Fifty Years of Night

Chapter 4: Disillusioned, Harry Caudill blames ‘genetic decline’ in Eastern Kentucky

Harry Caudill talked with an interviewer in his office in 1983. A portion of Caudill’s vast library about Appalachia is at the right. Photo by John C. Wyatt | Staff
Harry Caudill talked with an interviewer in his office in 1983. A portion of Caudill’s vast library about Appalachia is at the right. Photo by John C. Wyatt | Staff Herald-Leader

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50 Years of Night

In 1963, Harry Caudill of Whitesburg published “Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area,” which shone a spotlight on the plundering of the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. The book forever changed Appalachia. On the eve of the book’s 50th anniversary, the Lexington Herald-Leader launched a yearlong look at the region’s struggles since Night was published.

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In 1963, Harry Caudill of Whitesburg published Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area, which shined a spotlight on the plundering of the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. The book forever changed Appalachia. On the eve of the book’s 50th anniversary, the Lexington Herald-Leader examines the man behind the book.

For a while, in the immediate wake of Night Comes to the Cumberlands, Harry Caudill thought his book would help him save Appalachia. He had credibility and the nation’s attention. Surely he could use that to build something great, something permanent.

“How long can the American taxpayers afford to pump $200 million annually into the Kentucky mountains in various forms of welfare aid without achieving any significant improvement in the region’s economy?” Caudill said while testifying to Congress in 1964. “We ask only an investment in our future as part of the nation’s future.”

Ultimately, although conditions in the mountains improved, the salvation Caudill wanted never materialized. The poor remained legion.

That embittered Caudill. He came to blame his neighbors for being hopeless, for having “weak genes.” And that led him to draw up a sterilization scenario for Eastern Kentucky, working in secret with William Shockley, a notorious eugenicist of the era.

“This region is a laboratory for the study of genetic decline,” Caudill wrote in 1974, making a pitch to Shockley for intelligence testing of Appalachian children and possible vasectomies for their fathers. Caudill had soured after years of fruitless reform efforts.

In 1966, Caudill helped organize the Congress for Appalachian Development, “to restore self-government in the Appalachian Mountains.” About 250 people attended its inaugural session. They planned mighty enterprises — dams to generate public power, model towns that would be wonderful places to live. But the group found no financing. It evaporated the next year.

Then he established a smaller, more focused group, Our Common Heritage. It sought to connect expatriated Eastern Kentuckians laboring in the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest. It wanted to publish a list of these Kentuckians with vocational skills who could be induced to return home if factories opened there. Again, though, there was no money to launch the project.

“We had a great deal of enthusiasm, but we ended up mothballing it after 10 months,” said Lowell Reese, who was executive director of Our Common Heritage.

At a Louisville party in 1965, the owner of a men’s shirt company told Caudill that he would be willing to open a factory in Letcher County if only the locals were capable of operating modern equipment.

Taking the man at his word, Caudill spent months writing to U.S. Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz, U.S. Rep. Carl Perkins, D-Hindman, and others in Washington. He asked for federal funding for worker training. No, they said, that was a state responsibility. In Frankfort, state officials told him no, it was a federal responsibility. Letcher County didn’t get the shirt factory.

Caudill pestered old and new friends in government and business. He suggested the creation of a furniture industry in Eastern Kentucky using native hardwoods; a bottled-water industry using mountain springs; and a revival of Appalachian farming, using crushed limestone to replenish mining-depleted soil. Appalachians once raised their own food, he liked to remind people.

“We have everything we need here, including enough agricultural land, to feed many, many people,” he told one interviewer. “You take the Big Sandy Valley. It’s unbelievably rich for potatoes, berries and so on. And water? At a time when water is very precious in many parts of the world, we have 55 inches of rain a year.”

Eastern Kentucky desperately needs jobs outside of coal, Caudill told everyone. Mining wrecks the land, water and air, he said. It’s given to boom-and-bust cycles that regularly drive local economies to their knees.Everyone thanked Caudill for his counsel and then turned away. He got the message.

“I think we’ll mine (this place) into a desert,” he lamented in the mid-1970s. “We’ll dig until every lump of coal is taken out of these hills.”

