Jesse's Story - A Tragic Story of Forced Sterilization and Eugenics in Virginia
Jesse was my neighbor many years ago. He was probably in his 60's when I moved in next door. He didn't seem to have a car and I rarely saw any visitors come knocking on his door. Oh maybe once or twice a month two ladies would show up, spend a few minutes with Jesse, then hurry on their way. I assumed they were some of those church ladies that visit the shut-ins, but I didn't really know who they were.
A quiet man, Jesse never really spoke but he would nod his head and smile whenever I saw him at the mailbox. He lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment that he shared with his little Chihuahua. Jesse carried that dog back and forth to the mailbox every day. Without those trips to the mailbox, I would never have known that Jesse lived next door. He was just that quiet.
For a while I thought maybe Jesse couldn't hear very well and that was why he never spoke. As it turned out, Jesse was just very shy. It took me many years to figure out why. What you are about to read is Jesse's story as told to me by Jesse. It will break your heart.
Jesse Comes To Call
It was late in the afternoon when I heard the knock at the door. It wasn't much of a knock but rather a very faint little tap, tap, tap. I opened the door to find Jesse standing there with a small package. Staring at the ground, Jesse said quietly, "lady, could you help me?"
I was so surprised that I probably stammered over my words but I think I said something like "Sure, what can I do for you?" Jesse handed me the small package and said it was a tape and he needed to watch it but didn't know how. I opened the package and it was a VCR tape labeled "The Lynchburg Story". After a few questions it was clear that Jesse did not own a VCR and I offered to let him watch it on mine. I invited him in and offered him a glass of tea. He turned down the tea but shuffled into my living room and sat on the edge of the first chair he came to. It was obvious that Jesse was uncomfortable and although I didn't really know why, I assumed that he just didn't want to be a bother.
As I prepared the VCR, Jesse began to speak. He softly explained that the tape was a movie about him; a result of an interview he had done with the BBC. Again I assumed. I assumed that Jesse had been interviewed about some aspect of our city's history. I was right but it is not a history I am proud of. In fact, it makes me sick.
His story is well documented by by the BBC (British Broadcast Channel) in a short film titled "The Lynchburg Story". What you are about to read is the story as it was told to me and there may be slight variations from the BBC film. It is a story of eugenics and I am embarrassed that it happened here in my hometown.
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, eugenics is defined as "a science that deals with the improvement (as by control of human mating) of hereditary qualities of a race or breed, dictionary".
How dare our society be so arrogant!
Back to Jesse. He began to talk in a very low but gentle voice, of growing up poor in the Appalachian mountains. His mother died in child birth when he was very young. His father didn't know how to raise a family alone and quickly remarried to have help with the children. As the oldest child, Jesse became the target of abuse and the cause of conflict between his father and new step-mother. He was no longer wanted and they often talked of sending him away. But, there was no money.
When a fire broke out in the National Forest nearby, Jesse's father falsely accused him of setting the fire and the authorities took Jesse away. His father had told them that Jesse was "dumb", "feeble-minded" and his accusations became a curse.
Jesse was placed in The Colony; a state run facility for the feeble-minded. The Colony was like a prison. All the doors were kept locked and residents were frequently locked in closets for weeks on end with only a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling and a pot to use for a toilet. Jesse spent many months in "the closet" for trying to escape. He would eventually live in these conditions for 12 long years.
A few months after he was placed in The Colony, Jesse was taken to a room where he was told he needed an operation. No explanation was offered but Jesse remembers feeling numb "down there". He glances downward, gesturing towards his genitals. He describes the pain as being "so bad" and that he was very, very sore for a long time. Jesse did not know what happened but he knew that it hurt. He also remembers hearing screams coming from that same room as one after another of the young male residents were taken there for a "procedure that was good for their health".
Who, What, When, Where, and ...WHY
Jesse had been forcibly sterilized to prevent the reproduction of more "feeble-minded" children. According to the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Jesse wasn't good enough. And his only crime was being poor, uneducated, and unwanted. He tells me over and over again, "it won't no hospital" and then, "it was worse than a prison".
The Colony, whose original mission was to house individuals with epilepsy, had become a prison for the "feeble-minded", a prison for the "unwanted". And Jesse would live there until he was a young adult, locked in rooms with no bed and no windows and, no real human contact. He had never been loved or shown kindness or compassion.
A Happy Ending
As I sat listening to Jesse, the VCR tape still in my hand, time stood still. I could not believe that this town I loved had kept such a deep and dark secret. "Why?", my mind screamed, had someone not stopped it. How could it happen and not one employee at the Colony tried to stop it. What kind of people were they? I didn't know what to say to Jesse so I just kept repeating the words "I'm sorry". "I'm sorry". "I'm so sorry".
