Significant, bizarre, shameful

STAFF WRITERJuly 13, 2009 

Three weeks ago, Elaine Riddick took her seat on a bus in Georgia and settled in for a very long ride to Raleigh.

Riddick, 55, didn't mind because the trip gave her plenty of time to think about her own personal journey. "I needed that," she told me last week.

She came here to attend a ceremony at a new state historical marker that has been installed near McDowell and Jones streets downtown. This is what it says:

Eugenics Board

State action led to the sterilization by choice or coercion of over 7,600 people, 1933-1973. Met after 1939 one block E.

It is an odd marker. The state Web site says these markers "can be a source of pride, a signal that an event of historical significance took place close to home."

Well, the work of the Eugenics Board was of historical significance, all right. It was also one of the most bizarre chapters in our state's history. Riddick, raped when she was 13 in northeastern North Carolina, was one of the 7,600. The state decided she was feeble-minded and promiscuous, and society would be best served if, after giving birth, she were sterilized.

No one told her she had been sterilized. She learned when she was 19 and married, and discovered she could have no more children. "I hibernated for a while, ... lived in a shell," she said. "I thought very negative thoughts about myself. I didn't feel like a female, for one thing."

Her story was told nearly seven years ago in an investigative series on the Eugenics Board by the Winston-Salem Journal. That series helped make Riddick the public face of the board's victims, and the marker is one result of years of work by legislators to acknowledge the state's guilt. There is more to be done.

After the ceremony, she headed back home, about 45 minutes from Atlanta.

I said in our interview, "You don't sound feeble-minded." She laughed.

Riddick, who never attended high school, decided after moving to New York to give college a try. She earned an associate's degree. Today, she works in a child care center.

Life hasn't been easy. The emotional scars of her sterilization required frequent psychiatric visits. But going public has lessened her dependence on therapy.

A source of pride is her son, who lives in her tiny hometown of Winfall, where he operates several businesses.

In September, Riddick will move near her son and 4-year-old grandson. I can't imagine how difficult it will be to return to a place with so many bad memories. But she doesn't sound like a victim.

"The more I dealt with this sterilization issue, the more I understood that I didn't do anything wrong," she said. "If people want to talk and laugh about me, it's OK. The only thing I can do is go on with my life, go on to the next stage."

Elaine Riddick is coming back to North Carolina. That's worth its own historical marker.

Senior editor Dan Barkin is filling in for Ruth Sheehan, who is on vacation. or 919-829-4562

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