Eugenics traces its roots back to the late 19th century when Britain’s Sir Francis Galton coined the term from the Greek root meaning “good in birth,” wrote Daniel Kevles in his book In the Name of Eugenics. It was based on the notion that human beings could actively employ evolutionary concepts to create better people and societies. The rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s papers on selective pea plant breeding lent an air of scientific credibility to eugenic theory. Eugenicists assumed that just about all human characteristics and afflictionsdisease, mental illness, criminality, intelligence, alcoholism, pauperismwere inherited as single-gene traits that could be bred in or out of people just like Mendel’s pea plants.

Better breeding of humans would take place in one of two ways: “positive eugenics,” in which people of superior breeding stock would recognize their moral obligation to perpetuate their kind. They would seek out “eugenic-like” marital partners, obtain a doctor’s stamp of approval of their union and then propagate the world with little geniuses. “Negative eugenics” would occur by singling out the “unfit” of society and stopping them from reproducing their kind.

In Britain, eugenic thought was more of an abstract concept of a utopian society that would prove difficult to put into practice. However, eugenic ideology found fertile ground across the Atlantic in the United States. With the rising influx of immigrants after 1890, increased urbanization and related social ills, people needed a promise of stability and a better future. Eugenics seemed to have the answers. During its heyday, it enjoyed broad support across a variety of social and political spectrums: from social reformers and humanitarians to staunch racists, from strict conservatives to progressives, and from academic and medical communities to religious circles. And it had the financial backing of some of the wealthiest capitalists in the country, including the Kellogg, Carnegie, and Harriman family fortunes.

A national Eugenics Record Office was established in 1910 to collect pedigrees of families suspected of carrying defective genes, and several organizations were formed to promote the study and practice of eugenics. These organizations would sponsor “Better Babies” and “Fitter Families” contests at state fairs across the country. Eugenics exhibits proclaimed “Some people are born to be a burden on the rest, ” with a flashing light going off every 16 seconds to signal the birth of another possibly defective human. Eugenic sermon contests were held across the nation, and biblical passages were quickly reinterpreted to show how eugenics was perfectly compatible with Christian thought. Indeed, advocates claimed, Jesus himself was a eugenicist, according to Christine Rosen’s book, Preaching Eugenics. Scary stories about degenerate family linessometimes completely fabricatedwere widely disseminated.

Although eugenics may have started out as a serious science, and elements of it would later shift to the valuable studies of genetics and heredity, the ideology was hijacked by people who knew little about the science and needed a reason to justify their own prejudices. The national Eugenics Record Office would spend years amassing volumes of data on individuals and families, combining “equal portions of gossip, race prejudice, sloppy methods and leaps of logic, all caulked together by elements of actual genetic knowledge to create the glitter of a genuine science,” Edwin Black writes in War Against the Weak.

The goal of the eugenics movement in the United States was to get rid of the “bottom tenth” of society. This, eugenicists hoped to accomplish through restrictive immigration laws, miscegenation laws and forced sterilizations of the unfit. The “fit” of society were imagined as healthy, white, middle-class or higher, educated, English-speaking Protestantsbearing a remarkable resemblance to the eugenicists who defined the word “fit.”

Indiana was the first state to pass a eugenic sterilization law in 1907. North Carolina was somewhat slow to embrace the movement, enacting its first sterilization law in 1929. State legislators rewrote the law in 1933 establishing the five-member Eugenics Board of North Carolina. For decades the board operated quietly and efficiently under the auspices of eugenic science and human bettermenteven after World War II ended and the world started to grasp the horrors of the Holocaust. It continued even after it was learned that Nazi Germany had patterned its forced sterilization program after the one implemented in California and outlined in the text Applied Eugenics and that Adolf Hitler had pored over American eugenic texts while he was in prison. It continued even after infamous words from the U.S. Supreme Court affirming forced sterilizations were quoted back by a Nazi eugenicist during the Nuremburg trials. Somehow, the N.C. Eugenics Board didn’t see the connection.

For a time, the application of eugenics in North Carolina mirrored what was happening in the rest of the country. Namely, eugenics targeted people in state mental institutions and sterilizations declined after the war. In 1947 all that changed when the Human Betterment League of North Carolina was formed. Comprised of some of the wealthiest and most influential people in the state, the league poured money into a massive publicity campaign advocating sterilization. The number of sterilization procedures spiked and continued for the next two decades. Even more disturbing, the hand of eugenics was now reaching outside the walls of mental institutions into the general population in a search for the unfit.

“You wouldn’t expect a moron to run a train, or a feebleminded woman to teach school …” explains a pamphlet published by the Human Betterment League. “Yet each day the feebleminded and the mentally defective are entrusted with the most important and far reaching job of all… the job of PARENTHOOD!”

The brochure goes on to explain why North Carolina’s sterilization law is so critical. The law, it claims, provides both protection and savings: protection of “mentally handicapped men and women, the children of future generations, and the community at large;” savings of “thousands of taxpayers dollars, needless human tragedy, and wasted lives.”

The Human Betterment League had the distinct advantage of defining who needed protection and which lives were both a tragedy and a waste. It was a foregone conclusion that the lives of the league’s membership as well as those of their social scene were worthwhile and important.

Newspaper reporters jumped on the attack of the “unfit” as well. In a 1948 article in the Winston-Salem Journal, reporter Chester Davis pontificates on the various dementias plaguing local society, “In the case of both the idiots and imbeciles physical abnormalities prevent them from offering particularly stiff competition in the fight for mates. The danger is in the moron group which includes a host of physically attractive individuals whose IQ’s are lower than a January thermometer reading. Among other things, they breed like mink.”

An article promoting the state’s sterilization law by Clarence Gamble (an heir to the Procter & Gamble fortune and member of the Human Betterment League) laments that only one in 41 of the “hopeless mental cripples” in the state was being sterilized. For every sterilization, then, another 40 continue to “pour defective genes into the State’s bloodstream to pollute and degrade future generations.”

North Carolina schoolteachers were instructed on what to look for in a feebleminded student. “Rid your room of mental deficients,” urged a memo from the North Carolina Teachers’ Association to all grade school teachers. An 11-point list of characteristics that may indicate mental deficiency in a student included blinking and twitching, incoordination, cold and clammy hands, carelessness, imperfect speech and inability to keep up with assigned schoolwork.

North Carolina’s elite was able to use its power, money and influence to create a climate conducive to a rapid acceleration of the state’s sterilization program against the poor and the powerless. They used a discourse of “protection” and “safety,” of “concern” for the overall physical and mental health of society and the upbringing of children within that society.

A clearer picture of the true concern for North Carolina eugenic promoters comes from the meeting minutes of the Eugenic Board. Simply put, the board was basically concerned with sex outside marriage and taxpayer money. It did not seem to matter as much to the board whether perceived physical or mental flaws would be passed on to future generations. Seldom did board members even pay lip service to the “science” of heredity and eugenics. If they could be convinced that future children would not cost undue taxpayer money or that sexual activity outside marriage could be restrained, they would spare the intended sterilization victim. And the vast majority of the time they rubber-stamped approval of the petitions.