State librarian mum on dropping Dorothy Canfield Fisher from award

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State Librarian Scott Murphy was asked last month by the Vermont Board of Libraries to act on a recommendation to remove the name of Dorothy Canfield Fisher from the prestigious children's book award.

If Murphy has formed an opinion on the matter, he is clearly not saying. In fact, after several emails, phone messages and visits to his office by a VTDigger reporter, he has not responded in any way.

During a Jan. 11 meeting, the board voted 7-0 to recommend that Fisher's name be dropped from the award. The resolution that was adopted — an amended version of one originally presented by Chairman Bruce Post — limited the board's justification for the name change to a concern that it was no longer relevant to today's young people.

Post said a new title should "appeal to the contemporary understanding of student readers" and should be reviewed every 15 years with that in mind. He also said he wanted to avoid "confusing Dorothy Canfield Fisher's initials with DCF, which is the Department of Children and Families, also DCF."

By accepting the final language, the Board of Libraries effectively sidestepped the thorny issue of Fisher's connections to the eugenics movement, the topic that initially had prompted the board to consider changing the book award's name.

Last April, Abenaki educator Judy Dow appeared before the board and outlined Fisher's ties to the eugenics movement. She cited the author's role with the Vermont Commission on Country Life, which helped bring eugenics to the forefront in Vermont by promoting "better breeding."

Dow pointed to some of Fisher's writings that she said disparaged American Indians and French Canadians and the author's ties to the more formal Vermont Eugenics Movement of the 1920s and `30s.

During the board's review, others argued that evidence of Fisher's connections to eugenics was nonexistent or, at best, inconclusive. In a letter to the board, Fisher's granddaughter Vivian Hixon said that although the eugenics movement involved many racists, Fisher was not one of them.

Hixon, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, said that NAACP founder Mary White Ovington wrote: "We can always count on Dorothy Canfield." Hixon also pointed to her grandmother's advocacy of black writers such as Richard Wright as evidence that she was not racially biased.

An audience member at the January board meeting argued nothing had been presented that "actually tied Dorothy Canfield Fisher to the eugenics movement." To which Dow replied: "I came in (to the meeting last April) with bags and bags of evidence that Dorothy Canfield Fisher was a eugenicist."

The movement was the primary catalyst for the Vermont Legislature's enactment of a law in 1931 permitting the forced sterilization of "idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded or insane persons." More than 250 sterilizations occurred in Vermont, based on records housed at the University of Vermont, with the last procedure conducted in 1957. During the formative years of the eugenics movement, several UVM scholars were central figures in promoting the effort as a way to restore Vermont's "Yankee roots."

Reading from his original resolution, Post outlined to the board how "(Fisher's) association, however loose and whatever her motivation, with the Vermont Eugenics Movement" helped form the official state policy that led to the sterilization law. "Through government-initiated sterilization of men and women," he said, citizens were deprived of "their natural right to bear and raise children."

The nine-month Board of Libraries review of the Fisher award occurred during a time of national discussion about whether certain statues and other symbols of racial discrimination ought to be removed. And closer to home, the South Burlington School Board was in the process of dropping the name "Rebels" as its high school mascot.

The award was created in 1957 to honor "excellence in children's literature," according to the Board of Libraries website. The winner is selected by Vermont students in Grades 4-8 from a list of 30 nominees. Students are asked to read at least five of the books before voting. Winners over the award's 60-year history include Suzanne Collins, Carl Hiaasen, Judy Blume and David Budbill. The awards program also includes an annual conference, with this year's taking place at the Lake Morey Resort in Fairlee.

Clearly sensing the discomfort of some board members in going beyond the recommendation of a name change to make it more contemporary, Post at one point said: "I have no problem stripping out the reference to eugenics."

The chairman's original resolution also included a recommendation that top state officials establish a special panel to look at Vermont's role in eugenics and offer a public accounting.

The proposal called on "the governor, speaker of the Vermont House, president pro tem of the Senate and the president of the University of Vermont — who represent those institutions that were the main promoters and perpetrators of the Vermont Eugenics Movement — to convene a special commission to investigate the issue."

The commission would "examine how to educate the Vermont public and publicly atone for the eugenics movement," Post said. Laws similar to Vermont's were adopted in more than 30 other states. A handful of them have offered formal apologies for involuntary sterilizations but North Carolina and Virginia are believed to be the only two that have set up a process to compensate individual victims or their families.

Several library board members expressed a concern that including such a recommendation might go beyond the jurisdiction of the board. And member Lars Torres asked: "To what degree do we bludgeon the state?"

Post himself did not disagree that the Board of Libraries may not be the proper vehicle for launching a review of the state's involvement in the eugenics movement. However, he emphatically argued that such an examination was essential.

"Vermont can't ignore the issue of eugenics any more," the chairman said. "We need to own up to it. It needs a much more comprehensive look."

So far, there are scant indications that any sort of formal examination of the issue and Vermont's role is likely to happen anytime soon. Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-Grand Isle-Chittenden, said they know of no current legislative proposal to that effect.

And UVM spokesman Enrique Corredera said that while research has been conducted in the past, there are no current efforts in place to address the university's role in the eugenics movement and no plans to do so in the future.

Benning said there has been "hallway talk" in the Statehouse about the decision to change the Dorothy Canfield Fisher award, particularly from some of the more senior lawmakers who believe Fisher is a cornerstone of Vermont literary history. He said while he is sure that every legislator "abhors" what happened during the eugenics movement, he is unsure if retrospective action is the proper course.

"I think it has become, does the wrong outweigh their contributions?" Benning said. "Or do their contributions outweigh the wrong they may have done?"

As for the idea of possible reparations, Benning was doubtful that would ever happen in Vermont. "I can't see many Vermonters being too happy paying for the sins of their ancestors in their taxes," he said.

Johnson said that there is always space to look back and examine mistakes of the past. However, she said the issue "has to be taken up by all parts of society, not just these bodies. It needs to be taught and remembered."

Meanwhile, it's now up to State Librarian Scott Murphy to decide whether to accept the recommendation to change the name of the Dorothy Canfield Fisher award.

In late July, the Vermont School Library Association also sent Murphy a resolution calling for a name change that included a reference to the controversy. The resolution, adopted unanimously by the 14 board members attending the group's summer retreat, was not widely publicized and only included in the minutes of the meeting. The resolution said:

We, the governing board of the Vermont School Library Association, value the tradition of Vermont's children's choice book awards. Due to recent controversies surrounding the name and its acronym, we recommend changing the name of the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award. By changing the name, we have the opportunity bring the focus of the award back to literacy and inclusivity.

During the state Board of Libraries' more than hour-long meeting last month, Murphy spoke not a word, only nodding slightly near its conclusion when asked if a name change could be implemented by the next award cycle beginning in the fall.

If the librarian's made up his mind, he's clearly not saying.

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