America Tonight

Forced sterilization nurse: 'I can see now that it was so wrong'

Celia Vandegrift witnessed what may have been thousands of forced sterilizations, and deeply regrets her role

Celia Vandegrift jokes that she is "senile" at the age of 87, but her memory is sharp when it comes to the Lynchburg State Colony.

For decades, Vandegrift worked as a nurse at the government-run facility, which was once called the State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. The place was home to epileptics, the mentally disabled, and people otherwise deemed socially inadequate by the government. In her role as a nurse, Vandegrift witnessed what may have been thousands of forced sterilizations -- part of a government effort to rid society of the “defective,” and create a super race.

'It's what our bosses wanted'

"It's what our legislators wanted at the time and what our bosses wanted, even the President of the United States,” Vandegrift told America Tonight, the first time she has spoken publicly about her involvement in one of America’s leading eugenics programs. “You trusted all those people, so I went right along with them."

She added: "I thought, at the time, I was doing the right thing. I can see now that it was so wrong."

Virginia eugenics program
A newspaper article about the Supreme Court decision to uphold Virginia's sterilization law.
America Tonight

The policy was laid out in the Virginia’s 1924 Eugenical Sterilization Act, and found constitutional by the Supreme Court three years later -- a decision cited by Nazi doctors as part of their defense during the Nuremberg trials. Officials estimate that more than 7,000 Virginians were sterilized under the law, which remained on the books until 1979. Approximately 65,000 forced sterilizations were conducted nationwide. 

“I wish I had a family,” said Lewis Reynolds, 86, who suffered seizures after a head injury. He was forcibly sterilized at the age of 13. Reynolds went on to serve his country for 30 years, in Korea and Vietnam.

“I just wonder what kind of daddy would I be if I had any children," he said. 

Decision to sterilize

In February, the Virginia House voted to approve a recommendation to set aside $500,000 "to provide compensation to some of our most vulnerable citizens who were subjected to forced sterilization during the middle part of the past century." A General Assembly discussion on March 24 will address the state's outstanding budget issues, including whether to pay surviving victims $25,000 each.  

If the budget passes with the funding in place, Virginia would be only the second state, joining North Carolina, to offer reparations to victims, although it was among more than 30 states that legalized forced sterilization.

In recent years, fewer than a dozen Virginia victims have come forward. Even fewer nurses and doctors have spoken out about their involvement. 

And she said, 'Oh you didn't want to have a baby cause they're nasty.'

Janet Ingram

Vandegrift, a quick-witted grandmother, has fond memories of the facility where she spent her career, rising up the ranks from operating room supervisor to director of nursing.

"I remember it being crowded," she said of the campus in Lynchburg, Va., now called the Central Virginia Training Center. The staff was "very caring," she added. "They had to love people or they couldn't work there.  We were so overpopulated and underpaid."

Virginia eugenics program
Young women eat dinner at the facility now known as the Central Virginia Training Center.
America Tonight

At the colony, the disabled lived, worked and learned skills like cooking, shoemaking and sewing. Asked how many sterilizations she thought she had observed in her nearly 40 years working there, Vandegrift replied: “Oh my goodness. I couldn’t begin to tell you.”

Deciding whether to sterilize a patient was a difficult process, she remembered, involving a handful of people, including a doctor, a nurse and a psychologist.

"Everybody had time to speak their belief and what they wanted and how they felt about that individual," Vandegrift said.

It became a common surgery at the training center. They could manage seven male sterilizations a week, Vandegrift recalled, but only about two a week for female sterilizations, which took a lot longer. The patients were asleep by the time they were transported to the operating room, where Vandegrift helped clean and prep the medical instruments for surgery. 

The recovery process

Janet (left) and Sadie Ingram (right) were sterilized as teenagers at the Central Virginia Training Center, as it's now known.
America Tonight

Waking up after surgery was painful, said Janet Ingram, 66, who was sterilized when she was a teen.    

"I woke up and my stomach was hurting," she told America Tonight. "I said, 'Oh no, my stomach. I looked down, and I had stitches in my…stomach, and the nurse came back in and…I said, 'What happened?' She said, 'You just been sterilized.’”

"And she said, 'Oh you didn't want to have a baby cause they're nasty,'" Ingram remembered.

As a baby, Ingram was removed from her home and brought to the facility with other members of her family, including her pregnant mother, three sisters and a pregnant maternal aunt. Medical records show that she was admitted when she was 22 months old, because "she was suspected of being feebleminded, of low mentality due to inbreeding and environmental surroundings and living under the worst financial, home and moral conditions imaginable."  

Vandegrift grew attached to the Ingram children, as she watched them grow over the years. She delightfully recalled their first meeting.

"They were running every which way. That was our beginning," she laughed. "I just had a special feeling for them, especially Janet for some reason. She just clung to me like a little leech.”

Janet and her siblings spent time at the training center and lived in various foster homes throughout the years.

At age 19, Ingram actually moved in with Vandegrift. This wasn’t so unusual, Vandegrift explained.  Many children at the facility rotated between foster homes, and out of compassion, nurses occasionally took them in.  

Janet Ingram, now 66, said she loves kids, and thinks she would have wanted one of her own. But as a teenager, she was judged "defective" and forcibly sterilized with no warning.
America Tonight

While Ingram’s right to have her own child had been taken away, she helped raise Vandegrift's now-grown daughter, Hope Wright.

“She played with me, made doll clothes, rode bikes with me, sat at the table while I completed my homework each night," Wright remembered. "She would sit by my bed at night, and she would read me children’s stories until I fell asleep, every night."

Ingram has lived in their home for 50 years now. A few years back, her sister Sadie moved in too. They don’t talk about the dark history that connects them.

Vandegrift isn’t certain whether she had anything to do with Ingram's sterilization or those of her relatives. But getting to know  Ingram changed how she felt about the forced sterilizations that she watched so many times.

"When I think of it - what their lives could have been - and knowing what they had done, and what they can do and what they're doing now….They could have been parents. Very good [parents],” she said. “'Cause they helped with my children and with my grandchildren."

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