Number of Victims 

The eugenics project in Mississippi resulted in 683 sterilizations total.  Of these sterilizations, 160 were performed on males, while 523 were performed on females. Those considered mentally ill made up almost nine tenth of the sterilization victims, and those deemed “mentally deficient” made up close to one tenth.  A small percentage did not fall into those categories. In regard to the states’ ranking by total number of sterilizations, Mississippi ranks number eighteen.


Period during which sterilizations occurred

Sterilizations took place in Mississippi beginning in the early 1930s and ending in the year 1963.


Temporal pattern of sterilizations and rate of sterilization

Graph of sterilizations in Mississippi

After the passing of Mississippi’s sterilization law in 1928, the number of sterilization remained very small until the mid 1930s. In the second half of the 1930s sterilizations occurred at a much higher number, followed by the war and post-war years’ decline in operations (Paul, p. 399).  It seems that the last sterilization in Mississippi was performed in 1963.  The rate of sterilization per 100,000 residents was about three per year during the peak years of 1938 to 1941.


Passage of laws

Mississippi passed a sterilization law in 1928 that was very similar to Virginia’s sterilization law.  This led to the first sterilizations being performed in the early 1930s. Mississippi was the twenty-sixth state to pass a sterilization law.


Groups identified in the law

In the sterilization law that Mississippi adopted and passed, the following groups are identified: “persons who are afflicted with hereditary forms of insanity that are recurrent, idiocy, imbecility, feeble-mindedness or epilepsy” (Landman, p. 91).


Process of the law

The superintendent of one of Mississippi’s institutions for the mentally ill or disabled could recommend to the board of the institution that an inmate be sterilized. Notice would be given to the inmate and a hearing had to be held within 30 days after notice. The inmate, legal guardian, or counsel could be present at the hearing, seeking to dispute the charges and dissuade the board from a recommendation for sterilization (Landman, p. 91). Appeal of an order for sterilization all the way to the state Supreme Court was allowed (Paul, p. 399). The law was compulsory, although an early report stated that it was carried out only on a “voluntary” basis (Paul, p. 399). 


Precipitating factors and processes

Mississippi shared with other states in the Deep South certain conditions that mitigated against the adoption of eugenic policies: concerns about the integrity of the family, the reliance on family instead of state agencies to provide for the welfare of individuals, little concern about immigration, religion’s universalist views, and a relative weak impact of progressivism (see, for example, Alabama on this web site).


Eugenic sterilization in Mississippi came on the heels of progressive reform efforts, specifically, the eugenic surveys of the “feeble-minded” carried out by the National Committee for Mental Hygiene in the 1910s (see Larson, 61-71; Noll, Feeble-minded, pp. 16-17). The discovery of a putative social problem consequently led to the establishment of segregated but underfunded facilities for the mentally disabled, who would subsequently not be released back into the community without sterilization.


Groups targeted and victimized

In Mississippi, those targeted for sterilization were the same as elsewhere in the Deep South: those considered unfit to produce, particularly those with mental illnesses and mental disabilities.


In Mississippi, the higher likelihood of a legal challenge and compliance of family members at institutions for the mentally ill meant that most sterilizations were carried out on such patients, especially in the late 1930s. In the 1940s, most victims were mentally disabled, as the number of eugenic sterilizations dropped at the institutions for the mentally ill because of a shortage of physicians.


Other restrictions placed on those identified in the law or with disabilities in general

Mississippi followed a regional trend, in that with the exception of miscegenation, “southern states traditionally imposed fewer restrictions on marriage than did northern states” (Larson, p. 98). Marriage contracts of “Idiots” or “lunatics” were invalidated on the basis of the argument that a lack of legal capacity prevented them from executing such contracts (Larson, p. 98).


