Immigrant groups like the Irish, French Canadians, and Italians were vital to Vermont’s growth and prosperity. But their Catholic religion, languages, and cultural traditions made them different and most Vermont Yankees considered them outsiders. Many didn’t believe these immigrants could be trusted to carry on Vermont’s traditional values into the future.
One organization that took advantage of these racist beliefs against immigrants was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). In the early 1920s hundreds of Vermonters joined this organization that persecuted African Americans, Jews, and Catholics. In Vermont, cross burnings and raids targeting Catholic cemeteries and churches took place in Montpelier and Burlington. Eventually city ordinances in Rutland and Burlington banned meetings of people wearing masks or disguises. Boycotts of business owners who were KKK members and newspaper editorials against the Klan effectively shut down the organization in Vermont. But the bigoted beliefs and emotions tapped by the KKK did not disappear so easily.
The Vermont Eugenics Survey was another dark episode in the state’s history. Eugenics was a national and international movement that promoted population improvement through genetic control. Henry Perkins, professor of zoology at the University of Vermont, founded the Vermont Eugenics Survey in 1926. The group developed multigenerational genealogical studies of Vermonters in institutions to document hereditary connections with genetic “defects.”
As a result of the Eugenic Survey’s findings and recommendations a sterilization law was passed in Vermont in 1931, making it the twenty-seventh state in the nation to do so. In many instances the people sterilized were members of mixed racial groups, particularly Abenaki and French Canadians, or poor whites living in rural communities. The Eugenics Survey ended in 1936. Its legacy was to instill a deep distrust and fear among the groups targeted by the state’s sterilization program. These groups felt that their individual freedoms were denied because of the beliefs of the greater community.
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