The Huntington is an apt place for a conference on race, disability, and eugenics in the United States. An elite institution governed by influential white male leaders in Southern California in the early 20th century, The Huntington had three men who served on its board of trustees—Robert Millikan, William Munro, and Henry M. Robinson—who also served on the board of the Human Betterment Foundation (HBF), a nearby Pasadena-based organization founded in the late 1920s by leading eugenicists Ezra S. Gosney and Paul Popenoe. Through research and advocacy, HBF members supported eugenic sterilization “for human betterment” and fawned over Hitler and the Third Reich, applauding a Nazi scientific exhibit, “Eugenics in the New Germany,” that was showcased in Pasadena as part of the 1934 meeting of the American Public Health Association.
The HBF reflected a broader context of white supremacy that spurred eugenic ideas and policies at the national and local levels. With the Immigration Act of 1924, eugenicists succeeded in implementing federal restrictions on immigration from “undesirable” countries. Supreme Court justices ratified eugenic sterilization with the Buck v. Bell decision in 1927, leading to the passage of sterilization laws across the country. Southern California was part of these national trends and a hotbed of eugenics in the state. An alliance of educators, social workers, clinicians, and juvenile authorities advocated for the confinement and sterilization of disabled and “defective” individuals in such Southern California state institutions as Pacific Colony and Patton. Pasadena legislators implemented eugenic values by passing segregated zoning laws and instituting an unequal educational system.