Between 1927 and 1979, more than 8,000 people were involuntarily sterilized in five hospitals across the state of Virginia. From this plain and terrible fact springs Elizabeth Catte’s Pure America, a sweeping, unsparing history of eugenics in Virginia, and by extension the United States. Virginia’s eugenics program was not the misguided initiative of well-meaning men of the day, writes Catte, it was a manifestation of white supremacy. It was a form of employment insurance. It was a means of controlling “troublesome” women and a philosophy that helped remove poor people from valuable land. It was cruel and it was wrong. As was amply evidenced by her acclaimed 2018 book What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, Catte has no room for excuses; no patience for equivocation. What does it mean for modern America, she asks here, that such buildings are given the second chance that 8,000 citizens never got?
“Grounded, well-rendered, and highly disturbing,” Pure America is a necessary corrective to the historical record, a must-read for anyone concerned with how to repair its damage.
Elizabeth Catte is a historian and writer living in Virginia, and the author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia (Belt Publishing 2018). She is an editor-at-large for West Virginia University Press and the co-founder of Passel, an applied history and consulting company.