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Legacies of Slavery and Measures of Miscegenation: Re-Examining Charles B. Davenport's Race Crossing Studies

Abstract: Race mixing—particularly between Blacks and Whites—alarmed American eugenicists in the early twentieth century. So alarmed by race mixing was Charles B. Davenport, one of the nation’s leading eugenicists, that he published two studies on people of Black and White ancestry—a class of people he concluded was “badly put together” and “ineffective.”  These two studies serve as points of entry for examining early twentieth-century efforts to define people of African descent as inherently unfit. This focus on Black people as targets of eugenic study during this era has largely gone unexamined in the historiography of eugenics. Thus, one of the aims of this talk is to draw attention to the ways anti-Blackness has informed approaches to scientific knowledge production and scientific research. As this talk foregrounds how eugenic race crossing studies legitimated the idea that one could capture and quantify racial unfitness through precision measurement, it also argues that Davenport’s approach to research—his assumptions, methods, and questions—were informed by slavery-era lore about racial mixture. In sum, this talk demonstrates how early twentieth century attempts to measure, objectify, and pathologize, mixed race individuals with Black and White ancestry rendered Blackness an unfavorable trait. 

About the Speaker: Rana A. Hogarth is associate professor of history at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on the medical and scientific construction of race during the era of slavery and beyond in the American Atlantic. Her first book Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780 - 1840 examines how White physicians “medicalized” Blackness in the context of slavery. Her current research traces discourses of race mixing from the era of slavery to the rise of eugenics in the American Atlantic.