The University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors voted on March 1 to rename UVA’s newly renovated main library in honor of Edgar F. Shannon Jr., the university’s fourth president. The move removes prominent eugenicist Edwin A. Alderman’s name from the building. 

Alderman, who was the first president of the university, was a noted educator and champion of the Progressive Movement who was credited with modernizing the structure of the university and increasing professional and technical instruction. However, his reputation came under intense reassessment in recent years due to his long-standing, high-profile association with the eugenics movement.

Eugenics was a pseudoscience that promoted the idea that humans could be bred selectively like plants or animals for the betterment of society. Eugenicists believed that mental illness, crime, sexual promiscuity, and poverty were linked to defective genes and that social problems could be alleviated by limiting the reproduction of genetically undesirable individuals. Many also believed that white people of European background possessed superior genes that should be protected from interbreeding with African Americans, Indigenous Americans, and people of mixed race.

Alderman wasn’t just a promotor of eugenics but is credited with turning  UVA into the southern center of the eugenics movement, as detailed in our entry on Eugenics at the University of Virginia. He recruited professors who taught and championed eugenics in the medical school, the biology department, and the school of education. These professors moved into senior administrative positions in the university and throughout the Commonwealth, reinforcing a culture of scientific racism and white supremacy.

Alderman also lent his support to the laws that undergirded the eugenics movement in the Commonwealth, including the Eugenical Sterilization Act, which allowed the sterilization of people committed to state psychiatric institutions, and the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which prohibited interracial marriage and defined as white a person “who has no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian.”

The effects of these laws were far-reaching, including the sexual sterilization of an estimated 8,000 people in Virginia and attempts to erase the legal identity of Virginia Indians, who could be broadly classified as “colored” under the 1924 racial integrity law and subsequent revisions. In 2002, Virginia became the first state to issue a formal statement of regret for its past support of eugenics and involuntary sterilization.

The eugenics movement was at its peak when the Alderman Library was dedicated in 1938; however, it retreated rapidly after World War II, in part due to its association with Adolph Hitler and the Holocaust as well as the influence of the growing civil rights movement in the United States. 

The Board of Visitors lauded Shannon for steering UVA through the tumultuous 1960s and early 1970s and transforming it into a modern university. He backed the admission of women to the College of Arts & Sciences and worked to increase the enrollment of Black students. A decorated Navy veteran, he supported student protests of the war in Vietnam and the shooting by National Guard troops of students at Kent State University. And he championed the humanities, overseeing the establishment of the University Press of Virginia, now known as the University of Virginia Press, and the creation of Virginia Humanities, the home of EV, which is about to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary.


Learn more about eugenics in Virginia:

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