Author: J. David Smith


Walter S. Copeland (1856–1928)

Walter S. Copeland owned or co-owned important newspapers across Virginia including the Danville Register, Richmond Evening Leader, Roanoke Times, and Newport News Daily Press. Held in high esteem by his journalistic peers, he served four terms as president of the Virginia Press Association. Copeland supported Progressive reforms to improve welfare and education programs for poor whites, which he viewed as necessary for social order. He opposed the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and supported what later became Hampton University. Yet Copeland became a strong backer of harsh segregation laws in his later years. He joined forces with John Powell, founder of the Anglo-Saxon Clubs, and supported the 1924 Virginia Act to Preserve Racial Integrity. Two years later Copeland and his newspapers crusaded for what became the Massenburg Bill, the strongest segregation law in the United States.


Carrie Buck (1906–1983)

Carrie Buck was the first person involuntarily sterilized under Virginia’s eugenics laws. In 1920 her mother was diagnosed as feebleminded—a diagnosis based less on a medical finding than on the doctors’ perception of her sexual behavior—and committed to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded in Lynchburg. Buck moved in with a foster family and in 1923 became pregnant, claiming that the foster family’s nephew raped her. The teenager was similarly deemed epileptic and feebleminded and placed at the colony after she gave birth in 1924. The colony’s superintendent decided to use Buck as a test case for the state’s new sterilization law. In Buck v. Bell (1927), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Virginia’s law was constitutional and that Buck should be sterilized. Her sterilization was the first of approximately 8,300 performed under state law between 1927 and 1972. After her release from the colony Buck, in sharp contrast to her diagnosis, lived an active life until her death in 1983.


John H. Bell (1883–1934)

John H. Bell was a prominent eugenicist and physician in Virginia. A member of the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Virginia Academy of Science, and the Medical Society of Virginia, Bell advocated the forced sterilization of people believed to be incompetent. Appointed superintendent of the State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded, in Lynchburg, Bell became a principal in the lawsuit arranged by the former superintendent to test Virginia’s 1924 legislation allowing for forced sterilization. Carrie Elizabeth Buck, a patient at the colony, had been selected for the test case. In its landmark ruling in Buck v. Bell, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Virginia’s law. Bell performed the operation on Buck himself. Bell continued to produce pamphlets defending eugenics until his death.