Science  /  Retrieval

UVA and the History of Race: Eugenics, the Racial Integrity Act, Health Disparities

Reflections on the long career of race science at Mr. Jefferson's university.

By the start of the 20th century, the University of Virginia had become a center of an emerging new strain of racism – eugenics – that would create and perpetuate myths created under the guise of scientific research, but ultimately was intended to demonstrate white racial superiority.

The goal of eugenic science was knowledge of how various traits – emotional, physical, intellectual – were inherited, so that such information could be applied in order to advance the human race and preserve imagined racial superiority. Eugenic scientists used the census, genealogy, measurement of physiological functions and human anatomy, as well as intelligence testing, as methods of investigation.

They believed application of eugenic knowledge, through legislation and community practices, would eliminate mental illness, physical disabilities, moral delinquency, crime and even physical illnesses. They assumed the benefit to society would be a dramatic reduction in the cost of caring for the sick, poor, mentally ill and incarcerated.

These philosophies flourished during the first decades of the 1900s, as researchers and administrators at UVA focused on the study of improving humanity through controlled reproduction, all with an eye toward promoting “desirable” heritable characteristics and suppressing supposedly undesirable ones.

But the foundation for eugenics, and the history of hereditarianism and scientific racism at the University began much earlier with its founder, Thomas Jefferson. For Jefferson, racial distinction was an observable, scientific fact. In “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson described his slaves at Monticello as “lacking beauty; emitting a very strong and disagreeable odor; were in reason, inferior; in imagination were dull, tasteless, and anomalous; participated more in sensual activity than reflection; never conversed in thought above the level of plain narrative; and were never seen producing even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture.”1

Deeply grounded in the methods of Enlightenment science, Jefferson’s observations were regarded as concrete phenomena, in part, because in this tradition observation was the tool of natural science. While Jefferson is credited with the language, “all men are created equal,” he also argued “any attempt to assimilate [blacks] with the American polity is a greater threat to the integrity of the republic than naturalizing immigrants.”2

Jefferson paved the way for eugenicists by providing a rationale that harmonized their theories of democratic political ideology. Just as Jefferson argued that “self preservation” was the nation’s highest moral imperative, and its “first law of nature,” later Virginia eugenicists sought to deprive the procreative liberties of blacks, poor whites and the mentally defective to prevent them from destroying the lives of other Virginians (particularly, affluent whites) through genetic pollution.3