Ethel Benson was institutionalised in the Delaware Colony for the Feeble Minded in August 1930 and never came home.
She was about 20 years old, black, and illiterate. Her main offence, in Delaware’s eyes, was that she was an unmarried woman who gave birth to two children, both of whom were fathered by separate white men.
Women like Ethel were frequently labelled as “procreative threats.”
While in the hospital, she underwent a treatment to cure these alleged emotional deficiencies. An incision was made into Ethel’s abdomen by a doctor with one of Delaware’s most distinguished surnames. He surgically removed both of her fallopian tubes. He also removed her clitoris.
Ethel died a month later as a result of complications. Before anyone in her family realised she died, she was buried quickly in the institution’s cemetery.
One of the few remaining artefacts from Ethel’s life is the burial marker at Stockley Centre, originally known as Delaware Colony. Few records pertaining to her latter years remain. Much of Ethel’s life is recalled through the memories of her daughter, who was four months old when her mother left. She had never seen herself in a photograph.
She is the custodian of her mother’s narrative, which is also one of Delaware’s darkest secrets, at the age of 93. Even after all these years, she is still hesitant to share it publicly. Those engaged were powerful people who drafted state laws and established hospitals. As a result, she has requested that her name not be published by Delaware Online/The News Journal.
“My mother has stayed with me all my life,” she told me. “I’ve never stopped thinking about her.”
Throughout the twentieth century, Delaware forcibly sterilised people like Ethel at one of the country’s quickest and most aggressive rates, with procedures continuing until the late 1970s. It was part of a programme aimed at preventing “feebleminded” people and “social menaces” from having children.
Delaware’s participation in the country’s eugenics movement, which Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany used as a model, has sometimes been relegated to the margins of this chapter of American history.
Approximately 70,000 Americans were forcefully sterilised during the twentieth century. States such as California, North Carolina, and Virginia frequently receive attention owing to the sheer number of treatments, despite the fact that Delaware’s rate of sterilisation usually outpaces them, according to a Delaware Online/The News Journal analysis.
Doctors and politicians convinced lawmakers that sterilisation would benefit and safeguard society, based on what is now regarded bogus science. Sexually active single women were quickly identified as a target.
In Delaware, those sterilised were regarded unfit mothers or girls who had extramarital intercourse. They were both at times. Others had epilepsy or were wayward boys. Some of them were crooks. Though estimations show that surgeries were evenly split between men and women, records show that the state sterilised women more frequently in the program’s later years.
One Black girl was only 11 years old.
“The harm that one feeble-minded mother can do in the world is almost impossible to estimate,” according to a 1923 Delaware report.
They were frequently first institutionalised at Delaware State Hospital or the Delaware Colony. When these procedures were approved by a three-person board, families rarely had a legitimate chance to contest them – if they were ever informed at all. There was no due process for decades.
Delaware has never formally apologised for sterilising hundreds of individuals. Involuntary sterilisations were not repealed from state law until this autumn.
Some of the children of the sterilised women still live in the Delaware region. Being separated from their mothers left a void in their lives, according to one daughter whose mother was sterilised in the 1950s for being a “procreative menace.”
Ethel’s daughter had a lonely childhood that was devoid of many friends. Because of her fair skin, she stood out in the family. Because of this, several family refused to adopt her.
She overheard her uncle curse about what the sonsabitches done to her mother, whom the family frequently referred to as “handicapped.” Ethel’s stunning beauty was a common topic of conversation within the family, even among an aunt who was not the sort to complement.
They’d tell Ethel’s daughter that unfortunate child didn’t know any better.