The Human Betterment League
For centuries, Winston Salem has been on the cutting edge of science serving as birthplace to such classic innovations like branded tobacco products, men’s socks and underwear, and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.
But in addition to being ground zero for the beneficent tobacco industry, Winston-Salem’s illustrious history also claims the forward-thinking organization known as the Human Betterment League. The League was created in 1947 on the initiative of hosiery king and Forsyth County commissioner James G. Hanes. Hanes was joined by other Winston-Salem elite, such as Clarence Gamble of Procter & Gamble, Alice Shelton Gray, Dr. C. Nash Herndon, a leader in the medical-genetics department at the Bowman Gray School of Medicine to create the Human Betterment League in 1947.
The origins of the League began many years earlier. In 1919, the state of North Carolina enacted sterilization legislation in a law entitled “An Act to Benefit the Moral, Mental, or Physical Conditions of Inmates of Penal and Charitable Institutions”. The law was brief and the state’s feeble-minded, mentally ill, mentally retarded, and epileptic continued to suffer unchecked reproductive rights that obviously threatened civilization as we know it. So in 1929, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a new sterilization law that broaden the measures and lay down specific verbiage in an effort to make forced sterilization actionable for the pubic good. The law also made sure to explicitly stated that sterilization, where performed under the Act’s guidelines, would be lawful and that any persons who requested, authorized or directed proceedings would not be held criminally or civilly liable for actions taken.
But the public good doesn’t always come without a few bumps in the road. After the passage of the sterilization law in 1929, sterilization began at disappointingly slow rate. The law was briefly declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court in 1933 due to an oversight by not including any sort of appeals process, but North Carolina quickly rectified this the same year by enacting a new sterilization law that provided a meager right to appeal in order to satisfy due process nutjobs. The passage of this 1933 law also created the North Carolina Eugenics Board which would eventually consist of many of Winston Salem’s own Human Betterment League.
With the passage of the expanded laws and the formation of the Human Betterment League, the directed sterilization of NC’s inferior could begin in earnest. By 1950, North Carolina’s cumulative sterilizations reached over 2000 and continued to increase at a steady rate. The Human Betterment League’s promotion of eugenic sterilization and the education of the public about the causes and prevention of mental illnesses and handicaps helped ensure that men, women, children, White, Black, Indian, deaf, mentally handicapped, and the poor would no longer be able to reproduce and further contaminate North Carolina’s genetic cesspool.
Eventually however, the process of sterilization fell out of fashion, due in no small part to the Nazi’s over-zealous embrace of the philosophy during the second World War. By the 1970’s the Human Betterment League shifted it’s focus to that of less forced surgical procedures and by 1984 it had changed names to the Human Genetics League, and then disbanded in 1988.
But the legacies of the Human Betterment League and the Bowman Gray School of Medicine’s eugenics are still relevant today, as participants of North Carolina’s sterilization program continue to live and never threaten to propagate Our State with biological inferior children.