History isn't always pretty
In 1927, Charlottesville-born Carrie Buck received a dubious honor by becoming the first person sterilized under Virginia’s infamous eugenics laws which had been enacted three years earlier. Now, Charlottesville will gain a new historical marker noting that sad history, thanks to Paul Lombardo at UVA’s Center for Biomedical Ethics.
The marker commemorates the notorious U.S. Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell that upheld Virginia’s right to sterilize those believed to be “genetically inferior.” By the time key parts of the law were repealed in 1974, more than 8,000 Virginians had undergone the procedure.
Lombardo says he first heard of the case about 20 years ago when he was a graduate student, and he wrote his dissertation about the lawsuit. “I discovered,” he says, “that a lot of people involved in the case came from Charlottesville and UVA.”
Carrie Buck was one of them. Buck had the misfortune to have a child out of wedlock when she was a teenager. “She claimed she’d been raped,” says Lombardo, and her foster parents sent her away to Lynchburg to the State Colony of Epileptics and Feebleminded.
The thinking then was that if you were promiscuous, you were probably feebleminded, or diagnosed as “morally degenerate,” explains Lombardo.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes delivered the court’s opinion. He said that Buck, her mother, who was also confined at the same institution, and Buck’s daughter were all “feebleminded.” The case is known for Justice Holmes’ remark that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Buck was released from the State Colony after a couple of years and lived most of her life in Winchester before returning to Charlottesville, where she died in 1983.
Lombardo met Buck and conferred with people she’d lived with as well as her doctors, both in Lynchburg and at UVA, and found no evidence of mental disability. In fact, Buck’s daughter reportedly made the honor roll at Venable Elementary School.
When Lombardo began pressing for the historical marker, he consulted Delegate Mitch Van Yahres, who had sponsored a resolution in the House last year expressing regret about the law. And now Lombardo is trying to raise money to pay for the marker, which will be erected near the Region Ten building on Preston Avenue.
“Region Ten was suggested because they were familiar with the case and knew how the mentally ill had been abused in the past,” says Lombardo.
The tentative date for the marker’s dedication is May 2, the 75th anniversary of the Buck v. Bell court decision. (Virginia’s historical marker program itself is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.)
Lombardo has a special guest in mind for the dedication. He says that while he was running for governor, Mark Warner promised that if he was elected, he would make a full apology for the eugenics sterilization laws. “This could,” says Lombardo, “be the occasion to fulfill a campaign promise.”