Number of victims
In total, 7325 individuals were sterilized in Virginia under
its sterilization law. Of those sterilized about half were deemed “mentally
ill” and the other half deemed “mentally deficient.” Approximately 62% of total
individuals sterilized were female. Some estimate the total number of sterilizations
as high as 8,300 individuals (Dorr 2006, p. 382).
Period during which sterilization occurred
Sterilization in Virginia occurred under state law
1924 and 1979. It thus appeared to have continued such sterilizations
longer than any other state (Landman 1932, pp. 83-4; Largent 2008, p. 80). There
are known instances of eugenic sterilization before 1924 (Dorr 2008, p.
Temporal pattern of sterilization and rate of sterilization
Although Virginia formally adopted a sterilization
law in 1924, sterilization was not practiced widely until after the
United State Supreme Court ruling against Carrie Buck in 1927. This
ruling set a precedent on the legality of sterilization not only in
Virginia but also throughout the nation. During the 1930’s, immediately
after this Supreme Court ruling, sterilization in Virginia occurred at
its highest rate with approximately 13 sterilizations per 100,000 state
residents. A 1938 report stated that 632 of the first 1,000 patients
sterilized had been paroled, and that 812 of the same group were from
impoverished families (Trent 1994, 217). After the 1930’s – prior to,
during, and following WWII – sterilization initially decreased and
thereafter maintained a fairly constant rate. After this, sterilization
rates dropped dramatically until the practice faded out and then was
subsequently forced out of practice with the repeal of the 1924 act in
1974 and the additional removal of all mention of eugenic sterilization
to prevent “hereditary forms of mental illness that are recurrent” from
being passed on from Virginia code in 1979 (Dorr 2008, p. 221, Lombardo
2008b, p. 250). Compulsory sterilizations for non-eugenic purposes
continue today, but under very strict regulations. A compulsory
sterilization patient must be unable to give informed consent, in need
of contraception, unable to use any other form of contraception, and
permanently unable to raise a child (Lombardo 2008b, p. 267).
Passage of law(s)
On March 20, 1924, Virginia SB 281, the “Eugenical Sterilization Act,” was signed into law (Landman 1932, pp. 83-4).
Groups identified in the law
Under the Eugenical Sterilization Act, individuals confined to state institutions “afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity that are recurrent, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy” could be sterilized (Landman 1932, p. 84).
Process of the law
In order for a sterilization to take place under the 1924 Eugenical Sterilization Act the superintendent of a colony or hospital had to present the case for each individual to be sterilized in the form of a petition to a special board of directors at said institution. A copy of this petition was also required to be presented to the patient and the legal guardian of the patient. Thirty days after the board deemed an individual fit for sterilization, the sterilization was permitted to occur. Appeals were heard but rarely considered. No individual involved in this process could be held civilly or criminally liable. Additionally, nothing in the Eugenical Sterilization Act could prevent a legally licensed doctor from partaking in a medical procedure that could “incidentally involve the nullification or destruction of reproductive functions” (SB 281, Virginia Sterilization Act; (Landman 1932, p. 84).
The white, Virginia elite of the time was immersed in the idea of perpetuating and protecting the purity of the “American race” (i.e., Anglo-Saxon Whites). This socioeconomic elite group wanted to maintain their “traditional Southern identity” while also embracing modern progressive ideology. The eugenic movement offered an avenue to pursue both of these notions simultaneously. Through the embrace of eugenics as a progressive science and ideology, Virginians were able to modernize their identity while maintaining the purity of their state through the coerced sterilization of minorities and undesirable whites alike (Dorr 2000, p. 262). Often, “mongrels” and “worthless” whites were collected in “mountain sweeps.” This involved a sheriff of a nearby town driving into mountain villages and forcibly removing individuals and taking them to institutions where they would only be released upon submission to sterilization (Black 2003, pp. 3-8). More often than not these individuals were unaware of the consequences of the procedures that they underwent.
