Feeble-Minded in Our Midst: Institutions for the Mentally Retarded in the South, 1900-1940

Feeble-Minded in Our Midst: Institutions for the Mentally Retarded in the South, 1900-1940

Feeble-Minded in Our Midst: Institutions for the Mentally Retarded in the South, 1900-1940

Feeble-Minded in Our Midst: Institutions for the Mentally Retarded in the South, 1900-1940

Synopsis

Noll creates a vivid portrait of life and work within institutions throughout the South and the impact of institutionalization on patients and their families. He also examines the composition of the population labeled feeble-minded and demonstrates a relationship between demographic variables and institutional placement, including their effect on the determination of a patient's degree of disability.

Excerpt

In 1923, Superintendent C. Banks McNairy, of North Carolina's Caswell Training School, addressed the annual meeting of the American Association for the Study of Feeble-Mindedness. Just one year after he served as the first southern president of that organization, he warned, "Our problem is far more difficult. . . [because the] organization [of institutions] in the South is another problem that must be approached from far more different angles than in other parts of the country." McNairy concluded in his speech, "We [in the South] have not been studying or handling this problem nearly as long as other parts of the country have."

The problem of caring for and controlling America's feeble-minded population proved especially vexing for reformers in the forty-year period from 1900 to 1940. a 1914 editorial in the influential social welfare journal Survey concluded: "Among the social tasks that confront state governments today, none is more pressing than the care of the feeble-minded. . . . [I]t is because they, at least as much as any other class, complicate and involve every social problem, and because, they, more than any other class, tend to increase on our hands." Although a national concern, feeble-mindedness and its concomitant complexities proved especially troublesome in the South. Beset by endemic poverty and mired in a caste-based system of racial separation, southern states truly faced a feeble-minded situation of "far more different angles." Yet the responses of southern reformers, administrators, and bureaucrats did not address the particular southern situation. Instead, bolstered by northern philanthropy and example, southerners generally followed tried-and-true northern responses to problems caused by feeble-minded individuals. These responses, based on an institutional model, proved relatively ineffective in providing solutions to the societal dilemmas posed by the feeble-minded. the following work examines southern care for the feeble-minded, focusing on institutions for the mentally retarded in the South from 1900 to 1940.

The problems of nomenclature and terminology clouded the issue of what actually constituted mental retardation during the first four decades of the twentieth century. Before World War II, the term "retardation," now professionally defined as "significantly sub-average general intelligence," was used infrequently. During that time period, researchers and professionals invoked a myriad of terms to identify people as intellectually below average. They sometimes used these labels with assumed scientific accuracy and at other times bandied them about with little precision. They used the term "feeble-

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