Northwestern Events Calendar


"Legacies of Slavery in the Era of Eugenics: Charles B. Davenport’s Race-Crossing Studies"

When: Monday, February 10, 2020
4:30 PM - 6:00 PM Central

Where: University Hall, Hagstrum - 201, 1897 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60208 map it

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Public - Post Docs/Docs - Graduate Students

Cost: FREE

Contact: Janet Hundrieser   (847) 491-3525

Group: Science in Human Culture Program - Klopsteg Lecture Series

Category: Lectures & Meetings


Speaker - Rana Hogarth, University of Illinois, History,

Abstract - Interracial sex between blacks and whites predated the formation of the United States, but that did not stop America’s leading eugenicist, Charles B. Davenport from viewing it as a newly emergent threat in the early decades of the twentieth century. Davenport’s published writings on race-crossing, as it was termed, reveal a particular preoccupation with the offspring of black and white parents. These “hybridized” people were, according to Davenport, a “nuisance,” “badly put together,” and “ineffective.” They soon became targets of invasive eugenic studies. Indeed, as Davenport outlined the dangers these so-called “mulattoes” posed to society, he turned not only to Mendelian genetics, but also to antebellum medical texts and lore about black and mixed race people’s bodies. Two of Davenport’s most well-known race-crossing studies: Heredity of Skin Color in Negro White Crosses (1913) and Race Crossing in Jamaica, (1929), closely adhered to antebellum-era scientific investigations into race that took the idea that black people’s bodies were distinctive and inferior for granted. In this way, Davenport’s race crossing studies continued the longstanding scientific impulse to pathologize black people’s bodies; the pathologization of mixed race people’s bodies was perhaps a tragic, predictable corollary. As agrued in this talk, Davenport’s studies measured and quantified mixed race people’s bodies, but they also rehabilitated, refined, and in some cases sanctioned, long held beliefs from the era of slavery about the physical and mental limitations of mixed race people. Davenport viewed this group of people as inherently unfit in ways that had indirect ties to slavery era discourse about race and in ways that have gone largely unexamined in the historiography of eugenics. Eugenicists may have relied on genetics and statistics to predict human traits and behaviors, but they invoked methods and arguments found in disciplines like physical anthropology and ethnology—disciplines that developed and flourished under the system of racialized slavery—to accomplish their aims. Thus, this talk foregrounds the role slavery played in creating both the theoretical and practical underpinnings of eugenic discourse around racial intermixture.

Biography - Professor Hogarth's research focuses on the medical and scientific constructions of race during the era of slavery and beyond. Her first book, Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2017. In it, she examine how white physicians “medicalized” blackness— a term I use to describe the process by which white physicians defined blackness as a medically  significant marker of difference in slave societies of the American Atlantic. Her second project examines the genealogy and deployment of the terms used describe mixed race offspring of black and white people (“mulatto,” “quadroon,” etc.) in American medical and lay discourse.  It traces how these terms were used in colonial Caribbean contexts and in mainland North America during the era of slavery, and illuminates how American eugenicists adopted these terms to correlate mental and physical capabilities of mixed race people to their racial ancestral make up. In doing so, they refashioned these terms from crude labels to precision tools with valid scientific meanings. In the early twentieth century, American eugenicists looked southward to the Caribbean to conduct “race crossing” studies, viewing that region as an ideal experimental site to undertake the study of a topic considered taboo in the United States during that time.  The results of their studies gave credence to the notion that race was a visual and quantifiable biological feature and confirmed white anxieties about the perils of racial mixing. Finally, this project centers Caribbean ex-slave colonies as experimental spaces that allowed eugenicists to extract data from mixed race people for the benefit of American scientists and the lay public.

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