sterilization of Virginia resident Carrie Buck is perhaps the most
infamous case of sterilization in not only Virginia but also the United
States as a whole. Buck was deemed “defective” and institutionalized in
the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded four years after
her mother was similarly institutionalized. Buck was classified as
“feeble-minded” after giving birth to an illegitimate child as a result
of rape by relative of her foster family. Her daughter was
subsequently deemed feebleminded at the age of 6 months.” Under
accusations of hereditary defectiveness, Carrie Buck faced a series of
trials and appeals used to legitimize her pending sterilization. She
was defended by Aubrey Strode, a known supporter of sterilization,
whose defense focused more on the potential benefits of Buck’s
sterilization than the consequences (Lombardo 2008b, p. 136)
Nonetheless, with the 1927 Supreme Court ruling in Buck v. Bell,
sterilization was legitimized and Buck was consequently sterilized to
prevent the birth of more “defective” individuals. It was said by
Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Holmes that
The Virginia sterilization law was paramount to the perceived legality of sterilization throughout the country. With the Carrie Buck Supreme Court case of 1927, the American eugenics movement gained the legitimacy necessary to avoid adversity in various courts (Paul 1965, p. 497). This ruling precipitated high rates of sterilization in Virginia and throughout the rest of the United States. This sterilization pattern continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century until rates began to decline in the mid-1950s (Paul, p. 504). In both 1956 and 1962, bills were proposed that allowed for compulsory sterilization of women with multiple illegitimate children. Both bills failed (Lombardo 2008b, p. 242-243). Furthermore, with the issue of “Recommendation 6” of the Commission to Study Problems Relating to Children Born Out of Wedlock in 1959, compulsory sterilization was seriously questioned for the first time since its legalization (Paul 1965, pp. 504-6). Even in the presence of such concern, the 1961 report of the Virginia Advisory Legislative Council recommended no change to the sterilization statute because there had been “no substantial complaint” (Dorr 2008, p. 213). At this time every other state in the Nation, with the exception of North Carolina, had found reason to stop or slow sterilization (Paul 1965, pp. 506-9). Virginia enacted additional voluntary sterilization legislation in 1962 (Windle 1965, p. 307), which allowed women to volunteer to be sterilized as a birth control measure (Lombardo 2008b, p. 243). In order to qualify for voluntary sterilization, women needed to be married and to have obtained spousal consent. Virginia’s current law, enacted in the early 1980s, only allows for those with a need for contraception, who have no other options in obtaining it, to be sterilized. Patients can be sterilized involuntarily, but the process one must go through before gaining permission to involuntarily sterilize a patient is very protective (Lombardo 2008b, p. 267).
Groups targeted and victimizedTo Virginians, there seemed to be little difference between the harm to society caused by minorities and the harm caused by undesirable whites. During the time of sterilization, twenty-two percent of those sterilized were African American. This is roughly proportionate to the twenty percent of the total population represented by African Americans. In Virginia, sterilization rates were fairly proportionate to population representation (Dorr 2006, pp. 381-3). For this reason a wide array of individuals became targets for sterilization, specifically “mongrels,” minorities and poor whites. “Mongrels” are those who were considered to be of non-white heritage. In the opinion of Virginia, non-white was defined as any individual with any ancestor of any race but Caucasian, excluding those with 1/16th or less Native American blood. Additionally, institutionalized females who worked outside of the institution were sterilized at a higher rate than others due to their perceived risk of promiscuous interaction with the “normal” public (Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, p. 4). After World War II, the numbers of men becoming sterilized increased due to ex-soldiers’ mental problems and alcoholism (Brocato 2008, p. 113).
Other restrictions placed on those identified in the law
On March 20, 1924 (the same day as the passage of SB 281, the “Eugenical Sterilization Act”) Virginia signed into law SB 219, the “Racial Integrity Act.” Under this piece of legislation to became “unlawful for any white person in [Virginia] to marry any [person] save a white person” (SB 219, Racial Integrity Act).
above is Albert Priddy, the Superintendent of the
Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded in Lynchburg,
Priddy was an adamant supporter of the institutionalization of poor,
White Virginians deemed “feeble-minded” by the state. As
Superintendent, Priddy used his power to begin sterilizing individuals
at his own whim before the passage of the Eugenical Sterilization Act
of 1924. Between 1916 and 1917, he sterilized an estimated 80 women,
not all of whom were diagnosed as mentally defective (Brocato 2008, p.
108). In 1917, he was sued for the wrongful
institutionalization and sterilization of a woman named Willie Mallory
in Mallory v. Priddy. Priddy won the case, but not without learning the
perils of neglecting to follow protocol (Lombardo 2008b, p. 64- 77).
“Feeder institutions” and institutions where sterilizations were performed
(Photo origin: University of Virginia Health Systems' Claude Moore Health Sciences Library, available at http://www.hsl.virginia.edu/historical/eugenics/3-buckvbell.cfm)
In Virginia, state hospitals and institutions were used both to institutionalize and to sterilize patients. Most infamous throughout Virginia is the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded in Lynchburg, Virginia, which started as a place to house epileptics, who had previously been put into prisons with criminals (Lombardo 2008b, p. 13). Pictured above is the Hasley Jennings building at the Virginia Colony where many individuals, including Carrie Buck, were sterilized (Claude Moore Health Sciences Library). Its name has been changed to Central Virginia Training Center (CVTC; Noll 2005, p. 29).
