The Racist Money-Bags Behind Sacramento State University

Mr. Platt, emeritus professor of social work, California State University Sacramento, is a member of the editorial board of Social Justice and author of books and articles on U.S. history and social policy. His current research interests include the history of eugenics in California. "To Stem the Tide of Degeneracy: The Eugenic Impulse in Social Work" - co-authored with Amy LaPan - will be published in Stuart Kirk (ed.), Mental Health and the Social Environment: Critical Perspectives (Columbia University Press).

Every time that I drive through the main entrance to Sacramento State University, I am taken aback by the signage that announces the "C. M. Goethe Arboretum." As a longtime faculty member, I know that Charles M. Goethe (1875-1966) was a widely respected philanthropist and benefactor of the university. But because I've been doing research on eugenics, a now discredited science popular in the 1920s and 1930s, I also know that in his 1936 presidential address to the Eugenics Research Association, he publicly defended Nazi Germany's "honest yearnings for a better population."

Why would my university, with its strong commitment to multicultural values, pay homage to somebody devoted to breeding a master race? I decided to do my own investigation of Goethe's relationship to his adopted alma mater. What I discovered was that in the 1950s and early 1960s, when Sacramento State College, as it was then known, was courting Goethe for his money and prestige, the university turned a blind eye to his widely known racist views. If the university's motivation was essentially pecuniary, it did not hurt that Goethe also gave the young college an invented pedigree, with ties to old Sacramento and mythic roots in nineteenth century pioneer California.

Once his well-documented bigotry became a public embarrassment to the university, especially in the mid-1960s when student and faculty protests exposed Goethe's rightwing views on eugenics, the administration held its nose and tried to distance the university from his reputation. This has been the policy for the last thirty years. It's time for a different approach.

From the mid-1950s, Goethe was closely involved with the fledgling university, founded in 1947. He gave money to his favorite faculty for research and travel, made grants to students in the hope that they would become parents, and contributed to a personal entertainment fund for President Guy West -- just as he had done for Vice-President Nixon in 1952.

In return, Sacramento State University treated him with all the pomp and reverence of a founding father: Appointing him chairman of the university's advisory board, establishing an arboretum in his name in 1959, organizing an elaborate gala and "national recognition day" to mark his 90th birthday in March 1965, lobbying the state board of trustees to name a multi-million dollar science building in his honor, and celebrating his birthday after his death. "Would that there were more men like Dr. Goethe," observed university president Guy West in 1965 about "Sacramento's most remarkable citizen."

All the attention that was showered on Goethe paid off. In 1963 he changed his will to make Sacramento State his primary beneficiary, bequeathing his residence, library and papers, and $640,000 to the university. In addition, he left thousands of dollars and much of his silver collection as personal gifts to President West and to Rodger Bishton, a professor of education who befriended Goethe in the last decade of his life.

The university administered the bequest in nine separate accounts that through judicious investment grew over the years. Two of the accounts, eventually totaling over $600,000, benefited Rodger Bishton's research projects before and after he retired from the university in 1980. An additional $1.6 million remains today in the Goethe-related accounts. Also, the extensive renovation of Goethe's residence -- designed by California architect Julia Morgan in the 1920s and placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1982 -- has increased the value of the property to $2 million. As a recent history concludes, "Charles Goethe made a lasting contribution to the university."

Sacramento State University is not the only public institution to have elevated Goethe into the pantheon of California heroes. The entrepreneur and investor, who lived all his long life in Sacramento, was a major benefactor of redwood conservation, helped to launch the interpretive parks' movement in California and the first supervised playground in his home town, and funded research projects involving plant biology and genetics. For these activities, the University of the Pacific awarded him an honorary doctorate, the National Park Service made him an "Honorary Chief Naturalist," and the Save-the-Redwoods League posthumously named a grove after him in the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

Locally, a middle school in Sacramento carries Goethe's name. Mayor James McKinney proclaimed March 31, 1962, as "Dr. Charles M. Goethe Day" and, three years later, the county board of supervisors renamed the American River Parkway South in honor of "Sacramento's most illustrious citizen." When Sacramento State University feted Goethe in 1965, tributes poured in from dignitaries nation-wide. From Earl Warren, chief justice of the Supreme Court, came recognition of a "remarkable career of public service," while President Lyndon Johnson commended him as a leader of "distinction, integrity and unceasing energy."

