In a landslide vote the Vermont House unanimously passed a resolution formally apologizing for the state government’s role in the eugenics movement of the early 20th century.
Coincidentally, the vote — on March 31 — fell on the 90th anniversary of the 1931 signing of the Vermont Eugenics Survey into law, which legalized the sterilization of people the state deemed “undesirable.”
“An apology is both an end and a beginning. It’s an acknowledgment that we, as a general assembly, supported long-held and practiced policies and that those policies were harmful and the harm inflicted was serious, widespread, and enduring,” said Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury.
Stevens chairs the House Committee of General, Housing, and Military Affairs which gathered copious historical background, first-person testimony, and public comment as it painstakingly crafted the resolution, J.R.H.2.
Over the course of almost a full hour, he presented the measure to the full House, chronicling Vermont’s dark history of discrimination and the reasons why a sincere apology is necessary to recognize the harm and hurt caused decades ago with effects lingering to today.
“We acknowledge that these policies of separation, sterilization, and institutionalization were driven by social and ideological imperatives based on racial, ethnic, class, and gender biases and prejudices,” he said.
The Eugenics Survey was pioneered by former UVM professor Dr. Henry Perkins in 1935. It targeted those perceived as “degenerate”– namely Indigenous people, people of color, French-Canadians, people with disabilities, and the poor.
“Eugenics at its core allowed a select few people, supported by lawmakers in our General Assembly, to use state-established and funded hospitals, schools, and prisons to destroy families, their cultures, and their communities in the name of science,” Stevens said.
The Vermont State Hospital for the Insane in Waterbury and the Brandon Training School (formerly the Vermont State School for Feeble Minded Children) were two establishments in which minorities were institutionalized and subjected to harmful treatment.
According to Stevens, 250 Vermonters were sterilized before the Eugenics Survey ended in 1936. Two-thirds of the sterilized were women.
The concept for this resolution actually came to the Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs last year. Stevens said the committee was almost ready to pass it when COVID-19 halted the process.
Hearing firsthand accountsThe committee invited descendants of those directly affected by Vermont’s detrimental eugenics policies to give testimony to the multi-generational pain it has invoked. Among these victims were people of the Abenaki Tribes, French-Canadians, and people with both physical and developmental disabilities.
Prior to the pandemic’s closing of the State House last year, testimony was given in person. This year’s legislative session is being conducted entirely via video conferencing due to the ongoing pandemic. Further testimony to the committee was delivered over Zoom or in writing.
“The stories we heard were incredibly moving because they talked about what was taken away from them not for what they did, but for who they were,” said Stevens.
Chief Don Stevens of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki Nation was among those who testified in person in February 2020. His grandmother was directly targeted by Vermont’s Eugenics Survey as both an Indigenous person and a “cripple.” Stevens (not a relation to Rep. Tom Stevens) said she had to change her name three times in order to avoid detection.
“A lot of our people had to either practice their culture underground or assimilate because if they could become anything other than Indian they could have a chance at survival,” Chief Stevens said.
This resolution is a crucial step in healing the wounds of the past, he said. “We deserve to be who we are, we deserve to be recognized. An apology goes a long way to ask that the state never do anything to remove our existence again,” said Stevens.
Choking back tears, Stevens accredited his grandmother’s tenacity for his very existence. “I’m here today because my grandmother did what she had to do to survive. If she was sterilized, my mother wouldn’t be here, and neither would I,” he said.
Terry Holden of Cambridge Junction, a member of the Vermont Developmental Disabilities Council, gave a virtual testimony this February on behalf of the disabled community. The mother of a young, nonverbal man with autism, she asserted that Vermont communities continue to experience the reverberations of the eugenics movement in the treatment of people with disabilities.
“It’s as if eugenics gave society permission to discount, marginalize, and even demonize people who are different,” Holden said. “It’s been a catalyst of this bigotry that holds back people [with disabilities] who are trying to contribute.”
Holden said that by disregarding differently-abled people, society is overlooking a creative and contributory part of our culture. “The better society is a diverse society. This apology is the first step to crack the door on that process of total inclusion, connection, and purpose,” said Holden.
