This haunting photograph of 76-year-old Carrie Buck Detamore was taken in February 1980. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, at the time she
lived forgotten in a one-room cinderblock house off Rio Road in Albemarle County. The house had no plumbing and only a wood stove for heat. She was a small, shy, pleasant woman.
She was nervous that two reporters in coats and ties had come to visit and ask her about her past in light of revelations about the state’s sterilization movement.
She sat at a small kitchen table. Her husband, his leg infected from a ghastly wound, lay groaning on the bed a few feet away. She appeared thin and wan.
“I won’t get into trouble if I tell, will I? I don’t want no trouble,” said Detamore, then in her 70s.
She spoke then of how she had always yearned for children, though she was not bitter about her sterilization.
“I tried helping everybody all my life, and I tried to be good to everybody. It just don’t do no good to hold grudges,” she said.
Shortly after that visit, she was taken by local health officials to a hospital and treated for exposure and malnutrition. Later she was moved to a state nursing home in Waynesboro, where she died on Jan. 28, 1983.
On this day twenty-nine years ago.
Only a handful of people attended her burial at Charlottesville’s Oakwood Cemetery.
But she was, in fact, a historical figure.
Why? After their nephew raped Buck when she was 17, Buck’s foster parents had her committed to the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded in Lynchburg. (Better that than suffer the shame of a daughter’s pregnancy, right?) Buck’s biological mother and half sister had also been committed, suggesting to eugenics-minded doctors that “feeblemindedness” ran in the family and so the best thing to do was make sure no more kids came along. Even Carrie Buck’s eventual daughter was suspected of “imbecility,” which finally led Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. to write—in his decision in Buck v. Bell (1927) upholding the constitutionality of forced sterilization—that “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Never mind that Carrie Buck was neither “feebleminded” nor an imbecile; never mind that her daughter earned A’s and B’s in school. Just think about that sentence from Justice Holmes and then look again at the photograph above.
“It just don’t do no good to hold grudges,” she said.
IN ADDITION: Read Holmes’s decision here and view documents related to the case here.
IMAGE: Carrie Buck Detamore by Gary Robertson (Richmond Times-Dispatch)