Discussion of the Role of Anthropology in Transracial Adoptions, 1956

These meeting minutes document an ongoing discussion by staff members at Louise Wise Services, one of the country’s leading adoption agencies in the post-World War II era. What to do about children of mixed or ambiguous racial background? This raised a number of thorny questions about who children were, where they belonged, and what their sexual and reproductive futures might hold, recalling the earlier debate about adoption and eugenics. Should agencies place children in white families in cases where they could “pass”? The Interracial Program of Louise Wise Services was launched in 1952 with the strong backing of Justine Wise Polier, daughter of the agency’s founder, Louise Wise. This excerpt suggests the role that science played in legitimizing matching at a moment when the acknowledgment of racial differences within families was just becoming imaginable.

Judge Polier then called upon Dr. Shapiro, the newest member of our Professional Advisory Committee. He is chairman of the Department of Anthropology and Curator of Physical Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History. He has worked with all of the adoption agencies in New York City for the past several years in helping them to make decisions regarding children of interracial background. Generally it is a question of how the child should be placed. Dr. Shapiro said that the problem of mixed races is not purely biological, it is biological in a sociological setting. He said that it is not always simple to say what the child really is; he can only give an opinion of what a child is and what kind of a family he believes the child can fit into. The agencies must make the final decision.

In discussing the nature of racial differences, Dr. Shapiro said that racial differences were easy to see if the child is of unmixed racial background. When we cross individuals of certain racial backgrounds—as for example Negro and white—the child may fall within the range of Negro traits, or the child may be so white that we should think of him as a white child. In the latter cases, the Negro strain has been diluted out and the genes of the child are overwhelmingly white. If such a child should later marry a white person the couple would not have Negro children.

Dr. Shapiro stated that since most agencies like to place children very young they send them to him at two to three months of age. However, he refuses to gave an opinion then, and will not see the children until they are six months old. He realizes that this puts a burden on the agencies but yet he feels that it can save us from making mistakes.

There was some discussion regarding birth certificates for children who should be classified as white but whose original birth certificates indicate that they are Negro. In such situations, Dr. Shapiro writes a letter which the agency can use in having the birth certificate changed. . . .


Source: Minutes of the Child Adoption Committee, March 7, 1956, Viola W. Bernard Papers, Box 155, Folder 2, Archives and Special Collections, Augustus C. Long Library, Columbia University.

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