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Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

Eugenics, Dispossession and Reparations at Middlebury

The College’s decision, announced on September 27,  to remove the name of John A. Mead from one of the tallest structures of the campus’s built environment should be just the beginning of a deeper institutional and broader historical introspection into the college’s relationship to structural forms of injustice. In the history of eugenics in the state of Vermont, Mead, as a governor who advocated for eugenics legislation in the early 1900s, is merely the tip of the iceberg.

Mead’s position on eugenics is far from abstract. In the decades prior to and following his 1912 speech as he left office, numerous institutions of eugenic policy and thought opened across the state such as schools, hospitals, prisons, asylums and even colonies. These included the Vermont Reform School (opened in 1865 in Vergennes), the Vermont State Hospital for the Insane (opened in 1891 in Waterbury) and the State School for the Feeble-minded (opened in 1915 in Brandon) as well as the latter’s Rutland Colony for Girls of the State School for the Feeble-minded (opened in Rutland in 1925, and also known as the Riverside Reformatory).

Thus, the statistics of at least 250 sterilized Vermonters cited by the Vermont Legislature in its formal apology for eugenics is both an underreported number as well as merely a fraction of the violent reach and consequences of eugenic policies in Vermont. During this time, institutions across the state housed between hundreds and thousands of people in a given year, made up of indigenous people and people of color, French Canadians, and working-class white Vermonters, especially women of these groups.

We must think of this operation as one of systematic displacement and incarceration of people that led to not only sterilization, but the economic and social disruption of thousands of lives. Eugenics, as an intellectual and political project, “scientifically” legitimized and reproduced social stratification along the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability under the white supremacist and patriarchal fantasy of “progress.” It is an oversimplification to say that the policies and discourses of eugenics targeted people with disabilities. More specifically, eugenics discourses aided in the construction of disabilities and concomitant definitions of valid personhood, and named who was worthy of life and who was to be barred from freedom and the fantasy of “progress.”

Moreover, the economically exploitative logics and consequences of eugenics policies are often understated. These deepened racial and gender divisions of labor by marking who was suited to what form of work. For instance, the aforementioned Rutland Colony served as a place for middle and upper-class families to find cheap domestic labor in the form of interred young women. Meanwhile, the very displacement and incarceration of already vulnerabilized people led to systemic worsening of their socioeconomic precarity.

In order for eugenics to become such a far-reaching school of thought and violence, its development and reproduction had to be equally encompassing. The story of Mead is just one example of Middlebury’s close relationship with eugenicists and eugenics supporters, which included trustees, donors, professors and administrators.

Eugenics implies a whole cultural and educational edifice of which Middlebury has taken part. One only needs to browse the college’s course catalogs of the first decades of the 20th century to see the emergence of eugenics in the curriculum and across departments such as Pedagogy (later renamed Education and Psychology), Biology and Sociology. Looking at the 1931 course catalog alone, eugenics and ideas of social progress and pathology based on heredity and environment can be found in the descriptions of courses such as “Genetics and Embryology,” “Social Psychology” and “Educational Psychology,” in addition to nearly the entire course offering of the Sociology department. In this regard, Middlebury’s curriculum followed national and international trends of Europe and North America. It is, therefore, not a stretch to consider that eugenicists and eugenics sympathizers, were, to some degree, trained at Middlebury.

Eugenics, though, was not just an isolated historical period or set of discourses. It is merely a subset of a larger edifice of patriarchal and western power of which institutions of higher education have served as brokers. Middlebury is no different. And so, this edifice has been reflected in the broader curriculum, culture and built environment of the College, all of which have codified ableism, Eurocentrism and patriarchal power. Today, the “About Middlebury” page, listed on the homepage, still posits that graduates should be “grounded in an understanding of the Western intellectual tradition that has shaped this College.” The response should not be to merely change this language on the website, but first and foremost, to shift the curriculum so that this statement is no longer neither a College mission nor a reality, while also bringing a critical lens to this history of the College’s curriculum.

It is within this broader trajectory of knowledge, power, and institutions that we should approach the legacies, contemporary reinventions and ongoing consequences of eugenics. On the latter point, as an institution whose history, like those of other institutions, is inseparable from the ongoing history of settler colonialism in the United States, Middlebury must be accountable to those who have been negatively impacted by this history. In other words, we must understand eugenics, Indigenous dispossession, and colonial curricula as intimately connected throughout the College’s history, as well as in the history of settler colonial societies like the US.

Eugenics was not the first, last, or only form of sustained state-sanctioned violence against Indigenous people. Our reflection on eugenics and its impact must also account for the history of Indigenous dispossession. As we live on, work on, and profit from stolen land, reparations must be on the agenda of learning and reconciliation. Our recently approved land acknowledgement must be merely a first step toward land repatriation as merely one phase of reparations. In unpacking these histories, it is vital to collaborate with Abenaki citizens and leaders (as well as others whose families have been impacted by Vermont eugenics) and place their needs as our priorities.

This leads to yet another interconnected topic — the decolonization of our curriculum. As many members of the college community grapple with the colonial knowledges that are still reproduced here, we must foreground the materialities of colonialism on which this very institution stands. A step towards broader decolonization would be the repatriation of college-owned land that has been used for various forms of profit and progressive narratives.

For instance, the college was able to proclaim carbon neutrality in 2016, thanks in no small measure to the 2,100 acres of conserved forest land it owns around the Bread Loaf campus. These were only a small fraction of the 20,000 acres of forest that Joseph Battell bequeathed to the college in 1915, and which the college then sold to the U.S. Forest Service in 1930 at a time of infrastructural development and financial accumulation at the college. Battell’s own acquisitions of these lands is deeply intertwined in the history of French, English and U.S. colonial expansion and its mechanisms of property privatization.

Eugenics would come in the last century and a half to exacerbate these colonial legacies for BIPOC communities, working-class people and women across the country. Herein lies another under-examined aspect of eugenics: with the institutionalization of people often came the seizure of the land and property at the hands of the State or other entities. Land and its repatriation, must therefore, be at the forefront of our work toward meaningful acknowledgement, reparations and justice. Eugenics, dispossession, and coloniality thus exist on many planes of the College’s history, past and present, and must be confronted as intertwined processes of power and marginalization. 

As an institution, we must continue our push towards a decolonial curriculum, critical knowledge of the College’s past and its relationships to coloniality, and center the knowledges and needs of those marginalized by said relationship to coloniality. 

*I must acknowledge and thank the work of Middlebury students past and present that have either gathered some of the information here, strived for radical justice, or have taught me about these issues (often all three): Paige Osgood ’23, Elizabeth Reyes ’22, Wengel Kifle ’20, Treasure Brooks ’21 (transferred), Kyle Wright ’19.5, Anna Shireman-Grabowski ’14.5, and Sam Koplinka-Loehr ’13, among many others.

Daniel Silva is Associate Professor of Luso-Hispanic Studies, Director of the Black Studies Program, and Director of the Twilight Project.

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