For mere words, apologies have a surprising currency in addressing wrongs. Often they are not enough; the apology of a convicted murderer to his victim’s family Wednesday, in a criminal courtroom in Barre, seemed heartfelt (“What happened tortures me and I’m truly sorry”), but it won’t bring her back. Yet apologies are, at least, an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, recognition of others’ suffering and an acceptance of blame.
Vermont’s Abenaki community finally received an apology last week on behalf of the University of Vermont, for harm done to their forebears by the so-called Eugenics Survey of Vermont, which was conducted under the university’s auspices between 1925 and 1936. A description of the program contained in a historical-research document quotes an explanation by its originator, UVM professor Henry C. Taylor.
“For more than a century,” Taylor wrote, “Vermont has been one of the most reliable seedbeds of our national life. ... How may the fertility of this seedbed be maintained and how may the quality of the human stock be conserved are questions which rightfully command the attention of the leaders of the Green Mountain State.”
Taylor’s proffered solution was to conduct a survey to identify and define what he called “social problem groups.” Once they were identified, of course, solutions would have to follow. This purportedly intellectual and scientific exercise inspired the Legislature, in 1931, to pass what’s known as Vermont’s eugenic sterilization law, officially referred to as “A law for human betterment by voluntary sterilization.”
The parallels to Nazi Germany, and its dedication to protecting the purity of “the Master Race” by eliminating other groups, is unmistakable. The means were different — Vermont didn’t resort to concentration camps and mass murder — and surely their condescending proponents considered them humane.
The historical document explains that the survey projected “a commitment to manage Vermont’s ‘underclass’ through a comprehensive program of social planning, education, and reproductive control” — which meant deciding which kinds of people could inherit the world and which gradually must be eliminated from it.
Sterilizations targeted the indigenous peoples of Vermont, and of course they weren’t “voluntary,” but coerced. They reportedly continued into the 1960s, with significant impact upon the Abenaki community.
On Monday, more than half a century after the program wound down, UVM President Thomas Sullivan officially expressed regret for the role the university had played.
“I offer sincere apologies for the suffering that resulted from this unethical and regrettable part of our legacy,” he stated.
According to VTDigger, Don Stevens, who is chief of the Nulhegan Abenakis in northeastern Vermont — and whose mother, Stevens explained, had changed her name repeatedly to avoid being identified as a sterilization candidate — said Sullivan’s apology was “a huge step, but it’s a first step.” He’s waiting for an overdue apology from the state, which created legislation to actually implement the insulting eugenic theories of the academics.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, R-Texas, pointed out that “Slavery has never received an apology.”
The forum was a congressional hearing on H.R.40, a “bill (to establish a) Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans to examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.”
The hearing, which drew an overflow crowd of spectators, was held on June 19, or “Juneteenth,” the day marking the end of slavery in Texas in 1865 and symbolizing the end of all slavery in America. It takes its title from the federal government’s promise of “40 acres and a mule” for freed slaves in the agrarian South. The promise was never fulfilled. Instead, Jim Crow, with crushing persecution, lynching and the rest of its legacy, took hold.
The question of how, and to whom, reparations might be made is complex, and African-Americans who testified were divided on the subject. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates dismissed the contention by some opponents that slavery ended so long ago that contemporary Americans shouldn’t be held responsible in any material way for redressing it. He spoke of the economic “plunder” visited on black families by discriminatory policies both recent and current. However, author and columnist Coleman Hughes contended that “reparations are the wrong path. (What’s needed) is safe neighborhoods, a fair criminal justice system, affordable health care, and none of these can be achieved through reparations for slavery.”
A commission — strongly opposed by white politicians like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — would study those very questions. But an official apology for 250 years of human bondage in the U.S. shouldn’t be asking too much.