Righting a wrong: NC to pay victims of forced sterilization

Many states had eugenics programs; North Carolina will be the first to provide financial compensation

A pamphlet distributed in 1950 extols the benefits of North Carolina's sterilization program.
Source: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources

Willis Lynch clearly remembers the day, 66 years ago, when his bloodline was stopped.

Lynch was only 14 years old when the state of North Carolina forcibly sterilized him while he was a student at the Caswell Training School for Mental Defectives in Kinston, N.C. The school was a holding tank for children who were mentally disabled or were delinquents or unwed mothers. Sterilization was required before they could return to their families, according to documents from the state's eugenics board.

Lynch, now 80, says memories of the operation are still vivid: the nurse putting a mask over his face and then asking him to sing her a song while he inhaled the anesthetic.

"I didn’t know what was going on," he said -- not even the next day, when he found himself stooped over trying to get out of bed. Many years later, however, he discovered state documents that made clear he had been given a vasectomy. Lynch said officials also documented the desire to operate on his mother, who was reliant on state welfare.

"They didn't want her to have any more children for the state to take care of," he said.

Almost seven decades later, lawmakers in North Carolina now say Lynch deserves to be compensated.

In late July, state lawmakers passed a landmark $10 million compensation plan for victims of its eugenics program. The amount will be split among verified victims.

More than 30 states in the country practiced eugenics, and North Carolina is the first to offer financial compensation. An estimated 7,600 people -- some as young as 10 -- were deemed mentally deficient by state public-health officials and were sterilized under the program, which ran from 1929 until 1974. Fewer than half the victims are thought to be alive today. So far, state officials have verified the identities of 177, meaning each victim will receive no more than $56,500. That amount, however, is expected to drop in the next year. Victims have that long to come forward. Once verified, they will have to wait until the summer of 2015 until payments are made.

"Too bad it couldn’t come out earlier," Lynch said, conceding that the money will "help a little bit." He said he believes more victims will step forward to collect.

But then again, he said, some will be too ashamed.

Inspiring a holocaust

Shame may very well keep some victims in the shadows, according to one scholar.

"It's sometimes still seen as a stain on the family, on the family's lineage," said Lutz Kaelber, a sociology professor at the University of Vermont who studies eugenics programs and medical crimes committed against children during the Holocaust. "The marginalization of people who have been sterilized has not gone away."

Eugenics emerged in the early 1900s as a social movement thought to help weed out genetic human defects, including mental illness. The floodgates did not open, however, until 1927, when the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Buck v. Bell gave states permission to enact individual eugenic policies.

"There was no federal law," Kaelber said. "But this decision allowed the states to consider constitutional eugenic sterilization laws … for the welfare of the general public."

The laws caught the interest of politicians and scientists around the world, including Germany, which began its eugenics program well after states did in the U.S.

"When one looks at sterilizations per 100,000 residents in these peak years [in the U.S.], the numbers are not always fundamentally lower than they were in Nazi Germany," Kaelber said. "There are big differences, of course, but they’re not as huge as some would imagine."

In Delaware, for example, the state with the highest per capita sterilization rate during its peak period, from the late 1920s to late '30s, the rate was about half of Bavaria's in 1936.

About 70 percent of forced sterilizations in North Carolina occurred after 1945, according to state officials. Policies noticeably deviated after the civil rights movement in the 1960s, when minorities were allowed access to welfare benefits and state institutions. Unlike in other states, social workers in North Carolina were able to propose sterilization.

"The vicious notion of the black 'welfare mother' gaming the system emerged," Kaelber said. "It was believed that some among the poor, particularly African-Americans, would have a financial incentive to have a large number of children and pass on negative characteristics to these children."

That perception snagged Elaine Riddick.

My problem was poverty.

Riddick said she was the child of a physically abusive father and an alcoholic mother and fell under state oversight in the mid-1960s when she was sent to live with her grandmother, whose house was already overflowing with extended family. When Riddick was 13, she was walking home one night, was raped and became pregnant.

"I was terrified," Riddick, now 60, recalled.

Nine months later, she delivered a son by cesarean section. In the years that followed, her periods would stretch for weeks, and she would have fainting spells. At 18, she was married. Sex was painful, but she had no point of reference for what was normal, she said. A year later, when she was frustrated by fruitless attempts to have another baby, a doctor in New York identified what had happened.

"He explained to me that I had been butchered and I had been sterilized," she said. "I was devastated."

Seeking explanation, Riddick learned that a social worker tracking her family's case during her childhood had labeled her in documents as "feeble-minded," because of her poor performance in school amid a period of vicious bullying, and "promiscuous," after the rape left her pregnant. The social worker threatened to stop welfare benefits to the entire household unless Riddick's grandmother permitted a tubal ligation. Her grandmother, illiterate and unfamiliar with the procedure, complied. She signed the form with a big X, Riddick said.

More than 40 years later, the "feeble-minded" classification still evokes tears and anger.

"My problem," Riddick said, "was poverty."

Symbolic victory

"It's a wicked thing to do to children who have not created any crime or done any wrong except be born poor," said former North Carolina General Assembly member Larry Womble, who proposed the victim-compensation measure to fellow lawmakers every year for the past decade. "It's going to be important for the state to make a concerted effort to locate these victims. One thing about it, they kept good records."

Despite the historical prevalence of eugenics throughout the U.S., North Carolina’s distinctive implementation could leave it short of becoming a role model for other states when it comes to compensation, said Edward Larson, author of “Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South.”

During the sterilization program's duration, said Larson, "it loses its eugenic logic and becomes a program that is just almost inconceivable. It's a program that becomes a way to limit welfare recipients. North Carolina is almost unique in the way it ended up practicing eugenics, which makes it a particularly logical place for compensation for the few people who still survive."

No amount of compensation could ever go far enough because these people were robbed of their reproductive rights, said John Railey, editorial-page editor at the Winston-Salem Journal.

"But it's a huge symbolic victory," he said, adding that the money will be welcome because most of the surviving victims are poor.

Railey has been part of the newspaper's team covering the issue for the past 11 years and keeps in touch with some of the victims on a weekly basis. The newspaper has become the conduit of information for them, he said.

But the resources may not be in place to make the program as effective as it could be.

The Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, an organization set up by then-governor Beverly Perdue in 2010 as a clearinghouse for victims, is "bare bones now," Railey said, because of budget cuts.

"Until the office is staffed, which should be next month, we do not have any additional information," said Chris Mears, a spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Administration, in an email declining an interview.

"It was pretty damn exciting," Railey said of the moment he learned victims would finally get compensated. What comes next, however, worries him. State officials are setting up a process for victims seeking verification through North Carolina’s Industrial Commission, which will refer to sterilization rolls to validate claims.

"Are they going to exert manpower to find more folks?" Railey said, quickly asserting his own answer. "They have to."

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