By Cydney Livingston

Over the past two months, I have been delving further into my project. Though this has inevitably included documenting and reading my primary collection of sources from the Human Betterment League of North Carolina (HBLNC), as well as identifying other archives to request materials from, my exploration of secondary sources has helped me better frame the overall scope and pertinence of my work. The historical period that HBLNC and its actors operated in is a highly transitory one. The period – from 1947 to 1988 – is situated in between the classic “eugenics” era of the late 19th century to mid-20th century and the era of modern genetics and reproductive technologies that emerged in the late 20th century and continue today. This timeframe links two seemingly disjunct periods in important ways.

In the post-war period that the HBLNC worked in, many advances were being made in genetic and reproductive health sciences. Both fields were medicalized and institutionalized, gaining serious clout, attracting physicians and scientists alike, and developing tools and knowledge for public health policies domestically and internationally. As new forms of reproductive technoscience, like the birth control pill, became more mainstreamed and widespread, these tools were forced upon raced, classed, sexed women as a measure of economic control and population van guard while dually being denied to those same women when they offered liberatory means for self-determination over one’s own reproduction. Simultaneously, genetic science was being transformed into genetic medicine and medicine was becoming a field based off of genetics. As science became more sophisticated and cutting-edge, genetics were eventually unhinged from sex itself and the targeting of specific biological processes became possible, rather than having to target the entire human being.

Though “eugenics” was over and had been disproven as bad science or “pseudo-science,” a eugenic impulse remained. For example, as author Nathaniel Comfort argues, prioritizing heredity as an individual’s source of potential success, as often supposed in the transitory historical period I am studying, offers straightforward cures rather than reckoning with the social environments and fabrics that enswathe our lives and have influence over us. Though contemporary reproduction and genetics were diverging in some ways from the eugenic period that predated them, these fields as we have come to know them were forged through the promises of science, medicine, and technology like the eugenics period that had come before them and the mass genomics projects that would come after. These emerging institutes promised future becomings rather than a reality that manifested tangibly or completely. With sights set on what could be, geneticists and reproductive scientists and medical specialists were convinced that the (then) now was the era of intellect where we knew enough that the integration of technoscience would create collective moral good and betterment, much as their eugenic predecessors a few decades earlier.

Because of the identification of prevailing yet particularized and shifting eugenic rhetoric, I have been prompted to think about how “eugenics” may be studied in a way that temporally transcends its classic period while being productive, non-reductive and contextually specific to the organization and state I am focused on. I have found so far that “eugenics” is not one idea or policy, it is not clearly the development or implementation of a certain technology – sometimes it is the lack of access to the said technology, sometimes it is neither, sometimes it is both. In the case of North Carolina, this is an extremely important geopolitical area to look at this transition, linking, and lack thereof between then and now. The state was the first to explicitly allow for the legal distribution of contraceptives and contraceptive information, NC’s Wake Forest University was the first university to attach a eugenics record office to a college, and it has been proposed by scholars to be the best-positioned state in the U.S. for having medically mediated negative eugenics at the midpoint of the 20th century. As a long-standing vanguard of heredity, sexual public health, and genetics research, NC and its organizations offer important insights into the past and future of eugenics and how these ideas were subverted, transformed, discarded, revisited, and reintegrated. It offers a pertinent narrative of how new sciences created new promises that looked much like those promises of old.

The big question for me at this time is how I can read the promises of the HBLNC. What futures did they promise to the elite physicians, health policy makers, and businessman who they worked with? To the publics they sent mail and brochures? By what means would these promises supposedly be achieved? And how do they align (or not) with the same promises being made across the country and around the globe – those responding to fears of detrimental population booms, the need for nationalism amidst the Cold War, concerns over changing family structures and sexual and gender identities? At the same time, what was actually going on, on the ground, aside from predictions, rhetoric, hopes and fears? These ideas, questions, and new ways of thinking about the integral nature of the in-between period I am researching are informing my revisitation of my archival sources and are imperative to shaping my conceptualization and analysis of broader themes that emerge in my work. I have supplemented my original ideas from the archives with contextual and tangential secondary works to return to the archives with a better understanding of the social, political, cultural, and economic imaginaries and realities that the HBLNC existed within.