What was missing from these eulogies was any mention of Goethe's life-long, passionate involvement with eugenics, the interest that shaped his worldview and drove his public commitments. The eugenics movement, which emerged in Europe and the United States around the turn of the 20th century, was designed, in the words of one of its founders, Francis Galton, to give "the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable."

In the United States, eugenics enjoyed wide support between the world wars and drew upon a variety of ideological views, from the birth control movement to rightwing nativism. Goethe, as founder of the Sacramento-based Eugenics Society of Northern California, was involved with its most reactionary tendency, which promoted "Anglo-Saxon" societies as the engine of modern civilization and advocated policies of sterilization and apartheid in order to protect the "high powers" from contamination by the poor, mentally ill, and "socially inadequate." Goethe believed that a variety of social successes (wealth, political leadership, intellectual discoveries) and social problems (poverty, illegitimacy, crime, mental illness, and unemployment) could be traced to inherited, biological attributes associated with "racial temperament."

And he put his ideas into practice: Working with the influential Human Betterment Foundation in Pasadena and California Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Goethe lobbied the state to restrict immigration from Mexico and carry out some 20,000 involuntary sterilizations of mostly poor women, defined as "feeble-minded" or "socially inadequate" by medical authorities between 1909 and the 1960s. One of Gray Davis's last acts as governor was to issue a public apology to these victims.

Throughout his long life, Goethe remained convinced about the superiority of white "Anglo-Saxon" elites and the inferiority of Jews, African Americans, American Indians, Asian and Latin American immigrants. Shortly before he died, he sent off a donation to the Northern League, a white supremacist organization in the Netherlands that was working to build "cooperation between all the Nordic Peoples" against "worthless peoples of Africa and Asia." "We would wish," wrote the League's Secretary to Goethe in April 1966, "that we had some more men like you among our members."

Goethe's rightwing agenda was no secret. He was proud of his views, which he widely publicized. He spent over a million dollars of his own money writing, publishing, and promoting tracts on race and immigration. A prolific correspondent with a full-time, personal secretary, he fired off thousands of letters to newspapers, colleagues, and public figures. In a 1944 article written by Carey McWilliams for the New Republic, Goethe was identified as "one of the main financial supporters" of the Home Front Commandos, Inc., a Sacramento-based organization that inundated Northern California with racist, anti-Japanese manifestos. McWilliams also reported that Goethe, in his capacity as founder of the Eugenics Society of Northern California, had defended Hitler's efforts to make eugenics into an "applied science."

At Sacramento State University, many people were well aware of Goethe's unsavory provenance. In April 1965, after the plan was announced to name a new building in his honor, students protested the decision as a "blasphemy against science" and compared him to Dr. Strangelove. Two years later, the faculty voted to remove Goethe's name from the building and the administration quietly complied. By the early 1970s, Goethe's huge eugenics library, annotated with his racist scribbling, and hundreds of his more inflammatory letters, including correspondence with his Nazi counterparts, had mysteriously disappeared from the university's archives.

In 1975, Sacramento State's Foundation, which manages the university's endowments, commissioned a graduate student in history to write a biographical profile of Goethe. The study, which provided compelling evidence of Goethe's attraction to "concepts of Nordic superiority" and preference for "Protestantism, tallness, blondness, [and] blue-eyedness," was shelved and ignored.

For the last thirty years, the university has continued to fund projects in Goethe's name, while his symbolic presence on campus has eroded, much like the rotting plaque erected on campus in 1962 in memory of his wife by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The administration quietly removed his name from his residence in September 2000, resurrecting it as a memorial to its architect, Julia Morgan. There has even been discussion of renaming the arboretum that greets visitors entering the campus.

But it's hard to cleanse an institution of its ghosts.

