Title page of a government publication co-authored by Charles B. Davenport.

The Measure of Black (Un)Fitness: Legacies of Slavery in the Early Eugenics Movement

Rana A. Hogarth, PhD will speak on Thursday, April 28, 2022 at 2:00 PM ET. This program will be live-streamed globally, and archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Dr. Hogarth is Associate Professor of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Circulating Now interviewed her about her research and upcoming talk.

Circulating Now: Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like? 

Informal portrait of a young Black woman in front of a bookshelf.Rana A. Hogarth: My family is from Jamaica originally.  I was born in Windsor, Canada, but grew up in Los Angeles, California. I currently live in Champaign, Illinois where I am a historian of medicine/science who focuses on the era of slavery and its legacies. I am currently associate professor of history at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where I teach university courses related to the Atlantic World, African American History, and History of Medicine and Science.

Typical days for me start with getting everyone’s breakfast together while scrolling through my phone to see what emails have landed in my inbox. After getting myself together I head to campus (during the pandemic, I’ve had to use the spare room to Zoom teach). I take a several hours before class to review my slides, carefully go over the assigned readings for themes to emphasize during lecture.  I always like to have a narrative for the day; a story I will tell my students that is easy to follow that draws upon a few key points form the assigned readings. When I’m done teaching there are always more emails to attend to, but also committee meetings. Lunch is often at my desk, either reading a graduate student dissertation chapter or maybe an article related to my own research. Sometimes if I am lucky, it’s a primary source and I usually try to take a few notes about it. Other times, it’s mountains of papers to grade. By 5 PM, I’m heading home with my family from campus.  We make dinner. If I’m not too tired and have planned my last afternoon cup of coffee well, then I try to do a little reading or writing related to my own research for an hour. Then I usually review my lectures, sort out my calendar, and then head to bed. Not glamorous, but it works.

CN: What initially sparked your interest in the history of medicine?

RH: I was pre-med as an undergrad, but loved history. So I was determined to major in history and also take all my premed requirements. Alas, this plan did not work, since I really just wanted to take history classes, and I’m also not that great at physics, so I dropped pre-med. Luckily for me, my undergraduate institution had a history of medicine/history of science major and I had completed all the prerequisites for it. All of the classes I took in history and history of medicine/science were amazing. The Race and Medicine Seminar I took, offered by Professor Susan Lederer (who eventually became my thesis advisor), made me determined to study the construction of race and the ways supposedly objective disciplines like medicine and science were complicit in supporting harmful ideas that have led to the oppression and exploitation of marginalized groups.  Her class changed my outlook, and made me want to consider a career studying matters of race and medicine.

CN: In your upcoming talk, “The Measure of Black (Un)Fitness: Legacies of Slavery in the Early Eugenics Movement,” you explore the concept of fitness. Would you describe what it means in the context of your talk?

RH: Fitness is an elastic term in the context that I study. Eugenicists also used this term to encompass quite a bit—certainly they had ableist, xenophobic, classist, and racist views of fitness. What I study is the concept of fitness as it relates to propensity to disease, intelligence, and morality. A very large catch all, if you will.  For my current research I’m investigating how eugenicists, specifically Charles B. Davenport, constructed mixed race bodies (People of white and Black ancestry) as deficient either in their likelihood to catch, spread, and die from TB, their intelligence, or their social behaviors etc. (promiscuity for example). Men like Davenport assumed that mixed race people were innately weak and were subject to disharmonies i.e. traits from each distinct race contributing negatively to the offspring. Much of the assumptions Davenport made about the relative unfitness of mixed race people can actually be traced to claims that circulated in the slavery era.

CN: What kinds of primary source materials have you found most useful in your research and where do you find them?

RH: Davenport published two race crossing studies; the biggest one and arguably the most critically panned one, Race Crossing in Jamaica, has been very helpful. His personal papers housed at the American Philosophical Society (APS) have been a great help, so have the records of the Eugenics Record Office, also housed at the APS. In addition, the United States Sanitary Commission’s Investigations in the Military and Anthropological Statistics of American Soldiers published in 1869 has been a great resource too. A number of scholars have also pointed to it as evidence of the ways scientists and physicians propagated dangerous and racist ideas about Black and mixed race people’s bodies.

CN: In researching this subject, were you drawn to any particular individual’s story?

Title page of a government publication co-authored by Charles B. Davenport.
The Medical Department of the United States Army in the World War, Volume 15, Statistics, 1921
National Library of Medicine #4120390RX16

RH: Too many individuals to mention to be honest. Davenport is an interesting figure as even his peers, who held similar views about mixed race people, found his work and methodologies lacking. But other figures like Caroline Bond Day, a mixed race woman who also studied mixed race families in America, stand out. She received a Master’s in anthropology under Earnest Hooton, and she harnessed her knowledge about measuring bodies and studying family traits to tell a different story about mixed race people—one that elevated rather than denigrated them. Finally, as we know archives are places that continue to uphold the power structures that created them, so the human subjects, many of them Black and mixed race people who appear as numbers, measurements, also interest me. What did they experience as they were measured? What did researchers tell them they were trying to learn from their bodies, or from their family histories. These are certainly individuals in the historical record who I want to learn more about; whose stories I want to tell.

Rana A. Hogarth’s presentation is part of our NLM History Talks, which promote awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All talks are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.

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