While Steven Noll noted in a 2005 article that the CVTC does not address its role in the 1927 Buck v. Bell case (p. 39), it does so now with remarkable candor about its past on its website under "History" (http://www.cvtc.dmhmrsas.virginia.gov/feedback.htm). Its cemetery is open to the public; however, archival material is not maintained in a manner that permits public viewing (Noll 2005, p. 37).
(Photo origin: http://www.wsh.dmhmrsas.virginia.gov/images/photoofoldsite.jpg)
were also sterilized the Western State Hospital in
Staunton, Virginia under the supervision of Joseph S. DeJarnette. The
hospital opened in 1825 as the Western Lunatic Asylum, but its name was
changed in 1894 to the Western State Hospital. Western State was the
second largest sterilization institution, after Lynchburg (Brocato
113). There is no mention of sterilization on any official webpages,
but the Western State Hospital still functions as a psychiatric
(Photo origin: http://www.gotghost.net/images/P3010134.JPG)
With less frequency,
sterilization occurred at Virginia’s Central State Mental Hospital in
Petersburg, which stopped treating intellectual disability patients in 1971,
but continues as a rehabilitation facility under the name Central State
(Photo origin: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_State_Hospital)
Sterilizations also took place at Eastern State Hospital in
Williamsburg, which is still functioning and claims to be America's
first psychiatric hospital, and at Southwestern State Hospital in
Marion as well (Black 2003, p. 4). Now a museum, the original hospital built in 1773 has been rebuilt on excavated foundations.
(Photo origin: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~asylums/marion_va/index.html)
Southwestern State Hospital, originally called Southwestern Lunatic Asylum, is now called Southwestern Virginia Mental Health Institute. These institutions make no reference to their history in sterilization.
In 2002, a marker was erected to commemorate those sterilized under the Virginia sterilization law. The marker was erected by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. The marker number is Q-28. It reads: “In 1924, Virginia, like a majority of states then, enacted eugenic sterilization laws. Virginia’s law allowed state institutions to operate on individuals to prevent the conception of what were believed to be “genetically inferior” children. Charlottesville native Carrie Buck (1906–1983), involuntarily committed to a state facility near Lynchburg, was chosen as the first person to be sterilized under the new law. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Buck v. Bell, on 2 May 1927, affirmed the Virginia law. After Buck more than 8,000 other Virginians were sterilized before the most relevant parts of the Act were repealed in 1974. Later evidence eventually showed that Buck and many others had no ‘hereditary defects.’ She is buried south of here” (Lombardo 2008a).
The location of the marker is 38° 2.202′ N, 78° 29.303′ W. It is located in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Preston Avenue (U.S. 250) 0.2 miles south of Grady Avenue (U.S. 250), on the left when traveling north. The approx. address is 800 Preston Avenue, Charlottesville, Virginia.
Opposition outside of the Catholic Church appears to have been minimal throughout Virginia. While Catholics opposed sterilization in any form because such mutilation is in direct violation of “Natural Law,” it seems that the strong Protestant, white supremacist ideology present throughout much of the South allowed for eugenic sterilizations to go nearly unquestioned (Windle 1965, p. 308). Very little information pertaining to the opposition to sterilization is available prior to Charles Windle’s case study on the passage of sterilization legislation in Virginia during the 1962 legislative session. During this session, a bill requiring the compulsory sterilization of women with more than one illegitimate child who is also receiving welfare benefits died in committee debate (Windle 1965, pp. 306-7). While the compulsory sterilization proposal failed, a voluntary sterilization bill during the same session passed by a large margin (Windle 1965, p. 307). It is important to note that this legislation was considered nearly forty years after sterilization was first legalized in Virginia and public opinion allowed for compulsory sterilization in 1924. Additionally, at the time these bills were considered, sterilization legislation was still on the books in Virginia. Even the Buck v. Bell case had little to do with any opposition to sterilization. Rather, this case was a ploy by eugenicists to set a nationwide standard of sterilization legality by taking appeals to the United States Supreme Court (Claude Moore Health Sciences Library). Moreover, Virginia is a traditionally agrarian state and sterilization legislation (when considered in 1962) was widely supported by individuals concerned with race relations and welfare in “poorer, nonurban areas with high proportions of nonwhites and of agricultural and manufacturing employment” (Windle 1965, p. 314). The number of sterilizations that continued to occur into the 1970’s is a testament to the stronghold of eugenic ideology throughout the state.
Black, Edwin. 2003. War against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s campaign to Create a Master Race. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.