On this dayMar 20, 1924

Virginia Passes Acts Seeking To 'Purify The White Race'

Encyclopedia Virginia

Harry Laughlin, a leader in the eugenics movement, drafted a Model Eugenical Sterilization Law that Virginia adopted and enacted on March 20, 1924. The law, which allowed for the forced sterilization of people confined to state institutions as a “benefit both to themselves and society,” was passed on the same day that the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 became law. The Racial Integrity Act required the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics to record a racial description of every newborn baby and outlawed marriages between “white” and “non-white” partners. Together, the laws sought to “purify the white race.”

Eugenics, named for the Greek word meaning “well-born,” is a selective breeding philosophy that seeks to eliminate “undesirable” traits by preventing certain kinds of people from reproducing. Sir Francis Galton developed the term in 1883 and described eugenics as “the study of the agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally.” As eugenics gained widespread support throughout the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century, states began to authorize doctors to forcibly sterilize their patients.

When the Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s Eugenical Sterilization Act in Buck v. Bell in 1927, Virginia’s law became a model for the rest of the country and facilitated the forced sterilization of more than 60,000 men and women nationwide. Children as young as 10 years old were targeted for sterilization. Later, Virginia’s law was co-opted by Nazi Germany and relied upon as precedent for the Nazis’ race purity programs. Though eugenical theory was criticized after World War II, forced sterilization persisted long after in the U.S.

About EJI

The Equal Justice Initiative works to end mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and racial inequality.

Learn more

About this website

Until we confront our history of racial injustice and its legacy, we cannot overcome the racial bias that exists today.

Learn more

Explore more events