John Drescher

Journalist tells sad history of NC eugenics program

John Railey was part of a team of reporters at the Winston-Salem Journal who in 2002 revealed the inner workings of the state’s eugenics program.

From 1929, when the legislature established the program, to 1974, when it was ended, North Carolina sterilized more than 7,600 men, women and children.

Though it’s been more than a decade since the Journal published its findings, Railey has never let go of the story. He became the Journal’s editorial-page editor in 2010 and advocated for compensation for the victims. Now he has written a book that traces the victims’ fight for reparations, “Rage to Redemption in the Sterilization Age” (Cascade Books).

For years the sterilization program was considered a forward-thinking approach to prevent those who were institutionalized or on welfare from having children.

Railey, 54, grew up in Virginia, graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and has worked at the Journal since 1997. He said he wrote the book to remember the victims, including his friend Nial Cox Ramirez, who was sterilized in 1965 when she was 18 years old and living in rural Washington County. She was unmarried, had just given birth to a child and was found by the N.C. Eugenics Board to be “feeble-minded.”

Ramirez made headlines in the 1970s when she was a plaintiff in the national ACLU’s first lawsuit against a state sterilization program. She didn’t win but she didn’t give up, becoming a key player decades later in a similar fight in the North Carolina legislature.

Governor knew?

Railey writes about his own struggles with the issue. His father, a lawyer, was friends with Terry Sanford, governor of North Carolina from 1961 to ’65, the period when Ramirez was sterilized.

After Nazi experiments on humans were discovered in the 1940s, many states backed away from their eugenics programs. But not North Carolina, which had one of the nation’s most aggressive programs. In the early 1960s, the N.C. Eugenics Board shifted its focus from the general population to black girls and women who were receiving welfare.

Railey admired Gov. Sanford, who courageously advocated for civil rights for African-Americans. He wanted to determine if Sanford had known about the work of the Eugenics Board. “I didn’t want to find out that Terry knew anything about it,” Railey told me recently.

Railey never found that Sanford wrote or spoke about the eugenics program. But he did find a two-year report from the N.C. Eugenics Board to Gov. Sanford. Railey concludes that Sanford knew about the program.

“Terry’s record (as governor) will live for the ages,” Railey said. “But for whatever reason, he didn’t see this. Even great leaders can’t see things.”

Master at PR

The Eugenics Board ran an effective public relations campaign that went unquestioned by the state’s newspapers, including The News & Observer. “We cannot make a better world if we deliberately give our substance to subsidizing the production of the least worthy stock among men,” The N&O wrote in a 1935 editorial, which the Eugenics Board republished.

From time to time, newspapers wrote favorable stories and editorials about the program. “The Eugenics Board was a master at PR,” Railey said. “The general public vaguely knew about it but not the inner workings.” In reviewing the history of the program, no one looks good, Railey said.

North Carolina in 2013 became the first state to compensate eugenics victims. Those who were sterilized by order of the Eugenics Board could get up to $50,000 each. That effort was led by then-House Speaker Thom Tillis, now in the U.S. Senate. “We disagreed on most things,” Railey said, “but his commitment to that was real.”

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com.

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