all statues, “This statue obsession mistakes adulation for history, history for heritage and heritage for memory. It attempts to set our understanding of what has happened in stone, beyond interpretation, investigation or critique.” Younge reminds us that “statues always tell us more about the values of the period when they were put up than about the story of the person depicted,” and Catte makes this evident in her rich description of the context surrounding the placement of Robert E. Lee’s statue in 1924.

Catte returns throughout the book to the role that both history and geography play in shaping our understanding of the contemporary world. She uncovers the eugenic origins of sites including the Shenandoah National Park and Western State Institution by excavating the historical context, looking for both the “what” and the “where” and drawing a line connecting past beliefs and practices to current injustices and inequalities. Where this history can be found, and where it’s missing, is often an intentional strategy to prevent us from getting to the “what,” as she explains. This strategy is often called “silencing the past” in honor of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s 1995 study of the same name, which explains that “the information recorded or omitted in a historical narrative reflects a struggle for power” and that “by making this struggle visible we can unlock deeper understandings not only of the past, but also about how power works in our contemporary world.”

Excavating Virginia’s eugenic history and pointing to its continuities with today’s policies and beliefs helps to reveal the hurdles to building a better world. Eugenic ideas that were openly espoused a hundred years ago are reflected in current immigration policy, in work requirements and other coercive laws around welfare provision, in Trump’s infamous declaration that the US wouldn’t accept immigrants from “shithole countries.” Last fall there were allegations of mass hysterectomies being performed without informed consent on immigrants detained in a Georgia ICE facility. In 2017 former Iowa Representative Steve King tweeted, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

On the other hand, are we backing ourselves into a self-made corner by overstating the significance of historical continuity between the eugenic positions of the early twentieth century and their echoes today? As Matt Karp asks in a thoughtful essay in Harper’s on the emergence of history as a cultural battleground in our latest round of racial reckoning, “How can a history grounded in continuity relate to a politics that demands transformational change? In so many ways, it seems to lead in the opposite direction.” 

Catte's concern is making Virginia’s eugenic history more visible and revealing its lasting impacts. Her response to this conundrum about the politics of historical reckoning may be that it’s only possible to win transformational change by taking control of the historical narrative and using it as a tool to break the cycle of continuity, to expose and resist the new forms this old ideology assumes.


Anne Rumberger is Marketing Director at Verso Books and an activist with New York City for Abortion Rights and NYC Democratic Socialists of America. Her writing has appeared in Jacobin and Left Voice.