Toward a Racial Abyss: Eugenics, Wickliffe Draper, and the Origins of the Pioneer Fund

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Toward a Racial Abyss: Eugenics, Wickliffe Draper, and the Origins of the Pioneer Fund

Journal of History of the Behavioral Sciences
Volume 38, Issue 3, (Summer 2002)
pages 259–283
DOI: 10:1002/jhbs.10063

Michael G. Kenny, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology
Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia

The Pioneer Fund was created in 1937 “to conduct or aid in conducting study and research into problems of heredity and eugenics.. and problems of race betterment with special reference to the people of the United States.” The Fund was endowed by Colonel Wickliffe Preston Draper, a New England textile heir, and perpetuates his legacy through an active program of grants, some of the more controversial in aid of research on racial group differences. Those presently associated with the Fund maintain that it has made a substantial contribution to the behavioral and social sciences, but insider accounts of Pioneer’s history oversimplify its past and smooth over its more tendentious elements. This article examines the social context and intellectual background to Pioneer’s origins, with a focus on Col. Draper himself, his concerns about racial degeneration, and his relation to the eugenics movement. In conclusion, it evaluates the official history of the fund.

This article traces the historical roots of The Pioneer Fund, a still extant American charitable endowment founded in 1937 by textile heir Col. Wickliffe Preston Draper (1890–1972). The Fund, through its granting program, claims to have had a significant positive influence on the development of the behavioral sciences; but it has also attracted public attention because of its support for research on racial group differences. Pioneer’s beginnings reach back into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when eugenics emerged as a powerful and cosmopolitan social reform impulse; an exploration of the Fund’s origins sheds light both on that time and on the permutations of the eugenics movement that led to its present notoriety.

However, knowledge of Pioneer’s beginnings and social context remains fragmentary and dispersed, and here I use the papers of the American Eugenics Society (in the keeping of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia), and the Harry Laughlin papers (Library of Truman State University, Kirksville, Missouri) to gain entrée into the circumstances surrounding the prehistory and early days of the Fund, particularly the attitudes and role of its founder, Wickliffe Draper.

Those circumstances have been smoothed over by figures central to the Fund’s current operation and, in conclusion, I will evaluate this revisionist history in light of the archival and supplemental material to be reviewed below…

Davenport and Grant, among others, held that certain racial combinations—say Negro/White—are inherently “disharmonious” because the evolutionary histories of their aboriginal populations had gone down widely divergent paths. As Davenport put it, “miscegenation commonly spells disharmony—disharmony of physical, mental and temperamental qualities and this means also disharmony with environment. A hybridized people are a badly put together people and a dissatisfied, restless, ineffective people” (1917, p. 366). Madison Grant feared that, if the American “Melting Pot is allowed to boil without control,” it will sweep the “nation toward a racial abyss” because miscegenation always leads to a evolutionary reversion toward the lower type in the mix. “The cross between a white man and a negro is a negro… the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew” (1916, p. 228; for more on racial “disharmony” see Barkan, 1992, p. 165; Baur, Fischer, & Lenz, 1931, p. 692; Glass, 1986, p. 132; Provine, 1973; Stepan, 1985; Tucker, 1994, pp. 64–67).

The investigation of race mixing from a Mendelian point of vieww as pioneered by German anthropologist Eugen Fischer, who—armed with Davenport’s early studies of human heredity—undertook an innovative field study of “die Rehobother Bastards,” a Boer/Hottentot mixed-race population in the then German colony of South-West Africa (Fischer, 1913; see Massin, 1996). Fischer’s general aim was to decouple the effects of heredity and environment through detailed biometric and genealogical studies of a discrete and nowrelatively endogamous population of mixed race origins (Massin, 1996, pp. 122–123). The “Bastards” had the advantage of being an isolated group with well known family ties, unlike the situation in the United States, in which persons of mixed-race ancestry had been “subsumed in a lower, completely undefinable mixed-race proletariat” (1913, p. 21). As late as 1939, Fischer’s monograph was still regarded as the “classic study of race mixture” (Hooton, 1939, p. 156)…

…By definition a “white” person could have no known trace of nonwhite blood (including Asian), whereas a nonwhite person was anyone who did—except when it came to those who were one-sixteenth native Indian or less, and were therefore defined as equivalent to whites in legal terms. This logic was based on a perception of just who most of the contemporary “Indians” of Virginia actually were. Plecker believed that, because of long standing miscegenation between the two communities, most of those who identified themselves as “Indian” were in effect negroes attempting to pass as white (Plecker, 1924).

Though not arising out of any particular love for Indians, the one-sixteenth rule had an interesting motivation: so as to not exclude from the white race the many proud descendants of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. Disputes about racial identity, legitimacy, and validity of marriage generated by such legislation have provided considerable subsequent diversion for legal historians (Avins 1966; Pascoe 1996; Saks 1988; Wallenstein 1998).

Plecker had already corresponded with Charles Davenport about the quality of white/Indian/black mixed-race populations, and was included among those whom Wickliffe Draper should meet. Plecker and Cox accordingly traveled north in June to visit with Draper in New York; they also stopped by to see Madison Grant, and were feted by the Laughlins at Cold Spring Harbor. Cox gave a talk at the Museum of Natural History on the topic of repatriation, and there was further discussion of a possible Virginia-based endowment to advance the cause of eugenics (Plecker to Laughlin, 8 June 1936; see Smith, 1993, pp. 80–81).

What Draper envisioned was nothing less than the establishment of an Institute of National Eugenics (or perhaps “Institute of Applied Eugenics”) at the University of Virginia, aimed at “conservation of the best racial stocks in the country” and “preventing increase of certain of the lower stocks and unassimilable races.” Laughlin observed that the University “has a tradition of American aristocracy which the nation treasures very highly.” It therefore seemed a promising venue, as did the South in general—“because of its historical background and traditional racial attitude”—ready to assume leadership in defense of the American racial stock (Laughlin to Draper, draft letter; 18 March 1936). In his survey of the American racial makeup, Madison Grant found that “with Virginia one reaches the region where the old native American holds his ground” (Grant, 1934, p. 226)…

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