Major proponents

H.H. Ramsey, superintendent of the Mississippi School and Colony for the Feebleminded, originally advocated against sterilization in favor or permanent segregation and control.  However, by 1930, he, like so many others, had changed his mind.  He stated that “selective sterilization [should become] an ally to the parole system of the institution” (quoted in Trent, p. 200).  Ramsey suggested “travelling clinics,” which would be composed of psychiatric experts and would travel around Mississippi to all the schools every four years.  They would test all of the children for feeblemindedness or other “undesirable” traits.  According to Ramsey, this system would “enable the state to assume charge of its defectives during the formative period, before they have become a menace and social liability” (Larson, p. 95), where presumably they could be sterilized more easily.


Some other superintendents also supported sterilization, particularly C. D. Mitchell, of the large Mississippi State Hospital, who, as Edward Larson notes, “wanted to sterilize every patient” (p. 121).


“Feeder institutions” and institutions where sterilizations were performed

Institutions for the mentally impaired were advocated for by well educated, upper class women, usually a part of the State Federation of Women’s Clubs in the second part of the second decade of the twentieth century all over the Deep South, and Mississippi established such a facility in 1920 (Larson, p. 75), the Mississippi School and Colony for the Feebleminded near Jackson. For much of the first decade only males were admitted, but there was no facility for African Americans until 1968 (Larson, pp. 91-92, 122-23). Despite efforts by Ramsey and his successor in the 1920s and 1930s, compulsory sterilization was never implemented there on a large scale, largely due to the lack of funds to address potential legal review that was part of the procedural safeguards of Mississippi’s sterilization law. It did carry out a significant number of sterilizations in the 1940s, apparently largely due to the efforts of the-then superintendent T. Paul Haney (Larson, p. 153). The facility was renamed Ellisville State School, which is still its present name.  Some of the old buildings have been rehabilitated and reused, and it reflects a broader strategy “to appreciate the structures without accepting the treatment philosophy that went along with them” (Noll, “Public Face,” pp. 29, 39-40). The Ellisville State School does not mention its past except for its founding (Ellisville State School).

Picture of Mississippi State Hospital (Photo origin: Mississippi State Hospital; available at http://www.msh.state.ms.us/tour/history.htm)

The large Mississippi State Hospital for those with mental illness, which moved from Jackson to a newer facility in Whitfield, sterilized larger number of patients in the mid-to-the late 1930s, including African Americans, apparently in part due to the fact that fewer families objected and legal challenges were not anticipated as often (Larson, p. 121).


Picture of East Mississippi State Hospital  (Photo origin: Rootsweb.com; available at http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~asylums/meridian_ms/index.html)

During that period, the East Mississippi State Hospital, an all-white facility for the mentally ill, also sterilized higher numbers of patients. It now has a museum.


The websites of these facilities today either do not address the institutions’ past at all (Mississippi State Hospital) or do not refer to sterilizations in their institutional history (East Mississippi State).



Very little is known about opposition to Mississippi’s program beyond the general opposition by the Catholic Church.



East Mississippi State Hospital. “History of ESMH.” Available at <http://www.emsh.state.ms.us/index_files/Page1134.htm>.


Ellisville State School. “Ellisville State School.” Available at <http://www.ess.state.ms.us/>.


Landman, J. H. 1932. Human Sterilization: The History of the Sexual Sterilization Movement. New York: MacMillan.


Larson, Edward. 1995. Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Mississippi State Hospital. “Mississippi State Hospital.” Available at <http://www.msh.state.ms.us/index.htm>.


Noll, Steven. 2005. “The Public Face of Southern Institutions for the ‘Feeble-Minded.’” The Public Historian 27, 2: 25-42.
Noll, Steven.  1995.  Feeble-Minded in Our Midst: Institutions for the Mentally Retarded in the South, 1900-1940. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.


Paul, Julius. 1965. "'Three Generations of Imbeciles Are Enough': State Eugenic Sterilization Laws in American Thought and Practice." Washington, D.C.: Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

Trent, James W. 1994.  Inventing the Feeble Mind.  Berkeley: University of California Press.