Number of Victims


This state did not have a sterilization law.


Passage of Law(s)


While no compulsory sterilization law was ever enacted in the state of Tennessee, in 1960 the Tennessee State Medical Association compiled material pertaining to other states’ sterilization legislation. With this information Dr. Joseph J. Baker, Commissioner of the State Mental Health Department drafted a sterilization bill. This bill was discussed by the House of Delegates of the State Medical Association of Tennessee who recommended further study of the issue. No further action was taken (Paul, p. 573).


Precipitating factors and processes


Tennessee was included in a series of surveys performed under the National Committee for Mental Hygiene (NCMH). By 1920 the NCMH had conducted surveys on feeble-mindedness in five Southern states, including Tennessee, that were chosen in order to prepare eugenic measures (Noll, p. 16). Tennessee physicians contributed to eugenic ideas at the annual meetings of the Southern Medical Association. In Tennessee “reformatories operated with a fair amount of independence from state supervision” (Cahn, p. 87).

The Scopes Trial of 1925 “confirmed popular impressions of southerners’ intellectual and cultural backwardness” (Cahn, p. 23). The State of Tennessee defended its ban of teaching the theory of evolution in its schools in the Scopes Trial.


Institutions for the “Feeble-minded”

In 1919 Tennessee Legislature appropriated $10,000 for construction of an institution for the feeble-minded and an additional $100,000 was appropriated the next year and the site was purchased near Nashville (Varney). With this money the State Home and Training School for Feeble-Minded Persons was opened.

State Home and Training School for Feeble-Minded Persons in Donelson, Tennessee (today is the Clover Bottom Development Center)

Picture of the Clover Bottom Development Center (Photo origin: Tennessee Department of Finances & Administration: Division of Mental Retardation Services, available at http://www.tennessee.gov/dmrs/dev_centers/clover_bottom/photo.html)

In 1923 the State Home and Training School for Feeble-Minded Persons opened in Donelson, Tennessee. It subsequently admitted 248 patients in the first nine months of operation and subsequently became overcrowded (Noll, pp. 12, 129). It it functions today as the Clover Bottom Development Center (Tennessee.gov).

The Vocational School for Girls in Tullahoma, Tennessee was an institution for young girls deemed feeble minded and socially inept (Cahn p. 329). The Tennessee Vocational School was known as TVS and popularly referred to as “Mrs. Pierce’s school” and seems to have been used my parents of young women with average socioeconomic status who were displeased with their children’s sexual behaviors (Cahn, pp. 86, 83). Novella Foster’s experience in the Tennessee Vocational School (which she entered at age 13 on a truancy charge) included a two-week lock up in the lavatory with only bread and water for nourishment as punishment for misbehavior (Cahn, p. 84). In 1939 the Osborne Association “reported that the Tennessee Vocational School [was] among the most forsaken and impoverished of any in their study, offering the citizens of Tennessee ‘little but a monument of neglect and shame’” (Cahn, p. 94). While there is no concrete proof available, it is believed that girls were physically beaten regularly by those who were supposed to reform them (Cahn, p. 84). Dorothy Widby asserted that she was not treated like a human being in the Tennessee Vocational School  and that “They work you like slaves” (Cahn, p. 90).

In 1921 the Tennessee legislature also established the Vocational School for Colored Girls. Inmates ranged in age from eleven to sixteen at the time they were placed in the reformatory institution. There was an average annual total of one hundred fifty girls in the Vocational School (Cahn, p. 75). By 1930 Tennessee had established a “state-funded Training School for Negro Girls” in an effort to confront what was seen as “juvenile delinquency” (Cahn, p. 69). This is an example of the racist notion that black girls were in their nature more sexually promiscuous than girls of other races.


Recent Controversy


Picture of James Hart(Photo origin: James Hart for Congress Committee, available at http://www.jameshartforcongress.com)

In 2004 James L. Hart of Tennessee ran for the House of Representatives for Tennessee’s Eighth District. Hart ran on a racist platform that explicitly supported eugenics stating that he desires a country populated by the “favored races” of Europe and Asia rather than “unfavored races” of Africa. He believes that without the elimination of welfare and “unfavorable” immigration, the United States will become “one big Detroit,” a city with a high African American population. "If an individual demonstrates the ability to produce and contribute to society, he or she would be encouraged to have more children. People on welfare would not," Hart told the Associated Press (McDowell). Hart ran as an unopposed Republican candidate in the state’s primary and represented the party only briefly upon his nomination, as he was disavowed by the GOP soon after the election. At this point he continued to campaign for the seat by encouraging supporters to write him in on the ballot but was defeated by incumbent Democrat John Tanner (“Tennessee Election Results”). Hart ran as a write-in again in the 2006 election (James Hart for Congress Committee).



Cahn, Susan K. 2007. Sexual Reckonings: Southern Girls in a Troubling Age. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

James Hart for Congress Committee. 2006. “James Hart for Congress.” Available at <http://www.jameshartforcongress.com>.

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


McDowell, Amber. 2004. “Candidate causes stir in congressional campaign over his support for eugenics.” Associated Press.


Noll, Steven. 1996. Feeble-minded in our midst: institutions for the mentally retarded in the South. 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." Unpublished manuscript. Washington, D.C.: Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.


“Tennessee Election Results. 2004. Washington Post. Available at <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/elections/2004/tn/>.


Tennessee.gov, Department of Finance & Administration: Division of Mental Retardation Services. “Clover Bottom: About Clover Bottom.” Available at <http://www.tennessee.gov/dmrs/dev_centers/clover_bottom/index.html>

Varney, E. Douglas. 2011. "Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities." Department of Mental Health. Tennessee Government. TN.GOV. Available at <http://www.tn.gov/mental/MHDDchronology.html>.