Discovering U. Va.’s Disability History

By Ashley Heuser

When applying for the Distinguished Majors Program in the History department, I had to propose a thesis; my plan was to write about disability history in the 1920s. I knew this was an area with a great need for study, with the eugenics movement, immigration restrictions, and disabled veterans returning from World War I, all as possible topics. During the summer before my third year, I kept finding historical anecdotes leading me back to the University of Virginia. The more I read, the more I realized that there was a secret history I could unearth here, or more specifically at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. I thought it would be interesting to share three reasons why U. Va.  lies at the crossroads of disability history. Those three being Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with a disabled family member, disabled students attending the university during the height of the eugenics era, and an alumnus architect of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

When people talk about keeping the Lawn and other historic locations of U. Va. inaccessible, I often hear them say, “It’s what Jefferson would have wanted.” I never agreed with the premise of this argument: who cares what U. Va.’s founder would think, he’s dead. Regardless, I accepted the fact that Jefferson probably would have wanted to keep his exclusive university accessible to only the very “best” (i.e. free of physical defects)—namely, young, white, Virginian men. Then I began reading Kim E. Nelsen’s A Disability History of the United States. She mentions the fact that Thomas Jefferson had a sister with an intellectual disability. A family friend claimed that Elizabeth Jefferson was “feeble-minded” or possibly an “idiot.” Seeing that she was unable to take care of herself, Thomas Jefferson could have institutionalized his sister, but he chose to support his sister instead. Thomas accommodated Elizabeth in his estate and provided for her. When she died, he raised money in order to pay for a proper burial. This sort of care that Elizabeth received from her brother was more than most disabled people had access to during the eighteenth century, especially without family support.

This is not to say that Jefferson was a friend of the disabled. But Elizabeth’s treatment does stand out as peculiar for the times, a fact conveniently overlooked during the eugenics era at U. Va.

The eugenics era—circa 1883-1945—sought to better the human race by selectively breeding out the “bad stock,” meaning people with defects or disabilities, races other than Anglo-Saxons, criminals, and homosexuals, among many others. Many historians of the eugenics era discuss student papers from Ivey Lewis’ course Biology C1: Evolution and Hereditary. Within these papers, students praised the Nazi’s sterilization program urging the United States to keep pace, claimed that the disabled body was “subnormal,” and advocated for a genocide of all disabled people. Since reading these papers was very jarring, I was surprised when I found in the course records that there were disabled students attending the university during the eugenics era.

In the 1930s, President Alderman and Professor Lambeth created a physical education department in order to help the bodies of the undergraduates be as well conditioned as their minds. Lambeth offered a “Special Education” course for students labeled “defective” (read “disabled”) by a medical practitioner. Thus, it seems like disabled students were always a part of the student body, but their history remains obscured; one exception though, is Evan J. Kemp Jr.

Evan J. Kemp Jr. went to Washington and Lee for his undergraduate degree and U. Va for his law degree. In 1962, he graduated in the top 10% of his class but could not find a job because of his disability. When the federal government eventually hired him, the garage that he parked at as an accommodation had a malfunction and the door crushed him. As he began to use a wheelchair, he became closer with the Disability Rights Movement. People within the DRM asked Kemp, a lifelong Democrat, to vote for Reagan in the next election so that he could be their conservative representative because of his southern upbringing and education. Kemp worked his way up within the Reagan and Bush administrations and sat on the heads of many committees, successfully pitching the DRM as a bi-partisan initiative. Still, U. Va. never celebrated Kemp; his obituary did not make the Cavalier Daily.

I think that U. Va. is missing out on an opportunity by not celebrating one of their most accomplished disabled alumni. University officials are debating whether or not to rename Alderman Library because of the namesake’s disturbing links to the eugenics movement and prejudice against disabled people and overt racism. Kemp’s legacy gives U. Va. a third option regarding whether or not to rename the library: U. Va. could create the Kemp Conference Room and make it completely accessible to serve the disability community. This conference room could house the small collection of books on disability which are currently in the HV 1500 section of the Alderman stacks. Instead of trying to rewrite or do away with Alderman’s legacy, the Kemp conference room could undermine it while enshrining Kemp’s legacy at the university.

My goal over this coming semester is to piece together a narrative that connects all three of these anecdotes and people. The topic for my thesis as it stands today is Changes in Student Perceptions of Disability: A Micro-History of the University of Virginia. I hope that my thesis serves as a tool for the DSI to show that not only is a disability studies program possible at the university but that U. Va. is the perfect university to undertake this project because of its history. Hiding behind U. Va.’s history to keep places inaccessible ignores the disability history that has always been a part of the university and its founder’s legacy as well.

For any suggestions for archival resources for my thesis, please reach out to me at arh3ew@virginia.edu.

Ashley Heuser is a fourth year Distinguished History and Government double major. She is involved on Grounds as a student member of the Disability Advocacy and Action Committee and the president of Chronically Ill and Disabled Cavs. 

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