Appalachian History Lesson - The Eugenics Movement

"Idiots shouldn’t be allowed to breed."

How many times have you heard that? Or maybe even said it? It’s a common statement upon encountering someone that embodies an ideology that we don’t agree with, or someone whose life choices are less than admirable. But did you know that in our own American history, we liked that idea so much that we actually tried to make it happen? It’s true. It happened under the Eugenics Movement, the brainchild of Francis Galton (cousin to Charles Darwin who took his cousin’s discoveries and spiraled a bit out of control). If you’ve never heard of this movement (and the great likelihood is that you haven’t, since we tend to like to keep it hush hush), it would do you a great deal of good to research it.

In Appalachia, this movement was detrimental. The basic idea was that, since genes are inherited from parent to child, traits could also be inherited. In that case, humans could be bred for certain traits. We could encourage those with positive traits (intelligence, primarily) to breed with like, thus creating a super race of humans. This was called positive Eugenics. The other side of this was that we could prevent people with negative traits from breeding at all, and thus exterminate “undesirables.” This was negative Eugenics.

The masses were breeding at high rates, and with poverty gripping a great percentage of the population, more and more children were likely to fall to the same fates as their parents. Poverty was a “trait” that could be “inherited,” which only made sense considering poor parents begat poor children. Poverty came with overpopulation. Some of the family studies completed by eugenicists reported an average of 4.2 children per mother in certain Appalachian areas. After the immigrant boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the eugenicists were ready to take necessary measures. The first target was the population with mental deficiencies – those unfortunate enough to be deemed “feebleminded” - the paupers, criminals, mentally insane, homosexuals, promiscuous women, and the mentally retarded. The method? Sterilization. This became well known and popular after the Virginia (and Supreme Court) case Buck v Bell (1927), in which it was determined that because Carrie Buck was “feeble-minded” due to her lack of education and her mother’s feeble-mindedness, she should be sterilized. Carrie had been raped and had a child of this rape that, though only an infant, was determined feeble-minded by appearance. Thus Carrie was sterilized against her will, unable to ever have children again.

This law legitimized use of sterilization when a person was deemed a “genetic threat.” As you may believe, due to the lack of education and material wealth in Appalachia, we were a target. Appalachians were viewed as “poor white trash” and the “tainted white” and were discriminated against heavily throughout the rest of America (these ideas remain with those who group all Appalachians into the categories of hillbilly, redneck, or even white trash). Women were often sterilized against their will in hopes that the Appalachian population would die off without being able to reproduce, and could then be replaced by a more civilized and intelligent group of Americans.

The movement finally started to die when none other than Adolf Hitler grasped the idea and started using it to exterminate the Jews. I believe that was America’s wake up call, and by the 60s most of the sterilization laws were completely revoked. Hitler’s use of Eugenic policies has made America ashamed of its trying to eliminate its poor and uneducated, and trying to eliminate Appalachia. Yet here we remain — as strong and stoic as the mountains that protect us.

  • 60 notes
  • 10 months ago
  • Nov 14,2013