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N.C. eugenics survivors seek justice

The ultimate betrayal



It has been 40 years since Elaine Riddick heard the words, but she still remembers them like yesterday: "The doctor told me I had been butchered."

In 1968, at just 14 years old, Elaine became one of the thousands of victims of North Carolina's forced sterilization program. Quietly and efficiently operating from 1929 until 1974, the program's purpose was to weed out the "unfit" of society by stopping them from reproducing.

Elaine is sitting in a quiet apartment high above the noise of Atlanta traffic. A well-dressed, poised and dignified African-American woman in her mid-50s, it is difficult to imagine her as the young girl that she describes.

Elaine Riddick was a 14-year-old rape victim when she was forcibly sterilized at a hospital in Edenton. "I don't think I will ever be happy because of what they took from me," she says. - PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON
  • Photo by D.L. Anderson
  • Elaine Riddick was a 14-year-old rape victim when she was forcibly sterilized at a hospital in Edenton. "I don't think I will ever be happy because of what they took from me," she says.

As a teenager in tiny Winfall, N.C., Elaine had already known poverty and violence. She had witnessed her father cutting her mother's throat from ear to ear in an alcohol-induced rage. She remembers frequently missing school. When she did show up, she was dirty and unkempt. She sometimes stole food from other children's lunches because she was always hungry. At just 13 years old, she was raped and impregnated by a neighbor's brother who was in his 20s. Elaine remembers that he threatened to kill her if she told anybody.

Elaine was 14 when she gave birth to what was to be her only child, a son, in 1968 at Chowan Hospital in Edenton. She doesn't remember much about her hospital visit, but she was told that she almost died and had to stay in the hospital a week longer than her son.

For the next few years, Elaine says she remembers having frequent stomach pain and hemorrhaging so severe that at 16 she was admitted to a hospital. The doctor gave her little information, but she remembers he remarked that she'd been "butchered."

However, Elaine didn't know what that meant until, at 19, she went to a doctor again. By then she was married and she and her husband wanted to start a family. After talking with the doctor and one of her sisters, she finally realized that she had been sterilized right after her son's birth five years before.

Like Elaine, tens of thousands of people across the country were victims of eugenic sterilizations. But North Carolina was something of an anomaly. Most of the states with eugenic sterilization programs dismantled them after World War II when the horrors of the Holocaust were uncovered. North Carolina, however, ramped up its program in the postwar years, increasingly targeting poor black women during the '50s and '60s.

By the program's end in 1974, North Carolina ranked third among the states for number of eugenic sterilizations performed—at least 7,600 over 45 years. It was also the only state in which social workers were empowered to start the sterilization petitioning process. The Eugenics Board of North Carolina—comprised of five bureaucrats who met monthly in Raleigh—approved 90 percent of the sterilization petitions, often deciding cases within 15 minutes and without interviewing the individual to be sterilized. More than 70 percent of the victims were sterilized for "feeblemindedness," a vague term open to the board's interpretation—from supposedly possessing a low IQ to being "promiscuous," "rebellious" or even "untidy."

According to the petition filed with the board for Elaine in 1967, she needed to be sterilized because of her "inability to control herself and her promiscuity." The petition adds that there are "community reports of her 'running around' and out late at night unchaperoned." It concludes that Elaine can "never function in any way as a parent." Her diagnosis: "feebleminded."

Elaine had obtained her medical records after consulting with the ACLU, who worked with her to file a lawsuit against the state for $1 million in damages on the grounds that her constitutional rights had been violated—which she lost. She underwent a reversal procedure that didn't work. And she tried to save a marriage with a man who called her "barren" and "a waste."

"He said I should have died," she remembers. At 27, she finally divorced him and decided to go back to school. She got an associate's degree, even though she had never completed high school. "They never asked to see my transcript," she says.

But even a college degree could not erase the stigma she felt from her sterilization and years of verbal and physical abuse. She married another man in Georgia and suffered more abuse. Elaine blamed herself for both abusive husbands because she wasn't able to give them children. And, she says, she internalized the "feebleminded" label placed on her by the state, believing "I was too dumb and stupid."

Elaine continued to suffer from pain and bleeding, and finally underwent a full hysterectomy. For years she took anti-depression medication and says she was always hiding, hurting and crying: "I would never smile."

She avoided her family and people from her past. "I felt like they knew about me," she says. "I had 'sterilization' written all over my forehead and back."

And she felt betrayed by her government. "They talk about a child's right to education and a good life. They didn't have the same rules for me."

While the program in later years most often targeted poor black women, it didn't begin that way. Early on, the program focused on people in mental hospitals and training schools, which admitted those believed to have developmental disabilities or psychiatric disorders.

"It's something that you never forget," says Agnes, a white elderly woman who lives in Raleigh. (She wishes to remain anonymous because no one else knows about her sterilization.) Although her hair is white and her voice fragile, she appears much younger than her 82 years. She sits at her kitchen table in her well-maintained home, and her eyes begin to tear as the memories from 60 years ago begin to surface.

