The Feeble Minded in New York, excerpts
Caption: A report describes the school for “feeble minded” children on Randall’s Island, including how parents resisted having their children there, and what powers the state wanted to have over children it labeled “feeble minded.”
A school for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities opened on Randall’s Island in the East River in the 1860s - alongside the city’s almshouse, hospitals, and prisons. By the early 1900s, the school had been renamed the “Custodial Asylum and School for the Feeble-Minded.”1 At the time, the term “feeble minded” was a label used by educators, doctors, and government officials to indicate that a person had an intellectual disability. Intelligence tests were an important, if not the only, factor in deciding whether a person would be labeled “feeble minded.”
Ideas from the eugenics movement shaped the school on Randall’s Island. Eugenicists believed that laws and science should be used to “improve” the human population, usually by increasing the population of white, non-disabled people and restricting the existence of people of color and Disabled people.2 With this goal in mind, they favored segregation of intellectually Disabled people and restrictions on their reproduction.
This report about the school on Randall’s Island, written by a representative of the Public Education Association, includes two kinds of evidence about the school. First, there is a list of children who had been living on Randall’s Island but whose parents removed them from the school. What can we tell about these children and their families? What can we tell about children’s experiences at the school?
Second, there are statements about what the school is doing and what reforms would help it, from the perspective of the author and her organization.
Anne Moore, “The Feeble Minded in New York: A Report Prepared for the Public Education Association of New York,” New York: The Association, 1911. ↩︎
”Eugenics and Physical Anthropology,” https://understandingrace.org/history/science/eugenics-and-physical-anthropology-1890-1930/, Accessed July 22, 2023. ↩︎
Creator: Anne Moore
Copyright: Public domain
How to cite: “The Feeble Minded in New York, excerpts,” Anne Moore, in New York City Civil Rights History Project, Accessed: [Month Day, Year], https://nyccivilrightshistory.org/gallery/feeble-minded-in-ny.
Questions to Consider
- Based on Table C, what leads children to being placed at this school? What is the category of “feeble minded”? What is included and what is excluded?
- What factors do you think affected whether a family could take care of a child with intellectual disabilities or other disabilities at home?
- Sections of the text on pages 86 and 93 make suggestions about who should decide where a person with intellectual disabilities lives. What do you think about these proposals? Who do you think should decide where a person with intellectual disabilities lives? What factors might be involved in that decision?
- Who is the school on Randall’s Island trying to help? What sections of the text support your answer?
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