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Elizabeth Catte’s new book examines how Virginia progressives believed the forced sterilization of poor whites would pave the way to a bright future—and how their legacy endures in national parks and prisons.
Pure America: Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia
Belt Publishing, $26 (cloth)
When Elizabeth Catte began researching Pure America, her new book about the history of eugenics in Virginia, her first act seemed, on its surface, like a non sequitur: she spent a night at a new luxury hotel, the Blackburn Inn, in her hometown of Staunton, Virginia. What interested Catte was that, in its former life, the building that now houses the Blackburn Inn had been the Western State Hospital—or, as it was better known upon first opening in 1828, the Western State Lunatic Asylum. It was where many Virginians deemed “feeble-minded” were incarcerated under the directorship of Joseph DeJarnette and where, between 1927 and 1964, hospital surgeons sterilized approximately 1,700 people without their consent. The sprawling, bucolic campus includes a cemetery where the remains of more than 3,000 indigent inmates lie buried in unmarked graves, now discreetly barred by “No Trespassing” signs to dissuade hotel guests from accidentally discovering it during a post-meal stroll.
Eugenics emerged as a solution backed by science, and advocates couched it in the familiar Progressive Era language of social uplift, public good, and civic duty.
The Blackburn Inn—like its neighboring complex of condos selling for half a million each and cheerily dubbed the Villages at Staunton—is the brainchild of Richmond developers Robin Miller and Dan Gecker. During the process of earning permitting approval for the property’s redevelopment, they promised that their historic preservation project would help grease the wheels of the local tourism economy. And Catte, who situates the Blackburn Inn and the Western State Hospital at the center of her book, is the first to admit that Miller and Gecker made good on the initial claim that they would take the “good bones” of Western State’s buildings and give them a new incarnation. “I’ll admit the hotel is really nice,” Catte writes of her getaway.
But where the developers saw good bones, Catte also saw ghosts, and Pure America gives voice to them by tracing how white eugenics, far from being a short-lived horror, was in fact a “world building enterprise.” And it built a world within whose structures, both visible and invisible, we are still living today.
• • •
In 1840 Virginia’s Western State Lunatic Asylum (founded 1828) came under the directorship of Dr. Francis T. Stribling, a recent University of Pennsylvania graduate eager to test out his theory that the best therapy for mentally ill patients was relaxation and fresh air rather than a stint in jail or the local almshouse. Nestled in the Shenandoah Valley, with a calming view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the hospital was touted as a state-of-the-art facility for the humane treatment of “lunatics.”
But the appointment of Joseph DeJarnette as superintendent in 1905 marked the dawn of a new era. It was during a period when the country faced an influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, coupled with the rise of a new class: the urban industrialized poor. Many Americans feared an apocalyptic “race suicide” of the nation’s founding Anglo-Saxon stock. Eugenics emerged as a solution backed by science: population control of society’s defectives and unfit, a catch-all term for the non-white, disabled, and poor. Advocates couched eugenics in the familiar Progressive Era language of social uplift, public good, and civic duty. And DeJarnette was a zealous devotee of the movement.
In his capacity as superintendent at Western State, DeJarnette drew inspiration from Nazi Germany, and fumed that “the Germans are beating us at our own game.”
In colorful prose, Catte makes clear that DeJarnette was far from an outlier. Rather, he was at the center of a robust movement that sought to transform society through the science of eugenics. In Virginia, state legislators partnered with University of Virginia eugenics professors, hospital superintendents, and lawyers to push the passage of the state’s Sterilization Act of 1924. The act authorized the sterilization of “defective persons . . . likely to become by propagation of their kind a menace to society.” In actuality, the act simply gave legal cover to the already de facto policy of forcibly institutionalizing and sterilizing such individuals. In his capacity as superintendent at Western State, DeJarnette drew fresh inspiration from Nazi Germany’s 1933 Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring, Hitler’s opening bid to purge the Reich of its genetically and racially “inferior” stock. In 1934 DeJarnette calculated that 56,244 defectives had already been sterilized under the new regime, fuming that “the Germans are beating us at our own game.”
