We commend members of the Vermont House of Representatives for unanimously passing a resolution formally apologizing for the state government’s role in the eugenics movement of the early 20th century.
The March 31 vote was on the 90th anniversary of the 1931 signing into law of the Vermont Eugenics Survey, which legalized the sterilization of people the state deemed “undesirable.”
Rep. Tom Stevens, Waterbury Democrat and chairman of the House Committee of General, Housing and Military Affairs, was the chief architect of the resolution.
“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 Stevens read from the 23-page resolution.
Testimony leading up to the historic vote was emotional and gut-wrenching.
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 read in his statement.
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.
At least 250 Vermonters were sterilized before the Eugenics Survey ended in 1936. Two-thirds of the sterilized were women.
As reported on these pages, the committee invited descendants of those directly affected by Vermont’s detrimental eugenics policies to give testimony to the multi-generational pain it has invoked.
We agree this resolution is a crucial step in healing the wounds of the past. As Stevens noted: “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.”
Witness after witness gave testimony to lawmakers during the past year that by disregarding differently abled people, society — and for too many moments in time, Vermont — was overlooking a creative and contributory part of our culture.
We do not recall the last time a resolution received unanimous support out of committee (11-0 on March 26) and the full House (146-0 on March 31).
As it should be. This is a part of our state’s dark past. Other states are struggling with histories that highlight racism, divisiveness and violence against minorities and vulnerable communities. There have been high-profile debates about reparations, removing iconography and issuing apologies.
These steps must be taken. No population in a nation that prides itself on freedom should ignore its mistakes, especially against a broad swath of citizens.
In his introduction of the resolution, Stevens said there was some contention in committee over the use of the term “genocide” in the language of the resolution. They referred to 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.
It is worth noting that the resolution was preceded in June 2019 by the University of Vermont, which acknowledged its role in the eugenics movement. “We recognize and deeply regret this profoundly sad chapter in Vermont and UVM’s history,” then-president Tom Sullivan said in the statement. “I offer sincere apologies for the suffering that resulted from this unethical and regrettable part of our legacy.”
Stevens and others are seeking reparations. But ultimately, lawmakers want Vermonters to own their part in being both ableist and racist behavior.
“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.”
The voice of Vermont lawmakers on this apology had to be unanimous. Vermont was wrong. And now we begin the long walk toward doing the right thing moving forward.