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OPINION

Understanding the role Massachusetts played in both developing and resisting eugenics

Beacon Hill now has the opportunity to take steps that will make it possible for educators, students, and the general public to understand.

The names of some of the inmates listed in the records of the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded in 1910. The State Archives are currently prohibited from acknowledging if records of their lives exist.Alex Green

As a former high school history teacher, I can think of few topics that are more important for young people to study than the frightening history of eugenics, the elimination of certain “undesirable” traits in the human race under the guise of public health and “race betterment.”

Beacon Hill now has the opportunity to take steps that will make it possible for educators, students, and the general public to understand the role Massachusetts played in both developing and resisting that idea.

The Senate has passed a budget amendment based on legislation put forward by Senator Mike Barrett and Representative Sean Garballey to fund a first-of-its kind commission that will study the history of state institutions for those with disabilities. If created, this commission, which would be led by disabled people, will undertake historical human rights work, including identifying the names of thousands of people buried anonymously in institutional graves.

At the same time, these lawmakers have put forward legislation (H.3150/S.2009) with Secretary of State William Galvin to ensure that many of those names can be made public, and that the commission’s work can be supported by citizens who are currently prevented from accessing historical documents.

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Massachusetts was the first place in America to provide public education to children with intellectual disabilities and the first to embrace the idea that people with mental illness deserve humane state support. But in the late 19th century, those ideas morphed. Scientists, doctors, educators, and policymakers created an intricate network of surveillance and segregation, removing disabled people from their communities, often to prevent them from having children. Institutions for people with intellectual, developmental, and mental health disabilities — called state schools and state hospitals — were the centers of this activity.

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Rotted doors front Howe Hall at the former Walter E. Fernald State School in Waltham on Dec. 6, 2017. Founded in 1848, the school made Massachusetts the first place in America to provide public education to children with intellectual disabilities.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Based on my research, the Catholic Church kept state-sanctioned sterilization at bay, but our systems attracted people interested in those ideas. They visited from all over the world. When they returned home to their countries, they turned what they saw into policies ranging from Britain’s laws on “mental defectives” to the Nazi Holocaust.

In Massachusetts, a network of institutions housed tens of thousands of people. When my students interviewed former Governor Michael Dukakis in 2019 about his visits to these places in the early 1960s, his eyes welled. He described them in terms akin to concentration camps.

During that time, a remarkable coalition of mothers formed and fought back, launching a rights movement that led to federal intervention, major institutional reforms, and a still-contested process of deinstitutionalization.

Many people don’t know this history, and there are few ways for them to learn. State restrictions impede access to documents from these institutions in perpetuity. As a result, there is no official report of what happened and little way for teachers to connect this history to what is already known.

Meanwhile, thousands of people have stories to share, questions about ancestors who were residents of these state-run hospitals that need answering, and information that they have a right to know. Each day, I receive e-mails with two questions: How do I get documents about my family and how do I support this work?

My experience teaching project-based disability history suggests that there are thousands of educators and students who feel the same and will contribute to such an effort as citizen researchers. The next generation gets it. They want to help, and similar crowdsourcing efforts have worked nationwide.

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But for that to happen, the legislation supported by Galvin is needed, because it allows for public inspection of documents on deceased individuals after 90 years. Massachusetts is an outlier among states in its prohibition on historical records access, which is why prominent groups like the Massachusetts Historical Society support this change.

Its impact on the work of a disability institutions commission is particularly acute. Without it, the commission’s efforts to locate individuals in anonymous graves will be for naught, because the public will only be allowed to see lists of blacked out names.

This is hard work. But the Legislature should pass the bill. Harvard University — where I teach — is doing that work, reckoning with their historical role in building and perpetuating slavery.

The Commonwealth can do the same with its history. The public is ready to take this up. Dozens of disability and historical groups are committed to supporting this effort, which will strengthen the collective knowledge needed to build a strong, caring, educated, democratic society. The Legislature has the chance to meet that groundswell with open arms, and it is a chance that must not be missed.

Alex Green teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School.