A look at Virginia’s history of eugenics and how its ideals of racial superiority remain today

Denise M. Watson, The Virginian-Pilot
·6 min read

Every day, Elizabeth Catte drove by Staunton’s old Western State Hospital, which was being renovated and given a new life. Others in town were excited about the luxurious Blackburn Inn & Conference Center opening in 2018. The reinvigorated pre-Civil War architecture and boutique rooms meant tourist dollars.

But Catte, a 20th-century historian, only noticed the forgotten cemetery behind the manicured acreage. Between 1927 and 1964, Western State surgeons sterilized around 1,700 people without their consent.

“That galvanized as a mental image for me,” Catte said. “I started thinking about the things that are hidden and places where we have not extended dignity to people in the past. ... It was a very lonely feeling, actually, to be the only person in your community that can’t really see this site the way other people see it.”

So Catte wrote about it.

Catte’s “Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia” was released this month and Catte will give a free virtual talk Thursday night through the Library of Virginia’s Carole Weinstein author series.

Eugenics became popular in America in the early 20th century as a way to promote “better” human beings through selective breeding. Smarter, more attractive, wealthier people, for example, were encouraged to mate under the theory that they’d produce offspring like them. Conversely, people who were poor, often a racial or ethnic minority, or born with a disability, should be kept from procreating even if it meant sterilizing them by force.

As Catte said, eugenics was never a secret. National and international groups blossomed to promote the ideals. Schools like the University of Virginia recruited eugenicists in the early 1900s to make the college a bastion of research. Catte said in a phone interview that she gravitates toward stories that are academically well-researched, “but are not well-remembered.”

She purposely stayed away from including how Adolf Hitler used eugenic theory as a rationale for killing millions during World War II. Virginia has enough of a story, she said, particularly in how eugenics tied into race, class and the quest for white supremacy. Catte looked at how eugenics not only altered people’s lives but how it influenced the state’s landscape and institutions.

Catte moved to the Shenandoah Valley in 2017 and realized quickly that she was in the “epicenter of Virginia’s eugenics movement.” Her commute would invariably include a daily stop at a traffic light that left her staring at Western State.

Its superintendent from 1905 to 1943 was such a eugenics cheerleader that he was called Joseph “Sterilization” DeJarnette. He lobbied for marriage restrictions for the “unfit” in 1908. Virginia passed the Eugenical Sterilization Act of 1924, which made it OK to sterilize people in state mental institutions. People could be placed there because of alleged mental illness, epilepsy, criminal behavior, or, sometimes, homelessness. Other state institutions included the Lynchburg Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded, Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg and the Central Lunatic Asylum for Colored Insane in Petersburg.

Eugenicists also supported Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, which passed the same year. The act made it illegal for whites to marry non-whites.

In “Pure America,” Catte talks about how her drive took her by Shenandoah National Park where eminent domain in the 1930s was used to take the homes and farms of hundreds of poor families.

“The mountain folks would farm, raise livestock, hunt, and fish. They would cut down trees and burn wood. They might also freak out tourists,” Catte writes. “Here comes the Smith family down from Richmond out on their weekend hike and, oh no, it’s a group of hillbillies ahead . . .”

Catte’s commute would eventually end up in Charlottesville and take her by the cemetery where Carrie Buck is buried.

Buck was born into an impoverished family in 1906. The father disappeared at some point and her mother, who would have two more children, would be later be deemed “promiscuous” and labeled a “moron.” The mother was committed to the Lynchburg Colony.

Buck was placed with a neglectful foster family, which took her out of elementary school and made her work as a servant. Buck was raped and impregnated by the foster mother’s nephew when she was 17. After her daughter, Vivian, was born, Buck was also sent to Lynchburg under the same premise of her mother. Vivian was placed with Buck’s foster parents. When she was around 6 months, she was assessed by the Eugenics Record Office and deemed “backward.”

The state wanted to sterilize Buck, and she became the test case for its 1924 law. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court backed Virginia in Buck v, Bell, ruling that Virginia had the right to sterilize Buck for the greater good of society. One judge famously declared “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” The Virginia case would make eugenic sterilization legal across the country.

People who underwent the surgery were often told they were being operated on for something else. Catte writes that Buck’s younger sister, Doris, was eventually sent to Lynchburg and told when she was 16 that she needed an appendectomy. When she was in her 60s, she called the hospital for her medical record. She then learned about being sterilized. All of her life, she’d blamed herself for not being able to have a child with her husband.

Buck was the first in Virginia sterilized under the law. More than 8,000 other Virginians, including men, were sterilized while the practice remained enforced through 1979. Vivian died when she was 8 from colitis. Buck, who later married, died in 1983.

While legalized sterilization has stopped, Catte argues that the “logic of eugenics” continues. She’s heard it when former Iowa Rep. Steve King three years ago said “our civilization” can’t be restored with “somebody else’s babies.”

She’s heard it in debates about preferred immigrants. Catte said America is still very much a country that favors so-called “good” people and those people are usually white.

“With the pandemic, people have taken the liberty to express who should live and who should not, who should be able to go back to work and who should get to stay home,” Catte said, “and who should be able to take care of their children and who should be able to have children. So, those ideas are still very much in circulation.”

Denise M. Watson, 757-446-2504, denise.watson@pilotonline.com

The Weinstein author series virtual event: Elizabeth Catte, “Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia”

When

6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Thursday

Location online

Price free

To register visit www.lva.gov