Mead Memorial Chapel | Middlebury
Middlebury President Laurie Patton and Board Chairman George Lee sent the following message to the community of Middlebury on Monday, September 27, 2021.
Dear Middlebury Community,
Last spring, the Vermont Legislature issued a public apology for its old legislation allowing the forced sterilization of at least 250 Vermonters as part of the implementation of eugenic policy in the early decades of the 20th century. This decision enjoyed bipartisan support from lawmakers and followed the lead of other states in coming to terms with this painful part of our nation’s history.
This statement by the State Legislature raised a question for us in Middlebury about the role played by Governor John A. Mead, Class of 1864, whose donation established Mead Memorial Chapel, in the defense and promotion of eugenic policies in Vermont in the early 1900s. This left us wondering whether it was appropriate to display Mead’s name so publicly and so prominently on the Middlebury campus, especially on the iconic chapel, a place of welcome for all.
After a careful and deliberate process, Middlebury Board of Directors made the decision to remove the name Mead from the chapel, for the reasons we will describe below.
We would like to stress at the outset that this was a process involving in-depth reflection and discussion. No problem like this should be undertaken lightly or often.
Eugenics and Governor Mead
Eugenics is a subject that should strike us deeply, demanding that we confront our values, our history and some difficult choices regarding inheritance and responsibility. Based on early 20th century notions of racial purity and “human betterment”, eugenic policies sought to isolate and prevent the procreation of so-called “delinquent, addicted and defective” to create a more “desirable” society. . Such policies have been implemented by the involuntary confinement of community members to public schools, hospitals and other facilities – and the unreasonable practice of forced sterilization.
According to much academic research in this area, victims of eugenics in Vermont included poor people; who suffered from mental illness, incurable illnesses and physical disabilities; the so-called “illegitimate children”, the French Canadians, the Abenakis, women more than men, the illiterate and people of mixed descent. They were all targets. Eugenic policies have separated families, caused untold individual suffering and left lasting physical and emotional scars.
It is difficult for us to write these words. However, because of this painful history, it was important for Middlebury to follow its established process for such considerations and to task a working group to look into the matter. Specifically, the president asked the group to examine Governor Mead’s role in these policies and the implications this has had for us and for the iconic building that bears his name on campus. She asked the group to conduct their work with generosity towards the historical context of the time, as well as with rigor in historical analysis.
The task force approached its mission with care and reflection, recognizing the complexities involved: the immorality of eugenic practices; the political and philosophical practices and conventions of the time; the realization that the chapel – and the ceremonies and events that have taken place there for decades – have deep personal, spiritual and cultural significance for generations of people in Middlebury, and still do today.
The president also asked them to consider the actions of other states and universities that have recognized eugenics in their own history. They also reviewed archival research in these and related fields by many historians and policy experts, including students, faculty and staff at Middlebury.
As a result of its review, citing its central role in promoting eugenic policies that have caused damage to hundreds of Vermonters, the task force determined that “the name of former Governor Mead on an iconic building in the center of campus is not consistent with what Middlebury stands for. in the 21st century.”
The group advised that âthe chairman recommends that the board remove ‘Mead’ from the building name.
The President received the recommendation of the working group this summer. Following the protocols of our institution, it forwarded the recommendation to the prudential committee of the board of directors which, according to its charter, has the power to act on behalf of the entire board. The prudential committee unanimously voted that Middlebury should remove the Mead name. We would like to stress again that this is an action we do not take lightly and do not hope to take often.
We are bringing this news to you now that we are back on campus so we can give these questions the community conversation they deserve, which has not been possible during the summer months. Although the history of eugenics in Vermont and Mead’s instigating role are well documented, they have not been widely discussed or recognized.
History and chronology: the politics of donation and eugenics
Sharing some of the historical background that we have been studying over the summer might be helpful here. John Mead graduated from Middlebury in 1864. He went on to become a physician, industrialist, governor of Vermont, and administrator of the College. The building’s name honored him and his wife, Mary Madelia Sherman, when they donated $ 74,000 in 1914 to create a prominent new chapel (in marble and wood, with bell tower and spire) on the verge of higher on campus. The effort was a key part of President John Martin Thomas’ vision for a greater Middlebury. Thomas wanted a structure that would express “the simplicity and strength of character for which the people of this valley and the state of Vermont have always distinguished themselves.”
