By Cash Michaels
There were tears, anger and heartache.
And a question. “Why?”
That’s what several victims, and representatives of aging victims of North Carolina’s nearly 50-year forced sterilization program still wanted to know as they poured out their hearts in dramatic, and oft times gripping testimony June 22 before the Governor’s Eugenics Compensation Task Force in Raleigh.
Elaine Riddick, 57, was 14 years-old when she was sterilized after being raped and giving birth to her only child in rural Perquimans County in 1968. She was classified as “feeble-minded” and “promiscuous.”
“[The state of North Carolina] slandered me, ridiculed and harassed me, they cut me open as if I were a hog,” a tearful Riddick, being comforted by her son, Tony, told the task force. Riddick, like many other victims, had no idea what had been done to her until later in life when she married at 18, and wanted to have more children, only to find out that never again could she conceive.
“My body was too young for what they did me,” she cried.
Lela Dunston was born in Wilmington. At age 13, a social worker told her mother that Lela was mentally disturbed because she had had a child, and required that the young girl be sterilized. Even though Lela’s aunt tried to stop the procedure, the mother went through with it.
“The state needs to award us…” Dunston demanded,” …‘cause we’ve got to carry on.”
Another victim, Willis C. Lynch, 77, an elderly white male from Littleton, told how he could not father his own children when he married because he had been sterilized as a youth in 1948 at the age of 14.
“I hope they hurry and do something [about victims compensation] …because I’m 77 years-old and I don’t have long to live,” Lynch told the task force.
Sponsored by the recently created NC Justice for Sterilization Victim’s Foundation, the panel’s public “listening session” attracted media attention not just from across the state, but also the nation, as news outlets like CBS were present to chronicle what all agreed was a dark chapter in North Carolina’s history.
“We’re the only state in this nation, and possible in the world, right here in North Carolina, that’s trying to do something to address this ugly chapter in North Carolina’s history,” state Rep. Larry Womble (D-Forsyth), who has championed the compensation cause for the sterilization victims for nine years, said.
What the packed session heard were stories of how poor children barely in their teens, were classified by local health officials as being slow or troublesome, and were institutionalized after their parents, in many cases, were coerced into authorizing corrective measures.
The most prominent of those measures was the practice of eugenics, a worldwide accepted method of “purifying the race” by weeded out the proliferation of “undesirables” from the general population through forced sterilization.
After World War II, the practice waned internationally after it became associated with the horrors of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. But in North Carolina and over 30 other states, particularly after the US Supreme Court upheld compulsory sterilization in 1927, the practice continued unabated for decades after.
According to the foundation, the state’s documented sterilizations started in 1929. Four years later, the NC General Assembly created the state Eugenics Board, which officially signed off on cases submitted to it by local county health departments.
Between 1933 and 1977 when the Eugenics Board was disbanded, at least 7600 forced sterilizations on poor white and black victims, eighty-five percent of whom were female and young, were performed.
Approximately 3000 victims are believed to be still alive today, though many are dying off every year.
Seventy percent of those procedures took place between 1946 and the mid-1960s, foundation Executive Director Charmaine Fuller Cooper says. Most of the victims lived in rural areas, and were as young at 10 years-old.
Of the 53 counties where state records show forced sterilizations performed between July 1946 and June 1968, Mecklenburg tops the list at 485 procedures done. Wake ranks #9 with 114, Cumberland #14 with 89 and Durham #16 with 82 cases.
Near the coast, Bladen County ranked #23 with 73, and New Hanover County ranks 25th on the list with 72 recorded.
It was 2002 when the Winston-Salem Journal broke the story in a series of articles, forcing then-Gov. Mike Easley to be the first governor in the nation to formally apologize to the surviving victims and their families.
The following year, the NC General Assembly formally repealed the 1933 law that originally authorized forced sterilizations. But despite several sponsored bills by victims’ advocate Rep. Larry Womble, state lawmakers have done little else to truly address the need for compensation.
After Gov. Beverly Perdue was elected in 2008, she followed through on a promise to establish a foundation for the eugenics victims under the state Dept. of Administration, and had $250,000 appropriated to get it started.
The foundation is officially tasked with being a clearinghouse to both identify and assist certified eugenics victims until the compensation issued is settled by the General Assembly.
Perdue made an informal visit to the task force listening session, sitting in the back listening to the victims’ stories. She said that what the state did to them is wrong, and that she is committed to seeing that they are compensated.
The question is, if past Democratic-controlled General Assemblies ducked even a recommended $20,000 in compensation per victim, then what will a belt-tightening, budget-cutting Republican-led Legislature do if it’s still in power in 2012?
According to the foundation, per Gov. Perdue’s Executive Order #83, “…the Eugenics Task Force will recommend possible methods or forms of compensation to persons forcibly sterilized by the state’s eugenics program and will evaluate the recommendations of previous commissions. The Task Force is required to issue a preliminary report to the Governor by Aug. 1 and a final report by Feb. 1, 2012.”
For more information on the Governor’s Eugenics Compensation Task Force, contact the NC Justice for Sterilization Victim’s Foundation toll-free at 1-877-55--6013, or go to www.sterilizationvictims.nc.gov.
If you missed the June 22 public hearing and would like to share your concerns with the task force, leave a recorded message on the Public Feedback line at 919-807-4273. That line will remain active until July 7, 2011.