Race Matters: Eugenics, Racial Reform, and Questions of Citizenship on the Margins of Southern Society

Endorsed by the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE)

Sunday, April 18, 2021, 2:15 PM - 2:45 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Gilded Age & Progressive Era; Race; Social Welfare and Public Health


This panel investigates the work of three distinct but related projects to reform what might be called “marginal” communities in the rural turn-of-the-twentieth-century South. Peripheral in geography but not in importance, these papers explore how social workers, philanthropists, sociologists, educational reformers, and literary agents thought about and described the mountain whites of Appalachia and the Ozarksas well as impoverished African Americans in rural North Carolinaas they sought to uplift and modernize the New South. Individually, each paper shows how elites drew on racist or eugenic ideas to define “true” Americanisma category, as the authors show, that had serious consequences for who would be deemed an appropriate target for reform efforts, who would receive welfare benefitsand who could claim physical space and natural resources. Tina Irvine’s paper, which focuses on late-nineteenth century reform efforts to justify Appalachian mountain whites’ social and cultural difference from mainstream American culture, takes contemporaries’ fascination with the theory of racial recapitulation seriously. She explains how this theory, which posited that an individual’s development followed the evolutionary path of its specific ancestors, was used to not only explain mountain whites’ difference from mainstream American culture but justify regional reform. By asserting that Appalachian mountain whites were the nation’s “contemporary ancestors,” reformers claimed that they were, by virtue of blood and birth, the “most American of Americans.” Such a label had dramatic national consequences in an era when the question of race and national origin, especially as it pertained to citizenship, became increasingly contested. Brooks Blevins’ paper, which explores the racialized language of early twentieth century fictional and nonfictional representations of Ozarkers, further illuminates the stakes of this rhetorical debate. He describes how outside elites’ descriptions of the Ozarks and its mountain white inhabitants changed over the first quarter of the twentieth century from first portraying that population as a retrograde subset of the white race, to eventually using eugenics-informed discourse to claim the region and its resources for themselves-the superior “race.” Anna Krome-Luken’s work also explores Progressive reformers’ racial assumptions about mountain whites and adds a fruitful comparison to African Americans in rural North Carolina. Her paper, which centers on that state’s welfare programs of the 1920s, investigates the rhetoric of conservative officials and more liberal reformers as they sought to expand social welfare programs to rural poor black and white communities. In the end, she explains, welfare officials’ conception of the fundamental difference in potential between blacks and whites, as well as their awareness of the state’s political climate, shaped their policy responses. Together, the papers illuminate the role of racial bias and scientific racism in shaping turn-of-the-century ideas of citizenship and belonging and ask new questions about how contemporaries situated mountain whites in comparison to other marginalized groups.

Papers Presented

“A Strange Land and A Peculiar People”: Justifying Mountain Whites’ Difference at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Historians have addressed Progressive Era reformers’ many attempts to create a cohesive American identity through reform in the New South and have situated those efforts within the period’s overt racism. However, scholars have not paid enough attention to the role that contemporary racial theories played in that work with white southerners. This is an oversight, as contemporaries frequently relied on the theory of racial recapitulationwhich posited that an individual’s development followed the evolutionary path of its specific ancestorsto explain mountain whites’ difference from mainstream American culture and justify regional reform. Utilizing settlement school records from Appalachia, letters of support from philanthropists, popular middle-class periodicals, and contemporary sociological publications, this paper explains how regional reformers exploited that theory to argue that mountain whites were the nation’s “contemporary ancestors” a pure Anglo-Saxon people merely stunted in their evolutionary development and not, as some earlier reports suggested, a racially degenerate people. It shows that reformers’ analysis of Appalachian whites via the theory of racial recapitulation explained mountain whites’ physical and social difference and justified reformers’ intervention in scientific and civic terms. Arguing that mountain whites would eventually reach the same level of civilization and evolutionary development as their intercessors, this paper illuminates how one critical way Americans came to embrace Appalachian reform at the turn of the century, and highlights their optimism that the work might cultivate millions of white men and women to the highest level of racial development, civilization, and citizenship.

Presented By
Tina A. Irvine, Indiana University, Bloomington

"An Unfortunate Blight on the Landscape": Mountaineers, Mountains, and Eugenics

The “discovery” of the southern highlanders of the United States took place in an age in which educated elites were influenced by such movements as Social Darwinism and eugenics. Given the timing of this discovery, the social construct of Appalachia and the Ozarks that emerged in the national consciousness relied on the myth of whiteness, a mountain South populated by a homogenous people of Anglo-Saxon descent. While African-Americans and others were excluded from the national dialogue on southern mountaineers, the outsiders who controlled the narrative further complicated the racial construct of the highlands by portraying native whites as a retrograde subset of the race (an Other) whose bloodlines had been compromised by years of isolation and ignorance. By the early twentieth century the most extreme outsiders dismissed the native population altogether while heralding the mountains themselves, which purportedly molded the physical and mental capacities of those most suited to take advantage, educated outsiders. Grounded in the scholarship of Appalachia and the Ozarks, this paper relies on specific examples found in writings about the Ozarks in the first quarter of the twentieth century. “Discovered” roughly a generation after Appalachia, the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas began attracting national attention during the height of the eugenics movement. Thus, both fictional and nonfictional representations of the region are laced with racialized language that subtly or aggressively employs the discourse of eugenics to claim the mountains for a superior “race” of outsiders.

