Eugenics is the practice of improving a human population by removing undesirable traits, either by encouraging breeding within socially desirable populations or by discouraging breeding within undesirable ones. Considered a “public good,” eugenics was widely accepted in academic and medical communities in the early twentieth century. Many states passed sterilization laws to prevent people with physical and mental disabilities from having children. Although support for eugenics greatly declined in response to the human experimentation and genocide carried out by the Nazis, sterilization programs continued in the United States until the 1970s. During the Civil Rights Movement, sterilization of African Americans and Latino/a populations increased, while sterilization of whites decreased. Relatedly, a number of anti-miscegenation statues were passed to prevent racial intermixture, which eugenicists believed threatened the illusory concept of racial purity.
Francis Galton (1822–1911)
Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development
New York: Macmillan and Co., 1883
Englishman Sir Francis Galton coined the term “eugenics” in 1883, the same year this book was published. Influenced by his cousin Charles Darwin’s 1859 publication On the Origin of Species, Galton studied variations in humans, arguing that “superior” races would inevitably replace “inferior” races.
Health Sciences History Collection
Human Betterment League of North Carolina
"What Do You Know About – Sterilization"
Winston-Salem, N.C.: Human Betterment League of North Carolina, [circa 1947-1950]
The Human Betterment League of North Carolina was formed in Winston-Salem, N.C., in 1947. The organization supported and promoted North Carolina’s sterilization laws, distributing publications such as this one. The back of this pamphlet includes the statement, “North Carolina is a leader among the progressive states which have provided the legal framework for such desirable social action.”
North Carolina Collection
R. C. K. Ensor
Oxford: Clarendon Press: Oxford University Press, 1939
In this 1939 pamphlet, historian and journalist R. C. K. Ensor gives an account of Adolf Hitler’s policy ideas and “theory of race” as disclosed in Hitler’s book Mein Kampf. Ensor then describes the extent to which these policies had been carried out, as well as possibilities for the future. Ensor notes that Hitler’s belief that the Aryan race is superior to other races is “borrowed, and largely false, but fanatically believed in.”
Rare Book Collection
North Carolina Eugenics Board
Biennial report of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina
[Raleigh]: N.C. Eugenics Board, 1936-
Eugenic sterilization began in North Carolina with the 1929 Sterilization Act. The North Carolina Supreme Court declared this act unconstitutional in 1933 because it lacked provisions for due process. The Eugenics Board of North Carolina, formed in 1933 along with a revised sterilization law, approved many sterilization procedures. The program initially targeted conditions such as insanity and “feeblemindedness,” regardless of race. Women were much more likely to undergo eugenic sterilization than men. During the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans became the primary targets of eugenic sterilization. The chart in this report shows the sharp rise in the number of African American sterilizations in comparison to the number of white sterilizations.
North Carolina Collection