Who decides? Eugenics in the United States between the World Wars

An Emerald’s Fire is book 5 of the “Migrations of the Heart” series and deals with an issue that increased in popularity between the World Wars.  Many are familiar with the ways that Nazi -era Germany sought to use selection as a way to create a master race and to rid themselves of “undesirables.”  However, many are not aware of the history of eugenics in this country as a way to control the population.  According to Professor Robert Rydell, eugenics is a science that advocates improving inherited qualities of a race by controlling mating. Many are aware of these experiments were conducted in Nazi Germany, but it was a very popular theory here in the United States. By the 1920’s people thought it enough of a branch of science for it to be included in high school textbooks.

In 1915 in San Francisco, Mary Watts organized an exhibit at the world’s fair called “Fitter Families for Future Firesides.”  (the picture is from the exhibit). Quite alliterative, but the purpose of the exhibit was to show how certain people had desirable characteristics to be passed on into the population.  The darker side of eugenics involves the control of the bodies of the “feeble-minded” as well as those who were not of the most desired race. So these practices disproportionately involved African American people as well as special needs individuals.  An Emerald’s Fire asks the question of what happens when these policies impact someone who is both special needs and African American.  The controlled practice most used was sterilization.

In 1924, Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act citing the need for sterilization to prevent a drain on state monies.  As a result of these acts in Virginia and other places, 60,000 people were sterilized against their will before the 1950’s. What stopped them?  According to Rydell, word of the Holocaust leaked out of Germany just after World War II and Americans began to question their practices of racial prejudice. Sterilization, as a method of control, fell away in practice but the laws were not repealed for many years after that.

Should human beings  decide what constitutes a quality life or is that for God to decide? What does a family do when they believe that are helping a loved one live a better life, but that person disagrees with the idea?  These are the central questions of An Emerald’s Fire. It’s the conflict that threatens to tear the Bledsoe sisters apart–forever.