The day was June 4, 1924. A dark-haired girl, just 17 years old, was admitted to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. She became colony inmate 1692. The superintendent of the colony examined her. He declared her healthy, free of syphilis, able to read, write, and keep herself tidy. And then he classified her as "feeble-minded of the lowest grade, moron class."
With that designation, this young woman, who'd already lost more than many people could bear in a lifetime, was set on a path she didn't choose. And what happened to her laid the foundation for one of the most tragic social experiments in American history.
This is the story of Carrie Buck, and three generations of her very small family: Emma, Carrie and Vivian. A grandmother, a mother and a child who, by virtue of their poverty and some very bad luck, became the test case for forced sterilizations in the United States.
"Three generations of imbeciles are enough," wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in his official opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court case, known as Buck v. Bell. The 1927 case reaffirmed the right of individual states to forcibly sterilize anyone "afflicted with an hereditary form of insanity or imbecility." It was considered an achievement for the growing eugenics movement, the "science" of improving humanity through better breeding. Among other things, eugenics called for restricting the reproduction of those deemed unfit. In practice, forced sterilization efforts largely targeted the least-powerful people: minority women, immigrants, the physically and mentally ill, and the poor.
Carrie was just 21 years old when she received the state-ordered operation, which cut her fallopian tubes and prevented her from having another child after Vivian.
"Were you very sad?" NPR reporter Wendy Blair asked Carrie in 1980.
"Yeah, I was sad," she said. "Cause see, I wanted to have children."
You can find more information on the Buck v. Bell case at the website of our guest Paul Lombardo, author of Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court and Buck v. Bell. It includes the young Vivian Buck's gradebook, showing mostly A's and B's, and a 1910 document on "fit and unfit matings" by eugenicist Charles Davenport.
This week's episode was produced by Jennifer Schmidt and Thomas Lu, and edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, and Laura Kwerel. Special thanks to Paul Lombardo for research assistance.
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.