A little over four miles away from Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts, sits the 180+ acre campus of the Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center. Originally established in 1848 as the Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded by Samuel Gridley Howe in South Boston, the center’s inception marked a pivotal moment in the history of disability care in the United States. 

What was once a beacon of hope and a place of refuge for countless individuals and families is now marred by instances of neglect and abuse — a reflection of the darker chapters in the history of intellectual and developmental disabilities care. The federally funded institution was the oldest institution that served people with developmental disabilities in the Western Hemisphere. Since Waltham acquired the center from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in 2014, many Waltham residents, advocacy groups and former Fernald residents have expressed discontent and anger about the city’s management and preservation plans of the historical site. 

Howe, Fernald’s founder, was known as an abolitionist during the Civil War era and as the first director of the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Massachusetts. According to a City of Waltham written history of Fernald, Howe and the second superintendent, Edward Jarvis, had a “primarily moral / religious mission” of making “clean, productive, responsible citizens of high-functioning disabled youths.” This mission included classroom training, manual training like shoe repair and sewing, music therapy and physical activities like dancing and athletics. As the care and education gained traction, there was an increasing push for the school to accept adults with more chronic disabilities that needed additional care. As a result, in 1887 the legislature appropriated $25,000 for the purchase of land in Waltham for the expansion of Fernald. Land purchases continued into the 20th century, eventually totaling more than 180 acres of land. According to the city, the institution witnessed significant growth, expanding from 142 residents in 1889 to 494 by 1911, further growing to 1,330 in 1926 and reaching 1,890 by 1945. Its peak came in the 1960s, boasting a peak population of 2,600 residents. The care and education as it was under superintendents Howe and Jarvis changed as Walter E. Fernald became the third superintendent in the institution's history. 

Under superintendent Fernald, the school became more scientifically driven, especially when pseudoscience, notably eugenics, gained in popularity in the 20th century. In the United States, the eugenics related atrocities committed in concentration camps during the Holocaust inspired segregation of individuals with disabilities and fostered the growth of institutions like the Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center. This ideology manifested through widespread intelligence quotient testing, which led to the separation of children, whose IQ tests were not considered sufficient, from their families — institutionalizing them and not allowing them to reintegrate into society with the intention of keeping the genetic pool “clean.” Many of Fernald’s ideas like the segregation of intellectually disabled children from society, caused a lot of damage despite his efforts in walking back on some of the ideas during the later parts of his career. Conditions at the school were often brutal where residents were deprived of food and forced into manual labor.

“His work bears a significant responsibility for the mistreatment and segregation that hundreds of American mental institutions practice during and after his lifetime,” said Oliver Egger, the great great grandson of Fernald, at a March 24 People’s Fernald meeting. 

Fernald’s scientific inquiry continued under Dr. Ransom Greene, who became the next superintendent in 1925. During Greene’s leadership, the increase in the institution's population in combination with decreasing funding per capita, caused a heavy reliance on the unpaid manual labor of non-disabled residents in order to keep the state school in operation. In the previously mentioned city’s recording of the center's history, “people who did not have developmental disabilities were virtually incarcerated at the Fernald and institutions like it. These included people who tested below average on IQ tests (termed ‘morons’), children from broken or disordered, poor families and orphans in state foster care. Walter E. Fernald’s mission of scientific investigation and the inclusion of poor, delinquent, orphaned and epileptic people.” The insufficient financial support from the state heightened issues that arose from inadequate faculty to resident ratio like abuse and mistreatment by staff. 

Reggie Clark, a former Fernald resident in the 1960s, remembers having to go to bed at 6:00pm and waking up at 5:00am everyday. He remembers doing the laundry for 52 buildings, making 24 beds and not being allowed to leave the grounds of Fernald or interact with individuals outside of his ward. Clark was admitted into Fernald in the early 1960s and released in 1969. 

“When you're in that ward, you're there for a reason,” Clark said in a March 29 interview with The Justice. “You're there for a reason, because your family puts you there … I didn't have no choice.” Clark's story exemplifies the lack of personal agency throughout the institutionalization experience. 

“I had to take care of patients who were very disturbed,” Clark recalled. “Because the nurses were afraid to go near them.” 

The state school became a research institution with its residents as test subjects. Most famously, between late 1940s and early 1950s, a group 73 boys from the Fernald, between the age of 10-17, were involved in joint experiments by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Quaker Oats, where the the boys were fed oatmeal and milk laced with radioactive iron and calcium, as an effort to prove the nutrients in Quaker’s oatmeal travels throughout the body. The boys did not give consent to partake in the experiments, and were led to believe they were joining a science club. In December of 1995, a $60 million class action lawsuit was filed against MIT and Quaker Oats. In 1998, a $1.85 million settlement was reached, requiring MIT to pay the bulk of the settlement. 

Due to the high expenses needed to maintain the facilities’ operations, then Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney announced his plans of closing the center in an effort to the a $3 billion budget gap for the 2004 fiscal year. The last resident did not leave until 2014, as employees, institution residents and affected families were determined to stop the closure — slowing down the closing process. In 2014, Waltham obtained the property from the state for the price of $3.7 million. 50 acres of the land was purchased with city funds, while 140 acres was bought through the Massachusetts’ Community Preservation Act. Through state funding, the city was responsible to ensure historic preservation efforts, the reuse of buildings, hire sitewide security and restore wetlands that address floods that occur within the surrounding neighborhood. 

