By Cydney Livingston

This summer I am laying groundwork for my senior thesis, centered around the Human Betterment League of North Carolina (HBLNC). My fascination with the history of eugenics arose from my long-standing interests in human biological and sociocultural evolution. Eugenics represent an interesting intertwining of the two. I chose to assess North Carolina both because it is my home state and because NC played a surprisingly large role in the eugenics movement nationally and internationally. I first learned about the League unexpectedly in conversation about my general thesis interests. Though there are several theses in recent decades that address portions of the League’s identity and work, there is much left to be explored. Since learning about the HBLNC, I have been on a journey to figure out who this League was, what their role was in shifting NC eugenics ideologies and policies, and who was harmed along the way.

Reprinted article mailed out in a reading by the HBLNC in 1950.

The timeline of the intellectual development of eugenics is important to my study. Eugenics were first popularized in the late 19th century, largely following the widespread distribution of Darwin’s theory of evolution. This quickly gave rise to ideas like social Darwinism and racialized constructions of “survival of the fittest” on which eugenics ideas were founded. The Holocaust represents a particularly heinous and popular example of eugenics. It is pertinent to note, however, that Hitler’s plans were actually based on eugenics ideas arising from the United States. Contrary to common portrayal of eugenics as something that occurred in the margins of U.S. society, the U.S. actually has a deep, dark history of eugenics that has yet to be reckoned with. Following WWII and the Holocaust, most undeniably oppressive, negative eugenic policies were abandoned as detrimental to human rights. Yet in 1947, the HBLNC was founded as a group promoting the forced sterilization of those deemed mentally “unfit.”

Within the first few years of the League’s inception, North Carolina’s per capita sterilization rate became the highest in the country. This was achieved through the extensive use of a campaign mailing system in which the League wielded it’s power through language. Pamphlets and reprinted articles mailed out to not only NC constituents, but countries worldwide, made use of codified jargon to construct biological identities conflated with social values of the post-Progressive time period. The sterilization campaign, first targeted towards those with mental disabilities, achieved the League’s goal of getting North Carolinians to “make use” of NC sterilization laws. Mental disabilities, characterized as having a targetable genetic basis, were seen as “pollutants” to the collective “blood” of the “state.” The League’s words and tactics for spreading information likely caused panic amongst readers. The materials distributed by the HBLNC drew recipients in as individual agents of change for a collective issue centered on state identity, well-being, and future success. I look forward to digging more into the new pamphlets I have uncovered through my perusal of the League’s collections at UNC Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library archives.

There are many interesting individuals that I have begun to access through my research and hope to better understand in my work. For example, James Hanes and Clarence Gamble were two wealthy, white men with business ties and were foundational to the conception of the HBLNC. This has important implications for the socioeconomic objectives of the organization and who was being targeted by NC policies for sterilization both at the time of the League’s founding and over the coming decades that the League existed, until 1988. Recently, in my archival work, I have also become interested in the women behind the League’s organization, infrastructure, and funding. Two of these women, Marian Moser and Kate Garner, seem instrumental in the ongoing buy-in – both ideologically and monetarily – that allowed the League to continue its work over an extended period of 41 years. The centrality of these women to the behind the scenes of the HBLNC also raises interesting questions and lines of inquiry for the role that gender played in the work of the League and feeds into a broader area of interest for my thesis: The intellectual development of eugenics, from sterilization to family planning and birth control to genetics.

The HBLNC transitioned from a pro-sterilization outreach group, to a group tasked with consolidating NC’s family planning programs in the mid-1960s to 70s, and lastly to a genetic counseling group in 1984. Right now in my research, I am trying to figure out why these transitions happened and what role the white women of the League who had come into new leadership positions played in these transitions of identity and objectives. Amidst the broader birth control and family planning movement of the 60s, white women came to hold new powers in the ongoing fight for and debates over women’s reproductive rights. Debates over reproductive rights no longer only discussed women but included select women in the conversation.

Pamphlet from the HBLNC in 1984 when they became the North Carolina Human Genetics League.

White “feminists” from this era are remembered as liberal humanitarians. Yet, it seems to me that in many cases that they were simply perpetuating eugenic rhetoric through new seemingly liberatory avenues. Though expanded access to contraceptive measures like birth control and family planning did help many women in the U.S., the history of sterilization and birth control efforts in NC makes clear that it was primarily Black and brown women, as well as poor women targeted for reproductive manipulation and control. Thus, from my research thus far and in the continuation of my project, I hope to make clear how the divides between eugenics and later movements for reproductive rights are not so clear-cut and disparate.

In the case of the League, international networks also allowed for the reproductive manipulation of women in the “developing” world or Global South as well. I am curious to better understand how the new societal powers granted to white women may have coalesced not only with the shifting developments and focus in the HBLNC, but in the U.S. more broadly as oppressive means of reproductive injustice gave rise to “empowering” reproductive autonomy with no clear separation from a eugenic past.

It is my hope that my work will breathe life into this history that is imperative to the history of human rights, yet largely obscured from popular memory. After completion of the project and my thesis, I hope to be able to make my work available in some form to the public to help others in my state and across the globe learn about this organization and the hidden histories around us.

For some, however, this history is not at all hidden: Survivors of NC’s sterilization program live with the reproductive injustices forced upon them. Moving forward in my work, I also hope to be able to include the voices and perspectives of some of these survivors. In addition the lines of inquiry outlined here, I intend to dive into the numbers behind the “science” of eugenics and latter reproductive control. One example is the quantification of mental capacity through IQ tests, that allowed for the powerful categorizations of people which led to lifelong, irreversible, and intergenerational harms.

Learn more about Cydney’s research.