Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Wednesdays with Dorothy: Eugenics and Misguided Visions for a Better Society

(This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)
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In the latter part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, in addition to seeking better treatment for people with developmental disabilities (or “mental defectives” as was the term at the time), there was also a move toward “improving society” by segregating troublesome segments of the population. In the early 20th century, people with mental retardation were thought to reflect decay in society and were considered to be a contributing factor toward crime, poverty, and immorality.  In 1921, an editorial in The Birmingham Age-Herald praised Alabama’s Home for the Feeble-minded as a humanitarian dream, not just for being a “step forward in the care of her wards needing and deserving help,” but also for protecting society which “runs a great risk in having them at large.” (Larson, p. 90)

Among the medical and scientific communities, eugenics was also being promoted throughout the early decades of the 20th century as a means to improve the human race through genetics and breeding. In the U.S., eugenics had its greatest influence from 1905 to 1930. There had been studies indicating that heredity was a major factor in “feeble-mindedness,” insanity, delinquency, poverty, and crime. Eugenics became a movement promoting the idea that a better civilization could be built by the elimination of the unfit. Eugenists had the idea that “such schemes as marriage restriction, sexual sterilization, or permanent custody of the defective,” would lead to an improved human race. (Haller, p. 6) 

Mark Haller, in his book on eugenics, explains that with the advent of intelligence testing in the early 20th century, there arose the "myth of the menace of the feebleminded." The idea was promoted that those with mental retardation would inevitably lead a life of crime and immorality. In order to protect society, institutions were built across the country to keep the feeble-minded segregated from society and to prevent them from reproducing. The eugenics movement saw this as a way to eliminate the "unfit" elements of humanity and improve the human race. The institutions for the feeble-minded soon embarked upon establishing farm colonies where their charges could contribute to society and, more importantly, could allow states to run the institutions with little investment from public funds due to revenue generated from the farm colonies). The "myth of the menace of the feebleminded" began to be questioned as scientific testing became more adept and further social research was done. It became clear that mental retardation did not unequivocally lead to crime and  delinquency. Some institutions were finding, in fact, that many inmates who were trained in their farm colonies could then be hired in the community to do similar work and lead productive lives outside the institution. (Haller, pp. 95-123)

W. D. Partlow
At Partlow State School, the concepts of sterilization and “permanent custody of the defective” were actively promoted by none other than the school’s founder, Dr. William D. Partlow, one of Alabama’s strongest supporters of eugenics.  Under his leadership at the institution and influence with the state legislature, the school “maintained a strict policy of sexually segregating all inmates during their stay and sterilizing them upon their discharge. This was done, Partlow explained in purely eugenic terms, to ‘serve the State and society by looking to the future.’” (Larson, p 106)

Dr.  Partlow continued to lobby for state legislation promoting eugenics even after the public opinion in Alabama had turned against it.  As early as 1935, people were seeing the dangers of eugenics in Nazi Germany and many became more vocal in their opposition. (Kaelber) Nevertheless, the idea continued to persist that people with mental retardation should be kept separate from society for their own good and for the protection of society based on the unfounded fear that that they were a danger to the public.

*    *    *

In 1941, when Dorothy entered Partlow State School, the institution was not quite 20 years old and the influence of the eugenics movement had peaked but was still play. She was coming to a place that had been overcrowded and underfunded since the first year it opened. She faced an entirely new world at the age of ten, with no family to guide her. During my conversations with her she had been living in her own apartment for many years. I asked her to tell me what life was like at Partlow.  The following are some of her recollections shared during our conversations:

The Daily Routine

"They had a school there. They had some real sweet teachers and then they had some real hateful teachers.  They told me in Sylacauga that when I went to Partow I could fix my lunch and take it to school. When I got there I said, “Who’s going to fix my lunch?” They told me we didn’t take lunches to school. I got mad and said, “Well where do we eat at?” They said you eat in the dining room with everybody else.” I thought we would take our own lunches, because when I was in school in Sylacauga, everybody took their own lunch to school. At Partlow there was a big main dining room. Later they turned it into offices and a beauty parlor, and they put a cafeteria in downstairs.

"For a long time we had tin cups and tin plates in the dining room. We’d have cocoa in the morning – they wouldn’t let us have coffee back then. It was almost like a prison camp to me.

"I would go to school every morning. I didn’t really like going because they wouldn’t let us take our lunch and they wouldn’t let us go off the campus to shop for anything. We had breakfast in the dining hall. We used to have to walk all the way form the main girl’s building over to the dining room – it was a pretty good piece, too.

"We had a big place called the Community House. They had an auditorium there and we had school and church and picture shows in the same place. They did have them in the old workshop for a while until it caught fire, then they had to keep them in the Community House."

"I could read some before I went to Partlow, but I was just as dumb-headed as they make ‘em when it comes to arithmetic.

"Classes went from 7:00 in the morning to about 2:00 in the afternoon. The boys would go to school, but they wouldn’t let them sit with us, they had them over in another room. I went to school I guess until I was about 35 or 40 years old. I think I was about 44 or 45 when I can to Birmingham.

"I had one or two teachers and I liked them both, but I didn’t really have any favorites.  I learned how to read and write [at Partlow]. When I went there, I knew how to write my name and my ABCs. The hardest part was having to stay there all the time and not having any home-cooked meals. They would fix the food, but they wouldn’t season it. We used to have apple butter and peanut butter and pork ‘n beans on Sunday night and Thursday night.