Since the purchase, the Fernald Reuse Committee, which was established in 2004, has come up with a tentative plan for the campus, including a miniature golf course, electric train, athletic fields and playgrounds. However, residents, former residents and other stakeholders have expressed their dissatisfaction with the city’s closed door planning and discussion surrounding the repurposing efforts of the Fernald grounds. 

“I am one of the dissenting voices,” said Diana Young, a former chair of the Community Preservation Committee and member of the Waltham Land Trust, in a March 10 interview with The Justice. “Part of the reason is the concern about the property being changed improperly … The other thing is we were hoping we were expecting more of an iterative process with the public.” Young expressed concerns about the specific potential violations the city is violating within the Community Preservation Agreement. Section 12a of the CPA “requires that a permanent restriction be placed on any ‘real property interest’ acquired using CPA funds to ensure that the property continues to be used for the applicable CPA purpose. Given this statutory requirement, a CPA project involving acquisition of any real property interest is technically not complete until the restriction is approved by the appropriate state agency and filed at the Registry of Deeds.” Young explained that the city of Waltham has yet to obtain any holders of registration. “So there's been no holder to kind of watch what the city is doing and hold this city's feet to the fire,” said Young. 

Transparency and communication throughout the planning process has been a common frustration shared by community members. “I think a big starting point is the notion of participatory justice,” Hezzy Smith, Director of Advocacy Initiatives at Harvard Law School Project on Disability, said in a March 10 interview with The Justice. “Where people with disabilities have to be at the table, making decisions about how that land is used.” Opponents of the city’s current plans have pushed for opportunities for community input and the inclusion of people with disabilities, as they were most impacted. Smith suggested that the preservation plans should consider the inclusion of accessible housing, recreation center, service center and a museum where former residents and people with disabilities, the same as those who were institutionalized, to be paid docents and tell the history of Fernald. “If there is not going to be a strong preference for prioritizing people with disabilities and accessing whatever service or program is based at that site, then there's something seriously, seriously wrong,” Smith said. 

“None of these people don't care about what's important to us until they get punished,” Clark said when expressing his frustration around the lack of input from the disability community in the planning process. “They haven’t done their homework … I'm sure that if their son or daughter was in an institution, they would’ve already stepped up and did their homework.” Clark shared how it is a “whole different ball game” if you haven’t experienced or made an effort in understanding the ugly past to develop a preservation plan for the Fernald, and it's a “slap in the face” to build recreational and amusement attractions on land where abuse and neglect occurred. 

Similar sentiments shared by Clark, Smith and Young were expressed by attendees of the third People’s Fernald meeting held on March 24. Egger, the great great grandson of Walter E. Fernald, shared the concerning legacy of his great great grandfather and his disappointment with how Mayor Jeannette McCarthy has handled property since obtaining it in 2014. He stressed that the limited security on the property led to vandalism and for sensitive medical records of former residents to be abandoned and up for grabs — poor handling of the property by the local and state officials.

Also in attendance at the March 24 meeting was Bryan Parcival, a photographer who was part of a team hired by the city to perform a recording of the site. His work includes juxtaposing thousands of current and past photos of all the buildings on the Fernald campus. Parcival emphasized the “lack of imagination” by the city, as pictures depict what was and what could have been architectural beauty, rich in history, but now is overridden by trespassers due to the lack of restorative efforts from the city.

Three days later, on March 27, with short public notice, the Waltham City Council hosted a public input hearing on the preservation plans of the Fernald. Many residents shared their discontentment with the city’s current plan and advocated for the city to follow its CPA obligations and push for more community and disability groups’ input throughout the planning process. They also expressed fear of improper land changes, construction noises and traffic as a result of the Fernald and other projects and the need for clear and transparent communication. Many gave suggestions of how to repurpose the land, suggesting the creation of a new cemetery, more affordable housing and memorials like a museum. 

One concerned Waltham resident expressed the fear of rumored unmarked graves and the city’s active bulldozing efforts without any regard for doing ground penetrating radar. “I find that really shocking,” the resident said in the hearing. “Even if the city believes there are no graves there — as your legacy, as the council — wouldn’t we want to verify that before disturbing the earth and disturbing any potential final resting places and human remains?” The resident questioned the city council. 

The possibility of unmarked and/or unnamed burial grounds on the Fernald property may not be a far possibility. Alex Green, a disability historian and consultant to the city when Fernald was purchased, an adjunct lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and a Visiting Scholar at the Brandeis Lurie Institute for Disability Policy, worked on a project with an 11th grade class to uncover the name and stories of those buried in MetFern Cemetery. According to Green’s research, between 1947 and 1979, the Fernald School and the Metropolitan State Hospital, another nearby institution, buried 296 of their patients in unmarked graves. “The belief was that you had to, and this is common all over the United States … spare the family any shame,” siad Green in a March 13 interview with The Justice. “So you couldn't put their name on a headstone out in the cemetery.” The burials are marked with a sunken slab of stone with “C” or “P” for Catholic and Protestant, and a number etched into it. 

To Green, the project highlights not only the historical context and rippling effect felt today of the neglect and abuse committed at the Fernald and other institutions throughout the country, but more positively highlight “a positive way that the community could look at how to move forward with this property and do something that isn't a lasting sort of stain on the image of what Waltham seems to believe Fernald was about.” 

However, this is no small battle. Green spoke about the need for outside support and was “shocked” that the state and federal government have not said enough about the city’s management of the Fernald property. “We've seen that left to their own devices while holding those sentiments about disabled people and their history, the city will go from passive forms of neglect to actively criminal violations of personal privacy and civil rights,” Green elaborated.