The targets of Virginia’s Sterilization Act were largely poor young women who stumbled into the state’s bureaucratic dragnet for the perceived crimes of being underemployed or pregnant out of wedlock. Many were victims of sexual assault. For example, Carrie Buck was a teen rape victim who was committed and forcibly sterilized at another Virginia institution, the Lynchburg Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded. When her legal guardian sued the state to try to stop the procedure, the case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was heard as Buck v. Bell (1927). “We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives,” mused Oliver Wendell Holmes in the Court’s 8–1 decision upholding the constitutionality of forced sterilization. “It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices. . . . 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.”
Perhaps the most chilling section of the book is Catte’s account of the creation of Shenandoah National Park, which paints a graphic picture of how the state’s eugenic culling mandate ruined the lives of thousands of poor Virginians under the banner of public welfare. When President Calvin Coolidge authorized the building of a national park in the Blue Ridge Mountains just miles from Western State Hospital, many locals saw the influx of federal cash and infrastructure as a boon for the region’s economy. The problem was what to do with the 7,000 or so “mountain folk” living within the confines of the proposed park. An eminent domain law passed in 1928 helped move things forward, but the optics of forcing families off the land weren’t in the state’s favor. A cadre of federal photographers, sociologists, case workers, and medical specialists—including DeJarnette—was called in to advise.
Visiting the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1934, DeJarnette noted with dismay that the residents were living in the “direst poverty.” Of one group he encountered, he claimed himself capable at a glance of “grad[ing] their mentality as imbeciles.” Left to reproduce, these families would deluge the state with unfit offspring, packing prisons and “placing on [Virginia’s] treasury incalculable burdens.” Social scientists did their part to embroider this narrative with the appearance of intellectual rigor. Sociologist Mandel Sherman and Washington Evening Star reporter Henry Thomas conducted research on the region’s “unspoiled” clans of primitive Scots-Irish and published their results as Hollow Folk (1933). In their book, they emphasize eugenic commonplaces about declining and “defective” racial stock, highlight the community’s high number of illegitimate births and the women’s hyperfertility, and the “medieval squalor” in which the community lived.
These expert reports on the degradedness of the mountain residents aided park boosters in “reframing displacement as a gain rather than a loss”—both for the region, which would reap the economic rewards of a booming tourism industry, and for the displaced themselves, who would be better off in the civilizing hands of the state. By 1935 these mountain communities were being forcibly scattered to the winds, with the least fortunate among them ending up as wards of the state in facilities such as Western State and the Lynchburg Colony.
So engrained in the eugenic mindset was the obsession with debt reduction and work extraction that Virginia published a guide classifying the unfit by the kinds of work they were good for.
From the outset, the eugenic quest to improve the racial makeup of the country was billed as an economic imperative: defectives cost the state money. Not only the nation’s racial health but its economic health depended upon curbing these costs. If the elimination of the genetically unfit from the species was the endgame of eugenics, sterilization was the quickest and most cost-effective way of getting there. Still, there remained the question of what to do in the meantime with the unproductive and unfit, while waiting for them to die out. In his tireless quest to reduce the unfit’s cost to society, DeJarnette did what other like-minded institutions and asylums of the period did: he put his patients to work.
So engrained in the eugenic mindset was the obsession with debt reduction and work extraction that a 1915 guide published by the Virginia State Board of Charities and Corrections classified the unfit by the kinds of work they were good for. While the idiot was incapable of labor, low- to high-grade imbeciles could be counted on to do a variety of menial tasks and physical labor. Atop the unfit pyramid perched the moron, “suited for work requiring reasoning.” The idea that the unfit could be made to offset their own cost to the state was tantalizing. As the guide went on to suggest, “Some authorities, after placing the average economic value of a farm hand at $1.50 a day, and figuring on this basis, have arrived at the conclusion that defectives, excepting idiots, vary in economic value from 30c. to 75c. a day, the general being 54.6c., which is more than the cost of care and maintenance.” Once properly trained (and sterilized), patients could be safely returned to the general population as a source of cheap domestic labor.
The corralling, classification, and in some cases incarceration of Virginia’s poor white mountain folk was a successor, of course, to the already well-established corralling of the state’s Black population through segregation. The same year that saw the passage of Sterilization Act also witnessed the swift approval of a Racial Integrity Act designed to prevent a catastrophic “mongrelization” of the state’s white population. Catte illuminates how these two world-building projects—one to contain and control Black people, the other to contain and control poor white people—dovetailed and reinforced one another. These projects did more than simply construct ideological spaces demarcating fit from unfit, poor from prosperous, Black from white. Eugenics and Jim Crow joined forces to determine who could and could not own property, and how that property would be valued. That this particular method of carving up the state and its population reliably redirected the flow of capital into white upper-class pockets should come as no surprise.
