Documenting Eugenics

All this month I’m posting on topics related to Franco-American history and culture, in honor of my ongoing DVD fundraising campaign. Thus far, most of these posts have been light-hearted in tone, and why not? Franco-Americans are first-class revelers who enjoy a good party and a good song. But it must be acknowledged that the history of Franco-Americans in the U.S. has had its darker chapters.

Eugenics was a movement, prevalent at the turn of the twentieth century, that sought to socially engineer a healthy and productive populace. At first blush its aims seem noble: to improve public health, eradicate disease, and discourage crime and other social ills that were on the rise as the U.S. became increasingly industrialized and its population more diverse. The difficulties arose from how “disease” came to be defined. Social reformers began to apply rudimentary principles of evolution and genetics to defend the idea that crime, poverty, alcoholism, and all manner of immoral behavior was caused by hypothetical genes that were passed down through “defective” families. Not surprisingly, such families tended to be poor and often “ethnic”. In my own home state of Vermont, French Canadian immigrants, and people of Native American descent were among those singled out as likely to be “degenerates” or “imbeciles.”

Starting in 1999, researchers at the University of Vermont began to document how the eugenics movement played out in Vermont by creating an on-line archive of documents related to the movement and its history called Vermont Eugenics: A Documentary History. This excellent on-line resource collects valuable primary source materials to explain why eugenics was able to take hold, how it rose to prominence, and how it was eventually discredited. (This history is also explored in historian Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People, which I’ve written about in a previous post.)

In 2010 the Vermont legislature debated a resolution apologizing for the state’s support of eugenics measures during the early decades of the twentieth century, including a program of “voluntary sterilization” for wards of the state. This resolution also acknowledged that Vermonters of French-Canadian and Abenaki descent were among those directly affected These articles from The Boston Globe and the Vermont ACLU give greater detail on the resolution, which was an important step toward righting a past wrong.

Like most immigrant groups, Franco-Americans faced prejudice and hatred on their way to becoming full-fledged Americans. This fact shouldn’t diminish our pride. It’s important to remember the bad with the good. All of these stories make us who we are.

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