Pure America

Eugenics and the Making of Modern Virginia

Hardcover, 199 pages

Published March 4, 2021 by Belt Publishing.

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4 stars (1 review)

Between 1927 and 1979, more than 8,000 people were involuntarily sterilized in five hospitals across the state of Virginia. From this plain and terrible fact springs Elizabeth Catte’s Pure America, a sweeping, unsparing history of eugenics in Virginia, and by extension the United States.

Virginia’s twentieth-century eugenics program was not the misguided initiative of well-meaning men of the day, writes Catte, with clarity and ferocity. It was a manifestation of white supremacy. It was a form of employment insurance. It was a means of controlling “troublesome” women and a philosophy that helped remove poor people from valuable land. It was cruel and it was wrong, and yet today sites where it was practiced like Western State Hospital, in Staunton, VA, are rehabilitated as luxury housing, their histories hushed up in the service of capital. As was amply evidenced by her acclaimed 2018 book What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, …

1 edition

"$700,000. This is how much the regret for fifty-five years of eugenics costs in the state of Virginia."

4 stars

I found this one both terribly eye-opening and slightly unfocused. Still, would recommend, and it's a quick read. Catte covers a lot of ground, beginning with Carrie Buck of Charlottesville and the grotesque events (including SCOTUS show trial) that led to her forced sterilization at the Lynchburg Colony. There is a brief history of eugenicist thought in the U.S.; a revisitation of the Shenandoah National Park section of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia; a pretty pleasurable skewering of UVa; and an inquiry into the mixed up architectural and eugenic history of Western State Hospital in Staunton, as viewed through its current rehabilitation by real estate developers. Pure America really zings when Catte makes obvious the underlying truths about labor—like that the fundamental point of sterilizing women like Carrie Buck was to send them to work in the homes of rich Virginians without the possibility of their being embarrassingly …