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Finding Carrie Buck

American Experience

This article was originally published by American Experience to accompany its documentary, THE EUGENICS CRUSADE. Written by Cori Brosnahan with illustrations by Eoin Coveney.

In November of 1924, two women pose for a picture outside the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded. Mother and daughter, they were separated some dozen years before, when municipal authorities decided that Emma Buck couldn’t provide adequate care for her little girl, Carrie, no more than six at the time. Despite the years apart, their relationship seems affectionate. Before the camera, Emma rests a hand on her daughter’s shoulder.

Now 18, Carrie has recently been separated from her own daughter. That child, born out of wedlock, has been adopted by the Dobbs family — the same people who fostered Carrie. After taking her out of school early, the Dobbses had Carrie do domestic work for themselves and their neighbors. And then she became pregnant. The father of the child is Alice Dobbs’s nephew. Years later, Carrie tells a reporter that he took advantage of her.

After learning of Carrie’s pregnancy, John and Alice Dobbs petitioned to have her institutionalized, claiming that she was feeble-minded.” Committed to the Virginia Colony, Carrie soon found out that authorities had further plans for her: they wanted to ensure she never passed on her feeble-mindedness” to another child.

The wheels are in motion. Carrie is fighting her sterilization order in court. If her adversaries win, she will be forced to have the surgery. There is no one to fight for Carrie. Her lawyer is a founding member of the Virginia Colony’s board of directors, and a firm believer in eugenic sterilization. He is working with the board to ensure the desired outcome: a robust sterilization law that will protect its practitioners.

The man behind the camera is Arthur Estabrook, a 39-year-old field researcher from the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, New York. He has come to Virginia at the request of Aubrey Strode, the lawyer representing the Virginia Colony in its plot to sterilize Carrie. A Johns Hopkins PhD and an expert on problem families,” Estabrook is evaluating the Bucks for promiscuity and mental defect. It is his custom to take pictures of his subjects.

After photographing mother and daughter, Estabrook travels to Charlottesville to examine the third generation of the Buck family — Carrie’s daughter, Vivian. The 8-month-old baby sits in the lap of Alice Dobbs, Carrie’s erstwhile foster mother, who holds out a coin to get the baby’s attention. Vivian’s gaze is elsewhere when the flash goes off. Estabrook will testify that he gave the child a mental test and decided that she was below the average.”

The man behind the camera is Arthur Estabrook, a 39-year-old field researcher from the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, New York. He has come to Virginia at the request of Aubrey Strode, the lawyer representing the Virginia Colony in its plot to sterilize Carrie. A Johns Hopkins PhD and an expert on problem families,” Estabrook is evaluating the Bucks for promiscuity and mental defect. It is his custom to take pictures of his subjects.

After photographing mother and daughter, Estabrook travels to Charlottesville to examine the third generation of the Buck family — Carrie’s daughter, Vivian. The 8-month-old baby sits in the lap of Alice Dobbs, Carrie’s erstwhile foster mother, who holds out a coin to get the baby’s attention. Vivian’s gaze is elsewhere when the flash goes off. Estabrook will testify that he gave the child a mental test and decided that she was below the average.”

Read the full article at American Experience

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