Presented By
Brooks Blevins, Missouri State University

“To Stimulate Self-Help”: Race and Citizenship in 1920s North Carolina’s Welfare Programs

Before the New Deal, North Carolina led southern states in creating a welfare system that reached rural areas and provided basic assistance to many needy families. Policy and practice, however, excluded black North Carolinians from most benefits. I examine the rhetoric of welfare officials and philanthropists in the 1920s as they sought to expand North Carolina’s social welfare programs to both blacks and whites. I focus on North Carolinians’ responses to northern philanthropic efforts to fund the expansion of social welfare, including two projects funded by the Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial. The “four-county demonstration” funded a trained social worker in four countiesincluding mountainous Cherokee County and three counties in the Piedmontfrom 1924 to 1927. The goal was to show the efficacy of welfare programs and to “popularize” the work of the State Board of Charities and Public Welfare. This project, like most of the state welfare board’s work, was aimed at whites. A second part of the project, however, also met with enthusiasm: funding for a Division of Work among Negroes, which provided a trained black social worker to coordinate existing efforts statewide and to “stimulate … self-help activities” among African Americans. I examine philanthropists’ and state officials’ language surrounding each program, arguing that although welfare officials saw the Division’s work as a pressing concern, their conception of the fundamental potential of blacks and whites shaped their policy responses. This public-private partnership was an effective compromise between conservative legislators and more liberal reformers.

Presented By
Anna L. Krome-Lukens, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Anthony A. Harkins, Western Kentucky University
Dr. Anthony Harkins is a scholar of American popular culture history, particularly its connections to rural America and Appalachia. His most recent publication is Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy (West Virginia University Press, 2019) which he co-edited with Meredith McCarroll. The book is a retort, at turns rigorous, critical, angry, and hopeful, to the long shadow Hillbilly Elegy has cast over the region and its imagining. But it also moves well beyond Vance’s book to allow Appalachians from varied backgrounds to tell their own diverse and complex stories through an imaginative blend of scholarship, prose, poetry, and photography. His first book Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon (Oxford University Press, 2004) explores the evolution of one of the most pervasive and enduring icons of twentieth century American popular culture through a wide array of popular media. Although often overlooked or dismissed as a base image of mass entertainment, the hillbilly, he contensd, has served as a continually negotiated mythic space through which modern Americans have attempted to define themselves and their national identity and to reconcile the past and the present. He has also served as a historical consultant on numerous film documentaries including Hillbilly (2018) and The Feud (PBS, American Experience, 2019) and written on 20th century Kentucky in the National Imagination and the origins, development and potential consequences of the idea of “Flyover Country.”

Presenter: Brooks Blevins, Missouri State University
Brooks Blevins is the Noel Boyd Professor of Ozarks Studies and a member of the history department at Missouri State University in Springfield. Widely regarded as the foremost expert on Ozarks history and Ozarks studies, he is the author or editor of nine books, including Hill Folks: A History of Arkansas Ozarkers and Their Image (Chapel Hill, 2002) and Ghost of the Ozarks: Murder and Memory in the Upland South (Urbana, 2012). His paper is derived from his forthcoming book, A History of the Ozarks, Vol. 3: The Ozarkers (Urbana, c. 2021).

Presenter: Tina A. Irvine, Indiana University, Bloomington
Tina A. Irvine received her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in 2019 and is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Indiana University and Assistant Editor of the Journal of American History. This paper is derived from her book manuscript, "Americanizing Appalachia: Mountain Reform and the Preservation of White Citizenship," which explores Appalachian mountain whites’ reform at the turn of the twentieth century and its implications for American conceptions of race and citizenship.

Presenter: Anna L. Krome-Lukens, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Anna L. Krome-Lukens is a Teaching Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She teaches courses about history and public policy, including the Public Policy Senior Capstone course and a seminar called “Why History Matters to Public Policy.” She completed her PhD in U.S. History at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on the history of social welfare and public health policies, particularly the history of North Carolina’s eugenics and social welfare programs in the early 20th century. She is currently working on a book manuscript entitled "The Reform Imagination: Eugenics and the Welfare State in the South," which demonstrates the lasting influence of eugenics in shaping welfare policies and conceptions of citizenship.

Commentator: Steven Noll, University of Florida
Master Lecturer Steven Noll received his Ph.D. in 1991 in American History from the University of Florida, his M.A. in 1985 from the University of Florida, his M.Ed. from the University of Florida in Special Education in 1976, and his B.A. in 1974 from the College of William and Mary. He joined the University of Florida Department of History in 1992.

He has published three books: Feeble-Minded in our Midst (1995); Mental Retardation in America (2004); and, most recently, Ditch of Dreams: The Cross-Florida Barge Canal and the Struggle for Florida’s Future (2009). Ditch of Dreams started through a grant from the State of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection and was researched and written in collaboration with Professor David Tegeder. Noll is currently working on an edited volume on the history of disability in the American South.

Dr. Noll teaches both halves of the American History survey course (AMH2010 and AMH 2020) as well as courses on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, the History of Disability in America, and Florida History.