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Chapter 1: Mountain Sweeps

When the sun breaks over Brush Mountain and its neighboring slopes in southwestern Virginia, it paints a magical, almost iconic image of America’s pastoral splendor. Yet there are many painful stories, long unspoken, lurking in these gentle hills, especially along the hiking paths and dirt roads that lead to shanties, cabins and other rustic encampments. Decades later, some of the victims have been compelled to speak.

In the 1930s, the Brush Mountain hill folk, like many of the clans scattered throughout the isolated Appalachian slopes, lived in abject poverty. With little education, often without running water or indoor plumbing, and possessing few amenities, they seemed beyond the reach of social progress. Speaking with the indistinct drawls and slurred vestigial accents that marked them as hillbillies, dressed in rough-hewn clothing or hand-me-downs, and sometimes diseased or poorly developed due to the long-term effects of squalor and malnutrition, they were easy to despise. They were easily considered alien. Quite simply, polite Virginia society considered them white trash.

Yet Brush Mountain people lived their own vibrant rural highlands culture. They sang, played mountain instruments with fiery virtuosity to toe-tapping rhythms, told and retold engaging stories, danced jigs, sewed beautiful quilts and sturdy clothing, hunted fox and deer, fished a pan full and fried it up. Most of all, they hoped for better—better health, better jobs, better schooling, a better life for their children. Hill people did produce great men and women who would increasingly take their places in modern society. But hopes for betterment often became irrelevant because these people inhabited a realm outside the margins of America’s dream. As such, their lives became a stopping place for America’s long biological nightmare.

A single day in the 1930s was typical. The Montgomery County sheriff drove up unannounced onto Brush Mountain and began one of his many raids against the hill families considered socially inadequate. More precisely, these hill families were deemed “unfit,” that is, unfit to exist in nature. On this day the Montgomery County sheriff grabbed six brothers from one family, bundled them into several vehicles and then disappeared down the road. Earlier, the sheriff had come for the boys’ sister. Another time, deputies snared two cousins.

“I don’t know how many others they took, but they were after a lot of them,” recalled Howard Hale, a former Montgomery County supervisor, as he relived the period for a local Virginia newspaper reporter a half century later. From Brush Mountain, the sheriff’s human catch was trucked to a variety of special destinations, such as Western State Hospital in Staunton, Virginia. Western State Hospital, formerly known as the Western Lunatic Asylum, loomed as a tall-columned colonial edifice near a hill at the edge of town. The asylum was once known for its so-called “moral therapy,” devised by Director Dr. Francis T. Stribling, who later became one of the thirteen founding members of the American Psychiatric Association. By the time Brush Mountain hillbillies were transported there, Western housed not only those deemed insane, but also the so-called “feebleminded.”

No one was quite sure how “feebleminded” was defined. No matter. The county authorities were certain that the hill folk swept up in their raids were indeed mentally—and genetically—defective. As such, they would not be permitted to breed more of their kind.

How? These simple mountain people were systematically sterilized under a Virginia law compelling such operations for those ruled unfit. Often, the teenage boys and girls placed under the surgeon’s knife did not really comprehend the ramifications. Sometimes they were told they were undergoing an appendectomy or some other unspecified procedure. Generally, they were released after the operation. Many of the victims did not discover why they could not bear children until decades later when the truth was finally revealed to them by local Virginia investigative reporters and government reformers.

Western State Hospital in Staunton was not Virginia’s only sterilization mill. Others dotted the state’s map, including the Colony for Epileptics and the Feebleminded near Lynchburg, the nation’s largest facility of its kind and the state’s greatest center of sterilization. Lynchburg and Western were augmented by hospitals at Petersburg, Williamsburg and Marion. Lower-class white boys and girls from the mountains, from the outskirts of small towns and big city slums were sterilized in assembly line fashion. So were American Indians, Blacks, epileptics and those suffering from certain maladies—day after day, thousands of them as though orchestrated by some giant machine.

Retired Montgomery County Welfare Director Kate Bolton recalled with pride, “The children were legally committed by the court for being feebleminded, and there was a waiting list from here to Lynchburg.” She added, “If you’ve seen as much suffering and depravity as I have, you can only hope and pray no one else goes through something like that. We had to stop it at the root.”

“Eventually, you knew your time would come,” recalled Buck Smith about his Lynchburg experience. His name is not really Buck Smith. But he was too ashamed, nearly a half century later, to allow his real name to be used during an interview with a local Virginia reporter. “Everybody knew it. A lot of us just joked about it.…We weren’t growed up enough to think about it. We didn’t know what it meant. To me it was just that ‘my time had come.’”

Buck vividly recounted the day he was sterilized at Lynchburg. He was fifteen years old. “The call came over the dormitory just like always, and I knew they were ready for me,” he remembered. “There was no use fighting it. They gave me some pills that made me drowsy and then they wheeled me up to the operating room.” The doctor wielding the scalpel was Lynchburg Superintendent Dr. D. L. Harrell Jr., “who was like a father to me,” continued Buck. Dr. Harrell muttered, “Buck, I’m going to have to tie your tubes and then maybe you’ll be able to go home.” Drowsy, but awake, Buck witnessed the entire procedure. Dr. Harrell pinched Buck’s scrotum, made a small incision and then deftly sliced the sperm ducts, rendering Buck sterile. “I watched the whole thing. I was awake the whole time,” Buck recalled.