• • •
Pure America exposes Virginia’s shameful past, but it also highlights how much the present continues to be stamped in its image. The framing of the poor as drains on public vitality and finances remains a staple of U.S. public discourse on issues of poverty and so-called entitlement programs. From Ronald Reagan’s fabled “welfare queen” to Trump’s more recent 2020 bid to cut 700,000 Americans from food stamps because the program “discourage[d] able-bodied adults from working,” the eugenics obsession with a phantom class of “expensively anti-social” persons has lost none of its visceral political force.
Moreover, returning to her starting point of the Blackburn Inn, Catte insists that we hear the uncomfortable echoes between the rhetoric of “public good” surrounding eugenics in Virginia and present-day Staunton’s cheery mantra of “historic preservation.” Developers claim that rebuilding and rebranding the town has unleashed a tide of capital that will, eventually, raise all boats. On the one hand, as Catte acknowledges, historic preservation works: at its best, it can reboot economies, attract investment dollars, and rebuild communities around an agreed-upon narrative of where they’ve come from and who they will be moving forward. On the other hand, historical preservation requires investment that tends to embed the community within “the world of high stakes property development,” and thus “within a complex economic system most easily navigated by consultants, investors, lawyers, and architects.” Historic preservation has become a kind of “architectural cure-all,” the magic bullet for revitalized downtowns, job creation, affordable housing—in short, a “public good.” But if we stop and ask more detailed questions about who, precisely, is the public being served, and what, precisely, is the good being delivered, the enterprise becomes murkier. If a profit is being turned, Catte argues, we owe it to ourselves and our communities to be honest about how that value was generated, and to whom that value now accrues.
From fabled welfare queens to Trump’s bid to cut 700,000 Americans from food stamps because the program “discourages able-bodied adults from working,” the eugenics obsession with a phantom class of “expensively anti-social” persons has lost none of its political force.
White Americans as a rule don’t like to remember. And perhaps with good reason: our bloody history has made us “terrified of [our] private selves,” as James Baldwin once astutely observed, and has had “a devastating effect on American public conduct.” Recent attempts to poke awake the nation’s slumbering giant of a past, such as the New York Times’ 1619 project, have been met with opposition ranging from street protests by white supremacists to rebuttals from the White House (though the Trump administration’s ghastly 1776 Commission Report was at least swiftly recalled by the Biden administration). “Would it really be so taxing to live in the truth that the world around us is connected to the lives, labor, and loss of exploited people?” Catte asks. “That their hands sloped land, made brick, dug foundations, poured concrete, and built assets that, as I write, are still accumulating value?” Can we acknowledge that practices of inmate labor championed by eugenicists such as DeJarnette continue today in U.S. prisons, with inmates forced to do everything from build furniture to bury the COVID pandemic’s dead? These are the questions historic preservation projects should force us to ponder. And yet gazing out past the Blackburn Inn’s shiny facade, catching sight of the overgrown potter’s field where 3,000 souls rest uncounted and unnamed, Catte offers a dispiriting answer: “We aren’t people who can even care for a cemetery.”
“The activity of knowing is no less a world-building activity than the building of houses,” Hannah Arendt observes in her lecture “Thinking and Moral Considerations.” Catte’s dive into the houses eugenics built demonstrates just how thoroughly and pitilessly a certain kind of capital-backed white knowing shapes the country’s built environment to this day.
Yet Arendt offers us a pathway to dismantling these prison houses. Our species is defined by a need to “do more with [our] intellectual abilities, [our] brain power, than to use them as an instrument for knowing and doing,” she writes. Behind knowing and doing, there is thinking—and thinking is the opposite of world-building: it is world-breaking. Thinking is a “wind” that knocks flat the houses we have built, lays bare their bones, and demands that we build them again. Thinking doesn’t necessarily provide a blueprint for the buildings of the future. Still, Arendt argues, we have a responsibility to gather up the shards left in thinking’s wake and “share them with each other.” In Pure America, Catte does precisely this.
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