State Politics

More NC eugenics victims could become eligible for compensation

Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam wants to make more victims of eugenics eligible for compensation.
Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam wants to make more victims of eugenics eligible for compensation. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Lawmakers set aside $10 million in 2013 to compensate victims of the state’s eugenics program, but the reparations didn’t go to people who were forcibly sterilized by county governments.

A bill introduced in the legislature Thursday aims to fix that by allowing the state’s four largest counties to pay sterilization victims.

“They slipped through the cracks of our bill there,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam of Apex. “We didn’t realize that in some cases this was by the county.”

From 1929 to 1974, nearly 7,600 people were sterilized under orders from North Carolina’s Eugenics Board. The board sought to prevent people who were mentally ill, diseased, “feeble-minded” or otherwise deemed “undesirable” from having children.

Surviving victims of the program received $50,000 from the state, but only if the Eugenics Board was responsible. The board wasn’t responsible for some of the people sterilized at the Dorothea Dix psychiatric hospital in Raleigh, as well as those sterilized by Mecklenburg County health officials.

“They are just as entitled to be compensated as those who were done under authority of the state,” Stam said. “It is a matter of justice for those people.”

Leaders in Wake, Mecklenburg, Forsyth and Guilford counties wouldn’t be required to set up payment programs, and the state wouldn’t cover the costs.

Wake County Commissioner John Burns, a Democrat, said he’d support a local program but doesn’t know how many people would be eligible.

“These folks deserve compensation for a terrible, horrible policy,” he said.

But Burns said he’s concerned the bill leaves out other counties, and smaller counties might not have funding available to pay victims. “I think we need to do something that’s fair to all concerned,” he said.

Stam said he doesn’t think his bill leaves many victims out. “These four counties would account for 90 to 99 percent of people who may have slipped through the cracks,” he said. “My guess is the vast majority of requests will be Mecklenburg.”

Mecklenburg County commissioners recently took a unanimous vote to support a local compensation bill, Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour said Thursday. Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat, presented the proposal to them and asked whether commissioners would endorse it, he said.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” said Ridenhour, a Republican. “This is one of the most egregious offenses to their personhood and body that there can be.”

He said records indicated there were six surviving Mecklenburg residents who were ineligible for state compensation because they were sterilized under the authority of a local board, rather than the state board. Ridenhour said the Mecklenburg County plan calls for offering $50,000 each, with total compensation capped at $300,000, a sum that wouldn’t require a tax hike or cuts in services.

Under Stam’s bill, counties would work with the Industrial Commission – which has been issuing the state’s payments – to determine whether someone is eligible. All claims must be filed before Dec. 31, 2019. Anyone whose claim is rejected could appeal to the county’s Superior Court.

Mecklenburg County was the heaviest user of the state board, which authorized 485 sterilizations of Mecklenburg residents. That’s three times as many as any other county.

Wallace Kuralt, Mecklenburg’s welfare director from 1945 to 1972, was a force behind many of those sterilizations. In an era when there was no reliable birth control, he contended that sterilization was an effective method to restrain childbearing among the county’s poorest residents, controlling costs and dealing with a root cause of poverty. Widely viewed as an advocate for women and the poor, Kuralt, who died in 1994, was nevertheless a vocal advocate for a program now seen as shameful.

In writings and interviews throughout his life, he described sterilization and birth control as the key to saving tax money and rooting out poverty among the “low mentality-low income families which tend to produce the largest number of children.”

“When we stop to reflect upon the thousands of physical, mental and social misfits in our midst,” he wrote in The Charlotte News in 1964, “the thousands of families which are too large for the family to support, the one-tenth of our children born to an unmarried mother, the hoard of children rejected by parents, is there any doubt that health, welfare and education agencies need to redouble their efforts to prevent these conditions which are so costly to society?”

The House is scheduled to vote on the eugenics bill on Monday.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter

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