Buck Smith was sterilized because the state declared that as a feebleminded individual, he was fundamentally incapable of caring for himself. Virginia authorities feared that if Buck were permitted to reproduce, his offspring would inherit immutable genetic traits for poverty and low intelligence. Poverty, or “pauperism,” as it was called at the time, was scientifically held by many esteemed doctors and universities to be a genetic defect, transmitted from generation to generation. Buck Smith was hardly feebleminded, and he spoke with simple eloquence about his mentality. “I’ve worked eleven years at the same job,” he said, “and haven’t missed more than three days of work. There’s nothing wrong with me except my lack of education.”

“I’ll never understand why they sterilized me,” Buck Smith disconsolately told the local reporter. “I’ll never understand that. They [Lynchburg] gave me what life I have and they took a lot of my life away from me. Having children is supposed to be part of the human race.”

The reporter noticed a small greeting card behind Buck Smith. The sterilized man had eventually married and formed a lasting bond with his stepchildren. The card was from those stepchildren and read: “Thinking of you, Daddy.” Through tears, Buck Smith acknowledged the card, “They call me Daddy.”

Mary Donald was equally pained when she recalled her years of anguish following her sterilization at Lynchburg when she was only eleven. Several years later, she was “released” to her husband-to-be, and then enjoyed a good marriage for eighteen years. But “he loved kids,” she remembered. “I lay in bed and cried because I couldn’t give him a son,” she recounted in her heavily accented but articulate mountain drawl. “You know, men want a son to carry on their name. He said it didn’t matter. But as years went by, he changed. We got divorced and he married someone else.” With these words, Mary broke down and wept.

Like so many, Mary never understood what was happening. She recalled the day doctors told her. “They ask me, ‘Do you know what this meeting is for?’ I said, ‘No, sir, I don’t.’ ‘Well this is a meeting you go through when you have to have a serious operation, and it’s for your health.’ That’s the way they expressed it. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘if it’s for my health, then I guess I’ll go through with it.’ See, I didn’t know any difference.” Mary didn’t learn she had been sterilized until five years after her operation.

The surgeon’s blade cut widely. Sometimes the victims were simply truants, petty thieves or just unattended boys captured by the sheriffs before they could escape. Marauding county welfare officials, backed by deputies, would take the youngsters into custody, and before long the boys would be shipped to a home for the feebleminded. Many were forced into virtual slave labor, sometimes being paid as little as a quarter for a full week of contract labor. Runaways and the recalcitrant were subject to beatings and torturous ninety-day stints in a darkened “blind room.” Their release was generally conditional on family acquiescence to their sterilization.

Mary Donald, “Buck Smith,” the brothers from Brush Mountain and many more whose names have long been forgotten are among the more than eight thousand Virginians sterilized as a result of coercion, stealth and deception in a wide-ranging program to prevent unwanted social, racial and ethnic groups from propagating. But the agony perpetrated against these people was hardly a local story of medical abuse. It did not end at the Virginia state line. Virginia’s victims were among some sixty thousand who were forcibly sterilized all across the United States, almost half of them in California.

Moreover, the story of America’s reproductive persecution constitutes far more than just a protracted medical travesty. These simple Virginia people, who thought they were isolated victims, plucked from their remote mountain homes and urban slums, were actually part of a grandiose, decades-long American movement of social and biological cleansing determined to obliterate individuals and families deemed inferior. The intent was to create a new and superior mankind.

The movement was called eugenics. It was conceived at the onset of the twentieth century and implemented by America’s wealthiest, most powerful and most learned men against the nation’s most vulnerable and helpless. Eugenicists sought to methodically terminate all the racial and ethnic groups, and social classes they disliked or feared. It was nothing less than America’s legalized campaign to breed a super race—and not just any super race. Eugenicists wanted a purely Germanic and Nordic super race, enjoying biological dominion over all others.

Nor was America’s crusade a mere domestic crime. Using the power of money, prestige and international academic exchanges, American eugenicists exported their philosophy to nations throughout the world, including Germany. Decades after a eugenics campaign of mass sterilization and involuntary incarceration of “defectives” was institutionalized in the United States, the American effort to create a super Nordic race came to the attention of Adolf Hitler.

Those declared unfit by Virginia did not know it, but they were connected to a global effort of money, manipulation and pseudoscience that stretched from rural America right into the sterilization wards, euthanasia vans and concentration camps of the Third Reich. Prior to World War II, the Nazis practiced eugenics with the open approval of America’s eugenic crusaders. As Joseph DeJarnette, superintendent of Virginia’s Western State Hospital, complained in 1934, “Hitler is beating us at our own game.”

Eventually, out of sight of the world, in Buchenwald and Auschwitz, eugenic doctors like Josef Mengele would carry on the research begun just years earlier with American financial support, including grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Institution. Only after the secrets of Nazi eugenics horrified the world, only after Nuremberg declared compulsory sterilization a crime against humanity, did American eugenics recede, adopt an enlightened view and then resurface as “genetics” and “human engineering.” Even still, involuntary sterilization continued for decades as policy and practice in America.

True, the victims of Virginia and hundreds of thousands more like them in countries across the world were denied children. But they did give birth to a burning desire to understand how the most powerful, intelligent, scholarly and respectable individuals and organizations in America came to mount a war against the weakest Americans to create a super race. Just as pressing is this question: Will the twenty-first-century successor to the eugenics movement, now known as “human engineering,” employ enough safeguards to ensure that the biological crimes of the twentieth century will never happen again?

© Copyright 2003 Edwin Black. All rights reserved.

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