In many ways, the visual representations of the chapel have become synonymous with the College. The working group was also aware of this.
In 1912, two years before the donation of the chapel was made, in his outgoing speech as governor, John Mead strongly urged the legislature to adopt policies and create legislation based on eugenic theory. His call to action resulted in a movement, legislation, public policy, and the founding of a Vermont state institution that sterilized people based on their race, gender, their ethnic origin, economic status and perceived physical conditions and cognitive impairments. John Mead’s documented actions in this regard run counter to our values ââas an institution and the spiritual purpose of a chapel, a place to nurture human dignity and possibility, and to inspire, embrace and comfort all. the world.
Education and the Way Forward Working Group
Our focus in all of these deliberations must have our educational mission at the center. It is not a question of erasing history, but on the contrary of engaging in it so that we can learn from it. The task force advised to assemble a representative committee of community members to consider the opportunities for reflection and education that this moment offers. This education working group will be appointed in October and will be made up of members with diverse perspectives. He will work with various departments and groups on campus and develop recommendations on how we can recognize and inform Middlebury’s decision to first honor a member of this community and then withdraw that honor. He will also consider whether and how the chapel should be renamed.
We will continue to reflect on these broader issues together in a number of ways, which you will hear about throughout the year. In doing so, we will keep in mind two distinct and equally essential principles: 1) generosity of spirit and genuine curiosity about the historical context, and 2) an understanding that many voices have not been. and must be represented in our historical record. Our educational efforts could include signage, architectural installations, public art, with the aim of encouraging constructive dialogue and debate around not only the issue of the chapel’s name, but also its broader implications as a that complex problem of our time. Students, faculty and staff have already started to think about this work.
From there, and as the Education Working Group takes shape, we will call the Chapel âMiddlebury Chapelâ or âThe Chapelâ.
We would like to thank the students, faculty, staff, alumni and administrative members of the working group: Provost Jeff Cason, Dean of Admissions Nicole Curvin, Director of Diversity Miguel Fernandez, Vice President of Advancement Colleen Fitzpatrick, Vice President for Communications David Gibson, President of the Alumni Association Janine Hetherington ’95, Director and Curator of Special Collections Rebekah Irwin, President of the Student Government Association Roni Lezama ’22, Associate Professor of history Joyce Mao, Executive Vice President David Provost and General Counsel Hannah Ross, President.
We know this decision may be unexpected news for some. Absorption may take some time. We are acutely aware of the deep feelings the Chapel evokes and the special place it holds in the life of Middlebury and the lives of the people of Middlebury. The meaning of these memories remains at the heart of our experience in Middlebury, whatever the name of the building. The meaning it has brought – and will continue to bring to so many – will inspire us all for generations to come.
We thank the Vermont Legislature for its bipartisan example and look forward to contacting you in the weeks and months to come. We invite you to join us in our efforts.
The strength of the hills will stay with us.
Sincerely, and on behalf of the Middlebury Board of Directors,
George C. Lee
Chairman, Middlebury Board of Directors
Laurie L. Patton
Eugenics, Introduction and History
John Mead’s farewell speech
University scholarship on mead and Vermont’s role in eugenics
Vermont Eugenics: A Documentary History, by Hope Greenberg and Nancy Gallagher
Segregation or sterilization, by Mercedes de Guardiola
Vermont Sterilizations, excerpt from “Eugenics: compulsory sterilization in 50 American states”
Vermont media coverage
Eugenics apologies unanimously approved by the House, VTDigger, 03/31/21
Senate unanimously votes apology for state-backed eugenics, VTDigger, 12/5/21
Apologies from Vermont House and Senate for state-backed eugenics
Joint resolution of the House, JRH2 (Law R-114), Vermont General Assembly
Call history, Vermont House and Senate