The resolution passed with resounding concurrence in both the committee, 11-0 on March 26, and the full House, 146-0 on March 31.
Following the committee vote on the 26th, members reflected on the magnitude of the moment before adjourning. “This is historic,” said Rep. Joseph Troiano, D-Stannard.
Rep. Tommy Walz, D-Barre City, concurred. “If I don’t accomplish anything else in the Legislature, I’m so happy to have been a part of this.” Commenting before the full House vote, Walz explained the parallels he draws between the principles behind eugenics and those that guided the Nazi regime in Germany.
Apology is step oneRep. Stevens said that there was some contention in committee over the use of the term “genocide” in the language of the resolution. They referenced the United Nations definition and found that it aligned with the eugenics policies and practices at issue. “When our committee reflected on the testimonies we heard and came back to this definition, they could accept the fact that this word should be in the apology,” Stevens said.
This legislative resolution of apology was preceded by steps at the University of Vermont including an apology from former president Tom Sullivan in June 2019 for the school’s role in the eugenics movement. “We recognize and deeply regret this profoundly sad chapter in Vermont and UVM’s history,” Sullivan said in the statement he issued. “I offer sincere apologies for the suffering that resulted from this unethical and regrettable part of our legacy.”
A year prior, the UVM Trustees voted to rename a campus library to remove the name of Guy Bailey who was UVM president at the time of the eugenics survey.
In casting his vote this week, Rep. Curt McCormack, D-Burlington, referenced both actions by UVM. “Madame Speaker, because of the well-deserved reference to the University of Vermont in J.R.H.2, let the record show that in June 2019 the university issued a public apology for its role in the Genetics Survey and changed the name of the library removing the name of the president of the university at the time of the Genetics Survey. As one of your UVM trustees, I enthusiastically voted for these actions as I do today for J.R.H.2.”
Waterbury roleFollowing Stevens’ introduction of the resolution and before the floor vote, many House members stepped forward to share their thoughts and even connections with the measure before them. In some cases, the connections to Waterbury were strong.
One poignant moment came when Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, spoke ahead of Wednesday’s vote. She told of working at the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury when she was 21 at a time when sterilizations were still happening.
She recalled a young woman patient. “I remember her diagnosis. She certainly wasn’t mentally ill. She was probably poor,” Ancel said, explaining that the woman was to undergo surgery to be sterilized. “When I cast my yes vote today, it will be in her honor and in her memory.”
Likewise, the resolution’s lead sponsor, Rep. John Killacky, D-South Burlington, a member of the House General Committee, said hearing testimony on this topic was “quite profound and a blessing.” He recounted that Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, who worked on early versions of a eugenics resolution, testified to the committee that in Waterbury near the former state hospital site there are “19 or so unmarked graves.” He paused. “So today I am voting on the 90th anniversary of this law in honor of those ‘19 or so’ lost souls that we did not protect.”
Rep. Stevens acknowledged that an apology seems hollow if it’s not supported by concrete reparations for the families and communities of those affected. “We’ll be trying to follow up our work over time with a possible Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the people targeted in the eugenics movement,” he said. “Our committee will be working with members of the affected communities to come up with the next steps based on this work.”
Stevens said he recognizes that while the policies don’t continue specifically today, they have created a persisting mindset that one group of people is perceived as “defective,” which is inherently racist and ableist.
“We’ve denied these minorities membership in our societies in so many ways and even told them that they don’t exist, in the case of Indigenous Vermonters,” Stevens said. “This is our way of hopefully starting a process that will heal across the gap we have in the system and the people that have been affected by our actions.”
After final adoption in the House, the resolution was taken up in the Senate on April 2 and it was referred to the Committee on Government Operations.
Stevens explained how the measure as a joint resolution needs only to pass both chambers. Presuming the Senate acts on it affirmatively, it would be signed off by the Lieutenant Governor in the Senate and the Speaker of House.
“Then it is up to us to have a public ceremony where the apology is read in public,” Stevens said. “We’re hoping we’ll be able to do something publicly by June or July. Because the last thing we want to do is apologize for the harm we’ve caused, over Zoom.”
Community News Service is a collaboration with the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.