‘The trash element’

By then, a decade after Night Comes to the Cumberlands was published, Caudill feared that Eastern Kentucky had missed its chance. Despite unprecedented levels of public and private aid, mountaineers still did not stand on their own feet, he said.

“He was not overly optimistic about fixing places once they’re messed up,” James Caudill, the oldest of Caudill’s three children, said in a recent interview. “It’s not just bad things happening to the land; it’s bad things happening to the people, and it’s hard to come back from that.”

About that time, a despairing Caudill discovered the theories of William Bradford Shockley Jr., a controversial scientist at Stanford University in California.

Shockley was a brilliant physicist who shared the 1956 Nobel Prize for the invention of the transistor. Then he veered far out of his field by espousing the doctrine of “dysgenics,” arguing that stupid people, for a variety of reasons, breed faster than intelligent people, thereby weakening the genes of a race over time. (Shockley insisted that his own genes were of the highest quality, tracing his lineage to the Mayflower passengers of 1620.)

Dysgenics was the opposite of evolution’s survival of the fittest. It was dominance of the dumbest.

Shockley used his dysgenics idea to make a number of startling claims. He said blacks were, on average, less intelligent than whites; the federal government should consider restricting reproduction by less intelligent people through sterilization and liberalized abortion and birth-control policies; and intelligence tests should be given to establish whose genes are worth passing down.Not everyone deserves to be here, Shockley said.

“Our intellectuals won’t think objectively about the poor illegitimate slum babies — both black and white — that come from parents without much foresight,” Shockley told The Detroit News in 1974. “There is a very high probability that these children will get a bad shake from the unfairly loaded genetic dice of their parents. Statistically, they have little likelihood of being able to lead satisfactory, rewarding lives in our society.”

Scientists trained in genetics have challenged the theory of dysgenics. On average, they noted, scores on intelligence tests increased over the 20th century, a phenomenon known as “the Flynn effect.” As for racial differences, black children were likely to perform as well as white children if they had access to schools of equal quality, these scientists reported.

Many Americans were offended by Shockley. Protestors at his public appearances called him a racist, even a Nazi, a nod toward Adolf Hitler’s eugenics obsession with breeding a superior Aryan race.By contrast, Caudill was enthralled. For months, he clipped Shockley’s speeches, essays and interviews for his personal files.

As Caudill told friends and strangers alike, with the fervor of the newly converted, dysgenics explained so much about Appalachia. Smart and ambitious people fled the mountains to pursue opportunity in cities. This “brain drain” left behind a stagnating population of dullards. Multiply that over several generations — especially as relatives intermarry and introduce chromosomal abnormalities — and you’ve ruined the gene pool just as surely as strip mining poisons the drinking water, he said.

“The slobs continue to multiply,” Caudill wrote to Time magazine in a 1975 letter that the editors in New York politely rejected and returned to him.

Back home, Caudill complained about “the trash element,” his son Harry Frye Caudill said in a 1998 oral-history interview. The elder Caudill jauntily told reporters that the best federal anti-poverty program for Eastern Kentucky would be an Army base that could bring in outside sperm.

“My theory was that the soldiers would get the girls pregnant, to the everlasting benefit of the region as a whole,” Caudill later wrote. “I still think the suggestion was sound.”

The implication — that Appalachian women are slatternly, and anything would be an improvement over Appalachian men — understandably offended some of his brethren.

“Once he kind of drifted into ‘Our women will mix with anybody and we need an Army base,’ he conceded a lot of his standing,” said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg. “He was no longer a hero. He was a guy who made a great contribution at an earlier time.”

Whitesburg Conference

In summer 1974, Caudill sent a fan letter expressing admiration for Shockley’s dysgenics doctrine and suggested they get together to discuss inbreeding and low intelligence among poor people in Eastern Kentucky.

Caudill sidestepped the question of race, writing: “I know absolutely nothing about the issue of white vs. black intelligence. We have few blacks in this area, and practically all of my observations have dealt with whites.”

Shockley was intrigued. Defensive about being called a racist, he thought Appalachia would offer him an isolated pool of weak-minded whites for his research.

