Then as now, immigration proved to be controversial

Recently, immigration and how it should be regulated has been in the headlines. Unfortunately, a look back to 1888 shows […]

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Rodney A MottRecently, immigration and how it should be regulated has been in the headlines. Unfortunately, a look back to 1888 shows us that stereotypes are not anything new.

Rodney A. Mott, the primary player in the establishment of the Minnesota School for the Deaf, stated his case for immigration reform in a speech he gave there on June 5, 1888. The speech marked the closing exercises for the school term.

Mott chose to commemorate the 25th anniversary of that institution, recapping the history of the School for the Deaf and noting the subsequent addition of the School for the Blind and the School for Feebleminded to form what became known as the Minnesota Institute for Defectives. He emphasized that Minnesota took a step not yet taken by many states when, in 1881, the legislature made the School for Feebleminded a permanent institution. It not only offered instruction and training for feebleminded children but also provided for custody of the idiotic and epileptic children and youth of the state.

Earlier that day Mott had participated in the cornerstone laying for a custodial wing for the School for Feebleminded. The new building, he said in his speech, would serve to confine children and adults considered unimprovable until they were past the reproducing age and, by so doing, “stamp out hereditary imbecility and epilepsy, right here and now.” But that end, he lamented, could be reached only if all other states took similar action and if the country ceased to be the dumping ground of all nations.

Congress, in the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1882, had limited admission of Chinese laborers and any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any other person unable to take care of themselves and becoming a public charge. Mott proposed to cast a much broader net, saying “We shall ever welcome the vitality and nobility of the best Celtic, Saxon, Germanic, and Scandinavian blood of Europe, but if the sewage of vice and crime and physical weakness is to pour in upon us from the east, and more nameless abominations to come in a like flood from the west, we are helpless. We cannot build prisons, reformatories, insane retreats and idiotic asylums fast enough and large enough for our needs.”

He called for a stop to this “folly.” He proposed to protect the future of the county from outside “mental, moral, and physical rottenness” by imposing a high tariff on “impure blood.”

In the years that followed, Congress continued to limit admission of persons with disabilities. The federal government also continued to limit admission of persons from China and other disfavored countries, but not to the extent Mott envisioned. Mott’s vision for the “custodial” at Faribault did become a reality, however, starting with construction in the next decade of two new custodial buildings, Sunnyside and Skinner, and expansion in the century that followed into a custodial institution for more than 3,000 persons.

A transcription of Mott’s speech published in the Faribault Republican for June 6, 1888 is on line in With an Eye to the Past on the DD Council here.



Access Press is interested in reader submissions for the monthly History Note column, to complement the articles written by Luther Granquist and other contributors. Submissions must center on events, people and places in the history of Minnesota’s disability community. We are interested in history that focuses on all types of disability topics, so long as the history has a tie to Minnesota. We are especially interested in stories from Greater Minnesota. Please submit ideas prior to submitting full stories, as we may have covered the topic before. Contact us at [email protected] or 651-644-2133 if you have questions. The History Note is a monthly column sponsored by the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities.







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