AMERICA'S FASCINATION WITH EUGENIC FITNESS & CREATING A NATIONAL "NORMAL"
BY DR. SHANTELLA SHERMAN
From 1932 until 1944, researchers from Long Island’s Eugenics Record Office conducted detailed annual measurements of the bodies of students at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. The measurements utilized the tools of anthropometry, and the students participated as both research subjects, as well as social scientists in their own right. Black bodies became subjects and objects of eugenic investigations attempting to link physical appearance and transmittable character traits — including pathologies (crime, immorality, disease, and feeblemindedness) to race.
Such study aligned proponents of eugenics — a science designed to breed out the weak among a population — with Black leaders interested in platforms of racial uplift. Charles Davenport, one of the most prominent leaders of the American eugenics movement, for instance, partnered with Booker T. Washington and Tuskegee Institute president Robert Moton to promote various tenets of eugenics as useful to the growing Black intelligentsia.
And while Davenport saw eugenic measurements as necessary in identifying and breeding out “human degeneracy,” African American leaders largely viewed studies involving the measurement of Black bodies as a means of destroying race myths about inborn inferiority. Morris Steggerda, an Illinois-trained physical anthropologist led the Tuskegee anthropometric studies alongside campus administrators Cleve Abbott, the football coach, and Christine Evans Petty, the track and field coach.