Letter to the editor: Mead can’t be given a pass

In response to the article concerning a lawsuit against Middlebury College’s decision to excise the name “Mead” from what was long known as “Mead Chapel:”

The college announcement removing this name states that Mead (donor of money for the construction of the chapel) “catalyzed” the eugenics movement in Vermont. Former Gov. Jim Douglas, who has brought the lawsuit, objects to this term. I doubt there was a single initiator of that obscene movement, but if the direct quotes from Gov. Mead’s last speech as governor of the state of Vermont are anything to go by he certainly clearly and in detail articulated his fervent support and strong encouragement of that evil — so whether or not he was the sole catalyst, it’s certainly accurate to say, as the college has, that he “advocated and promoted” it. It seems irrelevant (contrary to what Gov. Douglas suggests) that the Legislature put eugenic laws into effect 19 years after Mead made his very public statements in support of these evil ideas — and that therefore there is no proven connection between the two. As a known philanthropist, wealthy man, former governor and generally public figure, his words were no doubt well noted!

Gov. Douglas claims that removing Mead’s name from Mead Chapel obviates all the other actions of the man, including his various acts of philanthropy beyond donating money to Middlebury College. Surely recent years have unfortunately proven without a doubt that giving away loads of money is not necessarily evidence of nobility of character or even of fundamental human decency. There are plenty of philanthropists whose names are “besmirched and sullied” (Gov. Douglas’ words describing what he feels the college has done to Mead ), these days probably most notably the Sacklers — for whom having a universally known “good name” had always been very important — who gave away millions upon millions both before and after developing and drenching the country in Oxycontin, about which they knew all the dangers, and which resulted in the ruined lives and/or deaths of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. The “good names” of such philanthropists have been besmirched and sullied not by the institutions who have removed their names from libraries, museums, medical centers and even chapels they funded, but by their own words, goals and actions.

Mead may not have wanted himself to be remembered as a philanthropist, but he did claim that he wanted the name Mead on the Chapel because of the civic goodness of his ancestors, which may have indeed been a reality, although many of their family names cannot all have been Mead (at least not those of all the married women!)

I grew up with and around people who were survivors of Hitler’s Germany and highly politically educated, but I was almost sixty before I began to learn the bare facts and then the details of Hitler’s having sent envoys to the United States instructed to study two things he greatly admired in our history: our native-born creation of the eugenics movement, and our “success” in concentrating large populations of “degenerates” (a term dearly loved by the eugenics movement and clearly Mead himself) into what we called “reservations.” Der Fuhrer improved mightily on both concepts, but especially the eugenics movement which, still in its infancy here, had confined itself (at least in terms of law) to the slow work of eradicating undesirables by sterilization rather than the death camps Hitler and his ministers dreamed up. Hitler of course called his fascist version of our reservations “concentration camps.” The history of how deeply impressed he was with us and his use of us as a model in this regard appears to be a little-known reality in our country.

Last week’s front page was highly interesting in several ways: the article referenced here on one side of the page and the tragic article about a much-loved young woman on the other. Those who knew, respected, delighted in and mourn her knew as well that she apparently suffered some mental health troubles. The stark, shocking juxtaposition of these two items — one being all about immensely caring efforts to find and help this young person on the part of various private citizens and the police, who knew her well, the other about the support of a man named Mead who may indeed have been some things that were socially positive but who also, emphatically and horrifically, advocated the sterilization and incarceration of degenerates with mental illness.

All big entities such as nations are as complex as almost all humans. Here’s Heather Cox Richardson’s view of one example, in regard to the current topic: “In the 1930s, Nazi leaders, lawyers, and judges turned to America’s Jim Crow laws and Indian reservations for inspiration on how to create legal hierarchies that would, at the very least, wall certain populations off from white society. More Americans than we like to believe embraced fascism here, too: in February 1939, more than 20,000 people showed up for a ‘true Americanism’ rally held by Nazis at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The event featured a huge portrait of George Washington in his Continental Army uniform flanked by swastikas.”

My German father was there, but standing out on the street, not sitting inside. Young and hot-tempered and disgusted by what was going on, he was, along with others, protesting. When the rally ended he found himself getting into fistfights on the street. This wasn’t his usual mode of communication. But I imagine his heart was broken, seeing what was happening in his home country and what some people were ardently wishing for in his adopted country, “the land of the free and the brave.” Which it was. And is. In some ways, for some folks. 

Marianne Lust


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