Friday, July 5, 2013

I Am Not A Mayflower Descendant

It was rather odd for me to find Dr. Henry Farnham Perkins was involved in the eugenics decimation of the Abenakis of Vermont and the scientific destruction of their culture.  In my family, one of the few non-Irish ancestors is my great-great grandmother who was born a Perkins, only I don't think she was one of the Mayflower descendant Perkins as Henry Farnham was.  Family lore said she, and even more obviously her mother, were Penobscot, probably from around the Old Town Maine area, where the Penobscot Nation is today.  I've got two photographs of her, one taken in about 1940 with her daughter and granddaughter.  She was near 90 at the time, her daughter and granddaughter have snow-white hair, hers is decidedly dark brown or black (it's a black and white photo, of course) and she was definitely not the kind of woman who would have colored her hair.  The other picture is from far earlier, I'd guess in the 1870s, with her first, Irish, husband.  She looks decidedly not European in that photograph.  Some of my quite distant relations, who I gave copies of the pictures to, said that they have a family letter in which her mother is said to be "full-blood Indian".   Her father is known to have originally had the name Dana which is a Penobscot name.  We figure that they changed their name when they moved to New Hampshire in the early 19th century to try to blend in, though other family members who follow these things have been unable to trace the family in records from before my great-great-great grandfather in New Hampshire.  We know where they are buried but the stones are too eroded to supply any information.   My "Perkins" ancestors may have been trying to hide from discrimination and genocide of a different kind than the one, that, a hundred years later another Perkins would be committing against native people in the neighboring state in the last century.

It's chilling to find out people in quaint,  rural 1920s and early 30s New England, social workers, nurses, doctors.... practicing medical genocide against the native people.   Thinking of what they were doing as progressive and scientific.  And, as Edwin Black says, reporting what they were doing to the Nazis who kept the records that were obscured by small government bureaucratic inefficiency here.  It put a pall over the holiday, what with that lie from the Declaration I noted in my morning post.

Update:  Some of the documents around Dr. Perkins' eugenics activity are available online from the University of Vermont.  Of course the name C.B. Davenport shouts out, from what would become infamous, his support of and from Nazis, his extreme racism and eugenics, would stain anyone who had extensive associations with him.  Harry Laughlin is in the database, as well.   Unfortunate, but also there, are Perkins' letters from and to Margaret Sanger, from the period in which she was active in eugenics, unfortunately associating birth control during that period, with eugenics and implications of racism.  Birth control activism in the modern period certainly has left that association promoting personal choice on the basis of individual autonomy, especially that of women.  It would be a disaster to fall for the attempt to turn Margaret Sanger into a millstone for the right to birth control as Darwin has become for today's evolutionary science.  Both should be left to the dead past.

Update 2:   Here is a May 28, 1926 letter from Perkins to Davenport that is certainly relevant to the targeting of Abenakis and other racial minorities in the Vermont eugenics program.   I'm sure my great-great grandmother would have fallen under the eye of Perkins' staff on the basis of her "skin color valuation".

My dear Sir:

I am writing to inquire whether you have any references on negro‐white matings and skin color valuations in addition to your own paper on the subject. In case you happen to have a reprint of any of your own work on this matter, I should greatly appreciate your kindness in sending me copies, and I should like to get hold of any comments, criticisms, or amplifications upon or of your work.

The Eugenics Survey of Vermont which has been under way since last September is progressing satisfactorily, and we are now very eagerly searching for some possible source of additional funds. It has been impossible for the donor of the $7500 which is supporting the work this year to continue her generous help, although she assures us that it is not for lack of interest that she is obliged to decline. I have visited the Commonwealth Fund office and those of the National Committee of Mental Hygiene, the Russell Sage Foundation, Laura Spelman Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. In all cases, while the officials visited expressed genuine interest, they could not give me much assurance of assistance. It may be that you will be able to suggest some further possibilities, for we desire to leave no stone unturned to accomplish the continuance of our work. I have just had the address of the Milbank Foundation, and am going to write to them.

In addition to the above, I had hoped that we might draw on the Federal Experiment Station Fund given to the states through the Purnell Measure for rural investigation. We had thought of conducting a study on rural subnormalcy with especial reference to its hearing upon agriculture. We find that the Vermont funds are so nearly all allotted for next year that even if the project should be approved there would be an entirely inadequate sum available. We are not giving up our effort to get even a thousand dollars from that source, and I hope that I am not too optimistic in my expectation that the Mental Hygiene people will let us have two field workers, a psychologist, and a psychiatrist for a short term of service which will follow up the preliminary work that a field worker can do.

A phase of our investigation which promises fruitful results from further work is the study of the better branches of the more deficient families that have constituted the bulk of our year's investigation. There are various other aspects of subnormalcy in Vermont that I am very hopeful of going into at some future date, and it may be possible later to interest one of the big foundations in a rather wholesale project in this state. I am working upon a plan for such a composite investigation at the recommendation of Dr. Embree of the Rockefeller Foundation.

Our present Survey has included the study of the twenty most typical deficient families that we could find in Vermont. One or two of these tribes number up to three hundred individuals. There is therefore a rather formidable array of data in our files and in pedigree chart form available for further study. Our Field Worker and Clerk are proving so highly efficient that I particularly dislike the notion of having to give up our study at the end of the present summer, at which time the $7500 will be used up.

Any help that you can give us in the way of suggestions of possible sources of additional financial help will be very highly appreciated.

With very kind personal regards, I am 
Faithfully yours,

[H. F. Perkins]

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