In 1949 she was 21 years old, married and had just given birth to her second child, who was born with cerebral palsy. She knew that something was wrong but couldn't pinpoint it. She felt angry and depressed all the time. She wouldn't eat. She cursed at her husband and her doctor, faulting him for her newborn's problems. At one point she attempted to jump out the window of their home.

What might be recognized as postpartum depression today was deemed a "mental breakdown." Agnes was sent to Dorothea Dix State Hospital in Raleigh, where she remained for eight months. "It seemed like 50 years to me," says Agnes, adding she "wasn't the best patient."

She received more than 25 electrical shock treatments during her hospital stay. It's been more than 60 years, but Agnes still shudders as she recalls being strapped to a table with a mouth guard in place and feeling the electricity course through her body. Then she would be taken back to her ward, tied down with sheets to her hospital bed and covered with ice chips. She also remembers being sent to solitary confinement for weeks at a time as punishment for "bad behavior."

While at the hospital, Agnes complained of a recurring pain in her side, which the doctors suspected could be appendicitis. She says she clearly remembers hearing them discuss their plans, "They said, 'If we have to operate on her for her appendix, why don't we just go ahead and do a sterilization?'" When she asked them why, they simply told her they didn't want her to have any more children.

"It wasn't their choice," she says. "That should have been my choice."

Agnes did not consent to the procedure, nor did her husband. In fact, he wasn't even aware she'd had surgery until the following day when she told him about it. The sterilization greatly saddened both Agnes and her husband, who died about eight years ago. They were young and planned to have more children. For years, Agnes had a secret hope to become pregnant despite her sterilization. She would sometimes look longingly at someone else's baby. "I felt like, if this was my baby I would just be so thrilled."

The Eugenics Board state historical marker in Raleigh - PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON

Elaine and Agnes, though separated by generation and race, and now by hundreds of miles, are connected by history: they are both survivors of North Carolina's eugenic sterilization program. There are two bills in the Legislature that, if passed, would help make amends for North Carolina's eugenic past. One would provide a one-time cash payment of $20,000 to each of the estimated 2,800 victims expected to still be alive, as long as they come forward themselves and can be verified to have been part of the program. (State Rep. Larry Womble initially proposed $50,000, but the most recent House bill reduced the amount.) The other bill addresses health and counseling benefits for victims as well as ethics training for government employees and a directive for the state's K–12 schools to teach about North Carolina's eugenics program as part of its state history curriculum. No other state has made this type of effort. Yet, considering the uniqueness of the state's sterilization program, the extra effort seems warranted.

To be fair, most North Carolinians knew little or nothing about the state's forced sterilization program at the time it was happening. Few sterilization victims spoke up about what happened to them, and the records of the Eugenics Board were closed to the public. However, in the late 1990s, Dr. Johanna Schoen, a professor of women's history at the University of Iowa and a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, was researching the history of birth control, sterilization and abortion when she was granted access to the board's previously sealed records.

Recognizing that the stories of thousands of victims desperately needed to be told, she shared her research with a team of reporters at the Winston-Salem Journal, who combined Schoen's research with their own investigative reporting and published a five-part series in the winter of 2002–2003 titled "Against Their Will." The series detailed the flagrant abuses that occurred during the program's tenure. For example, more than 2,000 of the victims were ages 18 and younger. A 10-year-old boy was castrated. The board sometimes backdated approval for procedures that had already been performed. Young girls were sterilized for perceived promiscuity or rebelliousness. Welfare recipients were sometimes threatened with loss of benefits if they did not agree to sterilization.

Not surprisingly, the Journal's series was shortly followed by a formal apology from then-governor Mike Easley for the state eugenic sterilization program. Easley appointed a blue-ribbon committee to study compensation for program survivors, and that committee developed several recommendations—everything from increasing public awareness to providing outreach services to survivors through monetary as well as health and education benefits. In 2003, it seemed that North Carolina was well on its way to making some sort of amends for a regrettable chapter of its history. However, because of staff changes at the Department of Health and Human Services and lack of resources, most of the recommendations were left to collect dust for several years.

When State Rep. Womble (D-Forsyth) received a phone call from the Winston-Salem Journal in 2002 asking if he knew about the state's eugenic history, he said he didn't. Once he learned the details, he was flabbergasted and angry that such a program had ever taken place and vowed to do something about it. "It's been a long battle," says Womble. "First we had to take the law off the books."

That's right. The sterilization law remained on the books until 2003, although the Eugenics Board was disbanded in 1974. After the law was finally removed, thanks mainly to Womble's efforts, the state developed a traveling museum exhibit describing the program. A historical roadside marker recognizes the program's victims. It was unveiled in downtown Raleigh last year. And, most recently, Charmaine Fuller Cooper of Durham was appointed executive director of the new N.C. Justice for Victims of Sterilization Foundation, which will examine options for restitution for the survivors and collaborate with other state agencies in carrying them out (see sidebar story).

After seven years of promises, though, the sterilization victims have yet to see any tangible benefits, and some of them are starting to lose hope they ever will.

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