Derived from Greek to mean “well born,” eugenics was coined as a term to “express the science of improving stock . . . especially in the case of man” and was first promoted in 1883 by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. Eugenic thought had both positive and negative components. Positive eugenics encouraged the proliferation of the “well born,” while negative eugenics strove to control the population of those believed to be unfit. Negative eugenics had varied manifestations in the American South and in Mississippi specifically, including restrictions on interracial marriages or those considered mentally incompetent, sex-based segregation of mental health facilities, sterilization, and, as seen in Virginia, a drive to document the ethnic composition of citizens. Eugenic practice in Mississippi initially sought to safeguard the supposed purity of the white race through control of mentally degenerate whites but in the mid-twentieth century became a justification for the sterilization of economically disadvantaged black women.
As historian Edward J. Larson notes in Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South, eugenic practice was introduced formally in Mississippi in 1913 by J. N. Fox, a physician at the state mental hospital in Jackson. Fox promoted the control of mental illness and disability through restrictions on marriage. At the 1913 annual meeting of the Mississippi Medical Association, Fox stated, “It is a well-known fact that when two feebleminded persons mate, their offspring is sure to be feebleminded also.” He went on to state that these offspring were likely to become “murderers, sexual perverts, and pyro-maniacs.”
Though Fox was the first to formally present a eugenic program to Mississippi physicians, the idea was not new. In 1912 J. M. Buchanan, superintendent of the East Mississippi Insane Asylum, wrote an article urging compulsory sterilization not only of severe cases but also of those suffering from “any form of nervous instability.”
With the support of the state’s physicians, Gov. Theodore G. Bilbo began to promote eugenics in 1919, pushing for a separate facility for the “mentally retarded” after Thomas H. Haines, an official of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, observed Mississippi’s prisons and noted that “imbeciles” lacked “common sense” but were “highly sexed.” Haines deliberately sought to promote eugenic practice, and his biased and unscientific survey found “200 or 300 feebleminded delinquents passing through the courts of Mississippi each year.” Based on his findings, he suggested the creation of a separate “colony” as a more efficient and cost-effective way to care for and sexually segregate those with mental illness or disability. Such a colony would be located in a rural area, with the “higher grade morons” able to function on self-supporting agricultural settlements near the main institution. The colony would also begin sterilizing its residents.
On 2 April 1920, after hearing testimony in support from the State Federation of Women’s Clubs, the Mississippi House of Representatives approved legislation to create an institution, making it the last state in the Deep South to pass such a measure. The Jackson Daily News heralded the law, noting that it would “put a final stop to the increase of much useless humanity.” However, poor and rural Mississippi never prioritized funding for eugenic programs, and interest in the idea declined after Bilbo left office later that year. Eugenics returned to prominence with Bilbo’s reelection as governor in 1928, and the state soon had the Deep South’s first comprehensive eugenic sterilization law, lauded as the “result of a social awakening.” Bilbo’s inaugural address implicitly argued for sterilization and the expansion of the Mississippi Colony: “The state has spent its millions in the effort to advance our civilization, to educate and uplift our people yet our feebleminded, epileptic, insane, paupers and criminals can reproduce without restriction, thus continuing to corrupt our society and increase tax burdens on our people.” The appropriations bill to fund the new institution was introduced by Jacksonian Wiley Harris, who noted that “surely society owes to posterity no higher duty than by humane methods to breed out of the race such defectives as those who at once become a burden to the state and a scourge to their descendents.” H. H. Ramsey, the superintendent of the Mississippi School and Colony for the Feebleminded, was a major proponent of eugenics and began working on a joint effort to identify developmentally disabled and ill children in the state’s schools while expanding the sexually segregated facilities to include vocational training with plans for future sterilization of patients.
The cost of implementation and the rising demand for social services with the onset of the Great Depression meant that this comprehensive law did not have a major effect until the mid-1930s. The Mississippi Colony performed few sterilizations because the state lacked the funds to fight court appeals from patients’ families, who were required to consent to the operations. Sterilizations continued at state institutions at a declining rate until World War II, when the East Mississippi Insane Asylum in Meridian lost its only surgeon to the war effort. By 1941 the Mississippi Colony’s leadership no longer promoted eugenics. However, the comprehensive sterilization law remains on the books, with its only alteration the 1984 deletion of epilepsy from the conditions requiring sterilization.
In the mid-twentieth century, eugenics turned from the protection of the “purity” of the white race to population control for the poor. Mississippi’s politicians and doctors began to impose eugenic practice on the black population of the Delta. With the mechanization of crops and increased civil rights activity, politicians and the Citizens’ Council began to attempt to disperse the state’s black population—to curb the “black tide which threatens to engulf us.” According to Dorothy Roberts, surgeons commonly sterilized black women without their consent while they were hospitalized for other surgeries, with as many as 60 percent of women at one Delta hospital given postpartum sterilizations. The practice was so prevalent that it became known as the “Mississippi appendectomy,” and among those affected was Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party leader Fannie Lou Hamer, who was sterilized at Sunflower City Hospital after a minor operation in 1961.
In 1972 the Mississippi House considered a bill that made it a felony for a welfare recipient to give birth to a second illegitimate child, providing penalties of between one and five years’ incarceration or sterilization. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was outraged at the bill’s implications for the communities in which the group worked and condemned the measure as a “genocide bill,” citing Rep. Stone Barefield, who stated during the floor debate, “When the cutting starts, they’ll head to Chicago.” The campaign against the bill gained national attention, and the Mississippi Senate passed a less restrictive bill that nevertheless declared unmarried parenthood to be a crime. Sterilization was deleted as a penalty, the charge was changed from a felony to a misdemeanor, and the punishment was reduced to between thirty and ninety days in jail. This law remains on the books.
The practice of eugenics in Mississippi has had a variety of manifestations. From pseudoscientific actions designed to protect whites from degenerative mental illness to the involuntary sterilization of black Delta women in the 1960s and 1970s, the practice has signaled a historic drive among state officials to maintain strict class- and race-based hierarchies, with troubling implications for human rights.
- Susan K. Cahn, Sexual Reckonings: Southern Girls in a Troubling Age (2007)
- James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1992)
- Edward J. Larson, Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South (1995)
- Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (1997)
- Alexandra Minna Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (2005)
- Clyde Woods, Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta (2000)