Moreover, we are not well served by substituting calculated amnesia for fawning celebration. We should face the fact that Sacramento State's uncritical relationship with a wealthy benefactor compromised our obligation to speak out on issues of social injustice. The university's silence made it easier for Goethe to promote racist policies in immigration, real estate, and family planning that victimized untold thousands.

Rather than treating Goethe as an embarrassment to be managed, the university should welcome a transparent, public debate about how his legacy should be remembered and used, including full disclosure of the financial handling of Goethe's multi-million dollar bequest. As a public institution of higher education, we have a responsibility to learn from our experience, to understand why the eugenics' movement exercised such widespread influence. And we need to be alert to how its assumptions persist today in the demonization of immigrants, in government efforts to restrict the birthrate of poor women, and in growing support for the genetic "enhancement" of the future children of wealthy families. It's time to engage the past, not erase it.

This article was first published by the Sacramento Bee and is reprinted with permission of the author.

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More Comments:

Mark Williams - 12/27/2004

I came across the following scholarship at a community college I was attending and complained about it to the head of the scholarship center, an African American. She did not know what eugenics was so I provided her with reference information. The college removed the scholarship from their files; however, the University of Miami has not:

Charles Goethe Memorial Scholarship

Criteria: All majors are accepted, but preference is given to students majoring in Eugenics or related studies (i.e. Biology, Genetics, or Life Sciences). Applicant must be of the Order of DeMolay or children of members of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of California.

Deadline: June 1

Amount of Scholarship: Contact agency

Contact: Charles Goethe Memorial Scholarship
ATTN: Michael L. Sellick
6151 H. St.
P.O. Box 19497
Sacramento,CA 95819

source:,1770,6802-1;8726-3,00.html last visited on 12/27/04

Thomas W Hagedorn - 3/7/2004

What makes it (Sanger's Eugenics connection)singular, or at least exceptional, is that many scholars seem to find examples of currently-disapproved behavior in people and institutions associated with the right, but can overlook the eugenics in Margaret Sanger's past.

Do you know of a Pro-Life scholar in women's studies? If there is one, I pity the poor, bedraggled soul. No, my belief is that there is a philosophical orthodoxy on most campuses today and it affects the quality of the product, both the research and the teaching. Ideas need to be tested by the fire of challenge and debate and if all (almost all) the debaters are on the same side, the result will fall far short of what it could be.

Scholars need to find out why their are few conservatives in their graduate schools and on their faculty and correct it. Let's call it seeking diversity - intellectual diversity.

Meanwhile, the Pro-Life caucus of the next Women's Studies Confernece could comfortably be held in a small broom closet.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/7/2004

Actually the whole topic of eugenics, including Sanger's role, is only beginning to be addressed in survey texts. More should be there.

As for the Planned Parenthood connection, it is a bit embarrasing for one of their founders to have been bigoted.

I suspect that the current leaders of IBM are very sad that one of its early leaders actively helped the NAzi regime develop techniques for identifying Jews.

The Southern Baptist Church has recently attempted to come to grips with its having come into existence as part of the Southern defense of slavery. I suspect the current leadership wishes that was different, too.

I could keep going but you get my point. The sad truth is that bigotry is soaked into the past of nearly every long-standing institution in this country. That means that when we look back in time, we find the people celebrated as founders were bigots (by today's standatds, at least).

So other than the fact that you don't like Planned Parenthood, or feminist historians, what makes Sanger's relationship to the birth control movement all that singular?

Thomas W Hagedorn - 3/6/2004

I am waiting for an equal interest in Planned Parenthood's 1920's, 1930's fascination with eugenics and its German application. I work in the early 19th century, but some of Margaret Sanger's (founder of Planned Parenthood) writings and those of her movement's journals in that period are bigoted and chilling. Somehow, I don't think any women's studies scholar will spend much time on this. If they do, I doubt the topic will make the cut into any textbook, as it is quite embarrassing for the femisinst movement. (By the way, does anyone know ANY women's studies scholar who is Pro-Life? What does that say about the discipline's objectivity?)

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