Eugenics and African Americans

Dr. Wilmer Leon, Dr. Shantella Sherman and Rev. Clarence Williams



ST. PETERSBURG – The last night of the three-day Cross & Anvil Human Services’ Heritage Lecture Series was held Tuesday, Feb. 13 at Allstate campus of St. Petersburg College.

Dr. Shantella Sherman, a historian and journalist whose work documents African-American history and culture, broke down the racism of eugenics, the controversial science of improving a population by controlled, selective breeding to favor the chances of desirable heritable traits.

Years ago, Sherman said another term was “better breeding.” As in agriculture where people discovered they can grow better plants by years of trial-and-error selective breeding, they discovered this can also be done with human beings.

Sherman said that these days, eugenics as a science believes it can isolate certain genes—including hair, skin tone, aptitude, intelligence—to breed better versions of humans—but it isn’t that simple.

“You cannot tamper with what God’s already designed,” she said adamantly. “We’re designed a certain way for a certain reason.”

One issue with eugenics would be that those with negative traits—if there are those who believe criminality or stupidity are traits found in people’s DNA, for example—would be discouraged from reproducing while those with positive traits would be encouraged to reproduce as much as possible.

Citing the newly released film “Black Panther” and the increased popularity of such sites as, Sherman said this is a time of renewed interest in “black genes.”

“It’s hit a nerve with black people,” she said, “all of a sudden it’s almost like someone pinched them and said, ‘Hey, wake up! Someone’s trying to show you who you are.’”

Using one example of individuals collecting blood samples from homeless African Americans and Hispanics in Washington, D.C., ostensibly to study the effects of DNA on such conditions as poverty, Sherman noted that in the name of eugenics, the government was systematically trying to determine if that those who have “bad DNA” are “criminals, alcoholics, murderers.”

Decades ago, such people with undesirable genes could be conscripted to an asylum, so as they would not pass along their genes. From the turn of last century to the present day, Sherman said, there are some lobbies that maintain if people fit the criteria and possess bad genes they should be sterilized.

In fact, in the early years of the 20th century, Indiana passed the first eugenics-based sterilization law, and other states would, in turn, pass such laws, and it is no surprise that some then believed that African Americans possessed inferior genes.

Providing examples from actual textbooks used in classrooms up until the 1960s, Sherman pointed out that students were being taught that African Americans had ancestry connected to monkeys in trees. They were, according to this school of thought, at the top of the “monkey chain” but at the bottom of the “human chain.” This ludicrous assertion, upheld even in a time when African Americans were fighting for their most basic rights, was challenged and finally removed from textbooks by 1963.

A eugenics society came up with an idea of how men and women should look and this arbitrary thought is even present today in such competitions as the Miss America pageant. Sherman said that even a couple of popular women’s magazines that are still on shelves these days—”Good Housekeeping and “Ladies Home Journal”— began as “eugenics journals.”

Judged to be “feeble-minded” or worse by authorities through some very debatable aptitude tests, some African-American youngsters were committed to asylums where they would live out there days until they were too old to reproduce.

Some of the youngsters in such asylums were sterilized without their consent or even knowledge—often being told that they needed an operation for something entirely different such as an appendix removal, as a false front. These days, North Carolina and Virginia are offering reparations for these acts.

In our time of constant bombardment of commercials and images on our TVs and cell phones, people young and old alike are being reminded that they’re “not good enough.”

“How do you know who you are if at every turn you don’t necessarily feel like you are human, you are person enough to stand alone if you have to stand alone,” she asked.

Image and representation of self was very important in the decades following the turn of last century where many black men in urban areas could be arrested simply for “loitering” or “vagrancy” and young black women could be charged with prostitution because of the way they appeared and walked in public. This could lead to the young people being arrested and ultimately even sterilized.

“You have to show that you are respectable at all times,” Sherman explained about the African Americans in those days and beyond, adding that there was a reason Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others like him chose to march in suits. “You walk in saying, ‘I am man [or] woman—I am human!’”

Dr. Shantella Sherman is the author of “In Search of Purity: Popular Eugenics & Racial Uplift Among New Negroes 1915-1935,” a book that examines the reinterpretation of eugenic theories by African-American scholars.

To reach Frank Drouzas, email

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