Point of View

NC's still-waiting eugenics victims

June 27, 2013 


A page from a eugenics pamphlet, ca. 1930s, courtesy of the University of North Carolina, Wilson Library, North Carolina Collection.


The recent Republican frenzy to repeal past Democratic legislative initiatives has sparked debate across the state, but the GOP has up to now failed to redress the worst Democratic program ever.

Gov. Pat McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis publicly support compensating the few hundred living victims of the state’s forced sterilization program. Senate Leader Phil Berger and his colleagues blocked passage of $50,000 per victim during last year’s legislative session.

McCrory included funding again this year in his proposed budget. Now the GOP faces a litmus test regarding its credibility. Will the GOP finally put a symbolic end to this evil Democratic program?

North Carolina sterilized more than 7,000 poor and disproportionately black residents between 1929 and 1974. Many were very young teenage girls who were rendered barren for life. Few even understood what was being done to them. Local officials often threatened their families with the loss of government benefits if they didn’t “agree” to the operations. Local agencies claimed that they were feeble-minded, promiscuous and generally “defective.”

Forcible “tying of tubes” was seen as a way to beef up the quality of the gene pool while reducing black births. The eugenics program mirrored practices employed in Nazi Germany that emphasized breeding for genetic purity. Our program lasted long after similar initiatives ended in other states.

Ernestine Moore’s story is chillingly like that of hundreds of other victims. She lived in a poor family in Fountain, N.C., where she grew up in a small house with seven siblings. At 14 she became pregnant with her boyfriend, and a white social worker pushed her to be sterilized after the baby was delivered. Her words mirror those of many victims. “I really didn’t want to do that operation. They told me if I didn’t do it, my mother would be cut off welfare. If I didn’t do it, they would take my child away and put it in a home. I had to do something.”

Moore then told what happened on August 29, 1965, when her daughter, Sharon Diane, was born at Pitt County Hospital. “I heard them talking during the operation. I heard them say they really didn’t want to do it. They said I was too young to do it.”

One of the most chilling aspects of the eugenics program was that lawmakers wrote their immunity from civil liability into the statutes sustaining the program. In addition, county social workers submitted short summaries to the state Eugenics Board that often approved sterilizations based solely on a one-page document prepared by a person who barely knew the proposed victim.

The Democratic General Assembly ignored pleas for compensation for over a decade after Gov. Mike Easley apologized for the state’s actions in 2003. The year before, the Winston-Salem Journal in its searing series “Against Their Will” exposed the secret documents buried in state archives that provided details of the darkest period in our state’s history.

Gov. Bev Perdue finally included compensation in her last budget, but the Senate failed to act after the House passed it. Only a few hundred victims remain alive. They view financial compensation not as a windfall but as finally putting an end to the eugenics program. Payments would offer them proof that North Carolina truly feels remorse for what we did to our defenseless citizens.

For the victims, the eugenics program is symbolically still alive today maintained by the broken promises of study commissions, governors and state legislators.

McCrory should demonstrate courageous leadership to secure funding for the victims. Berger and his colleagues have a chance to partially rectify history and to put an end to the worst Democratic program ever. More broadly, the GOP leadership can provide a clear answer to the question: “Are they really sincere legitimate statesmen or are they just a tribe of political hacks?”

William C. Crawford of Winston-Salem is a social worker and writer. He worked at the Guilford County Department of Social Services during the eugenics program.

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