"I think I was about 14 or 15 years old when I learned to read and write. It was a girl taught me. She had beautiful handwriting and I used to watch her. I would try to write the way she did. I was bad to make capital letters. The teacher told me one day, you write real good, Dorothy, but you make too many capital letters.

"When I went to Partlow I didn’t know how to do nothing but write my name and my ABCs. The teacher’s name was Maggie Williams. I used to love to read them story books. They had a shelf in the school room. They had it like a library but they didn’t have no library. We had to get books off the shelves to read.  I would go around and pick the ones I liked to read. I read one story about the 12 brothers that turned in to 12 swans and one about a little country school house. I read one about the peanut children.

"We took all our meals in the dining hall, and if we got sick they always had a can of tomato juice and grape juice or orange juice.  There was also an infirmary there. It was like a hospital. They had this suction pump and if people had a bad cold and didn’t know how to get that stuff up, they used the suction pump on you.

"On Thursday nights they’d have movie night. It wasn’t in a movie theater, it was in a workshop. Then they’d have peanut butter, pork and beans, and crackers and apple butter – that was for Thursday night. Then Sunday night they’d have it again for supper. Sometime during the week they’d have string beans and rice, of macaroni, and it wasn’t even seasoned or nothing."

Occupational Training and Work Activities

"In addition to school, they had a place to teach occupational jobs, like working on the rug loom and things like that, but I never did do it. I tried to crochet, but I couldn’t get it right. We had to go to a place called the O.T. Shop. I was there one time and I wanted some coffee. This girl promised me some and she didn’t give me none. I got so mad I threw a glass jar and broke it. The instructor made me go back to the building. The reason she sent me back was I called her a S.O.B.  An attendant put me in the corner of the day room and I had to stay there until three o’clock when it was time for her to go off duty. 

"One day I was trying my best to learn how to crochet, but I could do nothing but make a chain. I got my twine in a knot and I had a #5 needle. I chunked it and the needle went one way and the twine another. Then the lady told me to go back to the girls’ building.

"They never did pay us for work we did. They would pay the employees but they wouldn’t pay us.[I did] laundry work and ward work, cafeteria work and things like that.
I worked in the laundry, maybe two years. Then I fainted one time and they took me out. I never did go back. I worked on them old steam pressers, a big old flat iron with iron rollers on it. We did the laundry for everybody there at Partlow.

"I had to do ward work where they had all the cots and beds. Then I had to put down wax and turpentine. It was that old Johnson’s wax and that stuff would blister your knees. We cleaned with turpentine, and then we would put the wax down. We had to do all that on our hands and knees. That was a big old place, too. It was on the ward where we lived and in the sitting room.

"I used to scrub a big old rotunda that had those old marble floors. They would have as many as they could get out cleaning the floors. We would start at the top of the steps mopping – there were three different levels of marble steps – and we would make our way down. We had them old sling polishers – it was a big ol’ block of wood with a rope nailed on both ends. It was wrapped all in blankets. We would have to drag them and sling ‘em, and some people would sit on ’em and we’d have to pull them around. Those things were heavy! We had one with a wooden handle and you had to use it by itself. Then we got a floor buffer and I never could use it. It would start going one way and I’d get aggravated. I couldn’t even run the thing, I mean it was hard to handle! We cleaned the floors every Saturday and every Thursday. I had to clean the big Rotunda. It was real big and it had a skylight overhead. I mean I had a time cleaning it.  You’d start at the top of the steps – and they had three different levels of marble steps – and you’d have to work your way down. There was also a big sofa.  I had to soak that thing, scrub it with a scrub brush, mop it and then rinse it – by myself!

"They had a place called the Boys Colony. They used to take some of us on a big ol’ truck and take us out there to gather peanuts or pick cotton or something like that. I mean it was pretty much a job! They’d make you go to the okra field, and I despised that old okra field. That stuff would get on you make you itch and sting. I didn’t mind getting out in the apple orchard and crab-apples.

"They would make us do every kind of a thing. If they caught us sitting around, or if you felt bad and didn’t have a temperature, they would make you get up and go to work whether you felt like it or not. It was about that way in Thomasville.
When I was in Thomasville [after they moved me out of Partlow], I had to wash and iron the bed linens for everybody. I had to clean two or three houses for the employers there. They would pay me some for that."

Bathing and Dressing

"I remember they would line us up in the hallway with no clothes on. They would take three of us in to get a shower, then they’d come and take three more in for a shower. They never would let a bunch go in together. That was in the girl’s building.

"They used to keep our clothes behind a screen on these little wooden shelves. You had to get way up high to reach them. They would put them on a chair and set them out in the hall or in the living room when you got out of the shower. They would have them all wrapped up with your name on them and they would call your name and they would hand them to you. They kept our Sunday dresses hanging on a hanger under the shelves. We would dress up on Sunday and we would have church in the auditorium. We never did go anywhere else, though.

"At Partlow I helped to take wet things off when people would wash their under clothes by hand. They wouldn’t send them out to the laundry. They would wring ‘em out and they’d still be dripping wet when they hung them over the cot, and I mean it would be a mess.  Water would drip all over the floor. If the attendant caught ‘em they would really get on to them. I’d gather them up sometime and put them in the laundry so the staff wouldn’t get on to them. That was back during the post-war days. They would give us old domestic bloomers with draw strings. Some people had store bought underwear that their family had brought, but the rest of us had that plain old domestic underwear and pajamas."

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Next week we will learn about some of the recreational opportunities that were available to the residents at Partlow State School.

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