Caudill and Shockley scheduled a meeting — which they somewhat grandiosely called the “Whitesburg Conference” — for the final weekend of August 1974, to be held in Caudill’s living room. Several of Shockley’s dysgenics supporters also came. Always a gracious host, Caudill insisted on paying for the retinue’s hotel rooms.

After the conference, a “position statement” circulated among its participants, based on the notes of Memphis attorney J.W. Kirkpatrick, who had attended. (Several years later, Kirkpatrick was publicly identified as a financier for the Ku Klux Klan, and he killed himself.) The group hoped to study the IQs — the intelligence quotient, a score derived from a standardized test — of 40 to 80 schoolchildren and their parents in Eastern Kentucky communities.

If the study revealed “human-quality problems” due to the families’ bad breeding, it would be proof of dysgenics at work, the participants agreed. The findings could be used “for sound ameliorative policies and programs at all levels of government.” This would include a reconsideration of how welfare is distributed in Appalachia and a “voluntary sterilization bonus plan.” Caudill was asked to “cultivate connections for support at (the) local level.”

“Maybe the sterilization plan will be an outgrowth of the pilot program and can be implemented at some point after the pilot program has been completed and evaluated,” Kirkpatrick wrote. An Appalachian vasectomy clinic was one option on the table.

As the local expert, Caudill recommended studying children in Elliott, Clay and Leslie counties. Those counties were at the bottom of the barrel, he told the group. “Elliott County was pointed out to me several years ago by a bureaucrat in the state Department of Education as a county where the people are breeding down to idiocy,” he wrote.

Caudill offered Shockley more counsel: Don’t use the phrase “intelligence tests,” he said. That could make parents suspicious and — worse — draw the attention of nosy newspaper reporters. Call the tests something like “skill potentials” or “aptitude measurements,” which nobody in the communities would understand, Caudill advised Shockley.

Finally, the men decided to grease palms. Local school administrators would be more likely to give them unquestioned access to students if they were paid as “consultants,” the men said.

Shockley, Caudill and the others spent the next few months fine-tuning their plans and searching for $10,000 to pay for the field work. Ultimately, as with many of Caudill’s projects, money could not be found. The men stayed in touch but did not meet again.

(Notes and correspondence related to the Whitesburg Conference are on file with Caudill’s other papers at the University of Kentucky Special Collections Library.)

“It never really got any traction, unfortunately,” Reginald Orem, a retired educator and writer in College Park, Md., said in a recent interview.

Orem, now 81, attended the Whitesburg Conference as a protégé of Shockley, who died in 1989.

“Most of the people connected with that are gone now,” Orem said. “There won’t be another effort like it, I’m sure, because the government doesn’t want people to know about racial intelligence and differences in group intelligence and inherited intelligence, even though I think it’s pretty clear what some of the results would be.”

Unfortunate obsession

Caudill never publicly disclosed his work with Shockley. Their plans for IQ testing and the possible sterilization of Caudill’s neighbors did not become known to the world.

But as he aged, Caudill’s pronouncements coarsened about “mass dullardism” in the mountains. “The stock’s run out here,” he told the Lexington Herald-Leader in 1976. “The IQ level has gone down, down, down.”

Caudill’s grumbling prompted some Appalachian scholars — people who had come up in his shadow — to shake their heads sadly at him, as if he was an embarrassing uncle. One dismissed his weak-genes theories with the quip, “Night comes to the chromosomes.”

In fairness to Caudill, eugenics was taught as legitimate science at many American universities when he was a student in the 1940s, said Ronald Eller, an Appalachian historian at UK. That Caudill became so obsessed with it later in life is “unfortunate,” but it shouldn’t define him, Eller said.

Loyal Jones, former director of Berea College’s Appalachian Center, is less forgiving. Shockley and Caudill’s genetics theories were worse than offensive; they were completely incorrect, Jones said. Berea College has educated Appalachian youths since 1855, proving that they can be as intelligent as anyone, given an opportunity, Jones said.

“I’ve known many people who came out of terrible situations, impoverished homes, parents on welfare, and yet they went on to earn college degrees and establish very successful careers,” Jones said. “I tend to discount theories about gene pools. The truth is, people will amaze you.”

Chapter 5: Harry Caudill inspired the War on Poverty, but gloom darkens his legacy

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