When the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies asked Mark Soderstrom to present his speech on eugenics at Coffman Union, he laughed at the irony.
That’s because Lotus D. Coffman, namesake of the University’s student union, supported the eugenics movement during his tenure as president of the University.
An idea perpetuated in the 1920s and 1930s, eugenics promoted social engineering of the races, including the preservation of an elite white society.
Soderstrom gave his speech, entitled, “Racial Hygiene and Eugenics in Minnesota: 1900-45,” to an audience of about 15 Wednesday as the final addition to the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies’ “Absence/Presence” exhibit.
Soderstrom, a Ph.D. student studying history at the University, began to uncover information identifying several key members of the University as part of the eugenics movement while researching the history of the civil rights movement in Minnesota.
What he found in the process would change the way that he viewed buildings like Coffman Union, Comstock Hall, and Lyon Labs — buildings whose namesakes supported the movement — forever. Soderstrom uncovered information revealing Coffman’s endorsement of downtown settlement houses, dubbed “international houses” to lodge the black student population at the University, segregating them from white students who lived in the dormitories.
However, a letter written to the NAACP by Coffman in 1931 stated, “No rule has ever actually been adopted denying colored students admission to the University dormitories.” Segregation of the two races was “deemed necessary,” at the time, Soderstrom said.
In addition to dormitory segregation, black teaching students had to substitute course work for student teaching in Minnesota classrooms. The rationale for this, said Soderstrom, was that there were no black schools in Minnesota.
The same was true for the University’s nursing program. No black students were admitted because it was thought white patients may be uncomfortable being cared for by a black health care provider.
Though these policies were in direct violation of the state’s legal statutes enforcing equal access to public spaces, they remained intact at the University, said Soderstrom, because of the ideologies of the dominant white community. In other words, since they did not infringe on the rights of the majority, the policies were not challenged.
Soderstrom stressed the direct correlation between the ideologies of the eugenics movement and the enforced segregation that occurred at the University.
Dr. Stephen Feinstein, director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, called this “a polite form of racism.”
Soderstrom continued by naming other members of the eugenics movement whose names now grace the front of buildings across the University.
For example, Charles F. Dight, whose namesake building was recently torn down to make room for the Basic Sciences and Biomedical Engineering Building, was a leading figure in the eugenics movement, founding the Minnesota Eugenics Society in 1923. Among many other works, Dight’s essay, “Human Thoroughbreds, Why Not?” states, “the admission of undesirable immigrants, and the earlier importation of Negroes as slaves have been the two great errors committed by this republic.”
Though these beliefs may seem outdated and unbelievable to people living in the 1990s, Soderstrom pointed out the importance of remembering cultural context.
“We too live in a cultural system, and that system is a product of theirs; while it has changed over time, the legacy of racism … and conceptions of ‘normality and deviance’… continue to shape our own behavior, ideas and analyses,” Soderstrom said.