Finally Jesse started talking again. He told me of a change at the Colony when a new administrator came on board. The new administrator, or "boss man" as Jesse called him, was kind and he recognized that Jesse worked hard as a painter. He began taking Jesse to his home on weekends and having him paint around the place. As Jesse talked, his face began to relax and there was a new light in his eyes as he told me of the "boss man's" daughter. She was crippled with polio as a child and was confined to a wheelchair. As Jesse spent more and more time at the "boss man's" house, he and the daughter would talk and Jesse fell in love. He fell hard and it wasn't long before the "boss man" saw it too.
Jesse and the boss man's daughter were married. She was the love of his life; the only person who had ever really loved him. Their love was like a spring, feeding each of them the thing they needed most; a love of their own and a love that was pure and sweet and innocent.
Jesse and his bride grew old together and as he told me of the illness that eventually left her bedridden and on oxygen 24 hours a day, I saw him wipe a tear from his eye. This was a gentle man who had loved with all his heart. He wasn't educated and he had been bitterly wounded by the tragic events of his young life but Jesse had a heart full of love. And for just a moment I saw Jesse as he really was - a gentle giant of a man.
Jesse and I sat in silence together, him thinking of his precious wife and me, well, I can find no words for what I was feeling. Some part of me felt as if I had stepped off a train into another time; a time I didn't recognize. Could a story like this really be true? Could this really happen in my lifetime? What kind of world was I living in, when one human being can decide another is not fit to live free and reproduce, just because they were poor and uneducated?
Jesse finally spoke again and told me of the day his wife died. He spoke of her so tenderly, describing her as the delicate flower she was. He told me that the two of them wanted children so badly and had tried so hard to no avail. Finally, they were told of the forced sterilization and that there would be no children. They were heartbroken. Jesse and his bride gave all the love they would have had for their children to each other. He was a good husband and had taken care of her in that little apartment day after day, year after year as they aged and her health failed. Jesse tended to her every need. He cooked and cleaned and he administered her many medications. He monitored her oxygen tanks. All that from a feeble-minded man? He said they had never had a cross word, he said. And, he missed her so much that he thought he would die. He told me of the days following her funeral when he didn't know what to do because he had always had her to take care of. As Jesse sank deeper into depression, some ladies from his church suggested he get a dog, to help with the loneliness. It all made sense now. The daily walks to the mailbox carrying that little dog. Jesse was now giving all that love of his to that little dog. It was all he had left.
Learn more about eugenics in Virginia
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The sordid history of eugenics in the Commonwealth is rising from the darkness. Read the story of one man's courage to tell of being forcibly sterilized by the State.
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Over time, others have come forward and told their stories of being forcibly sterilized at The Colony. Carrie Buck was the first to be forcibly sterilized at The Colony and her story has been told in a 1994 television drama titled "Against Her Will: The Carrie Buck Story". The Commonwealth of Virginia did not repeal it's sterilization laws until 1974. The civil suit of Buck v Bell made it to the Supreme Court in 1927 but Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Homes ruled in favor of the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck, stating that she was feeble-minded and it was in the best interest of the Commonwealth. But, this is about Jesse.
I don't know where Jesse is now or if he is still living. I moved away and lost touch with him but I have never stopped thinking about him. We did finally get around to watching the VCR tape of "The Lynchburg Story" and Jesse signed the contract for the BBC to release the film. That was the purpose of the package; to legally grant the BBC permission to tell Jesse's story. It won several awards but still did not bring enough attention to the 8,300 forced sterilizations that occurred in the Commonwealth of Virginia. I may be ashamed of the history of the Commonwealth of Virginia and The Colony but I am oh so proud to have been Jesse's neighbor and for a few moments in time, his friend. He will never be forgotten.
© 2012 Linda Crist, All rights reserved.
- N.C. poised to give $10 million to eugenics victims - NewsAdvance.com : Local News
RALEIGH, N.C. — A proposed agreement sets aside $10 million for one-time payments to North Carolina’s forced sterilization victims, but the final amount paid to each individual will depend on how many come forward.
Current Issues: An update
For several years states have struggled with the moral and financial issues of responsibility that resulted from the eugenics movement. How much is enough financial compensation? Which account should fund any payment made to victims? What about those who died before the state owned their responsibility for the damage done through eugenics? These are all appropriate questions but it's time to stop asking questions and just do the right thing.
The state of North Carolina is getting closer to being one of the first to compensate the living victims of eugenics in their state. Some will say it's not enough and they are right. There will never be enough compensation for the pain and suffering these people have endured for a lifetime. But, it's a start.