by Lisa Sorg
Margaret Helen Cheek was a loving, yet troubled mother who spent the prime of her life in mental institution.
Two of Cheek’s daughters, Australia Clay and Dolores Marks, told a task force Wednesday that Cheek had been sterilized against her will at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, where she was a patient for 11 years.
“It was traumatic reading my mother’s records from the hospital,” Clay told the Governor’s Eugenics Compensation Task Force.
From 1929 until 1974 when the eugenics program ended, about 7,600 people in North Carolina were involuntarily sterilized under orders from the state eugenics board. Victims included the poor and those who allegedly had cognitive or mental disorders. After World War II, the program also began targeting minorities, like Cheek, who was African-American. She died many years ago in her early 70s.
Cheek was in her mid- to late-20s when her husband committed her to the mental institution. She was sterilized shortly before her release in the early 1960s, said Clay and Marks, who were children during most of her confinement.
The sisters believe signatures on the sterilization permission form were forged. “My father couldn’t write, but his name was signed on the sterilization record,” Marks said.
Cheek’s signature was on there, too, although the hospital had deemed her mentally incompetent. “My mother’s signature was on there giving permission, yet she supposedly just stared and didn’t know up from down,” Clay said.
“I don’t think she knew what had happened,” Marks added.
The task force is, in part, charged with determining how much money each victim of North Carolina’s eugenics program, and possibly his or her immediate family members, should receive. Approximately 2,900 victims could be still alive, although since some of them had children before being forcibly sterilized, the number of qualifying family members could be much higher.
In 2003, state Rep. Larry Womble, D-Forsyth, recommended a figure of $50,000 per victim; a House select committee later lowered it to $20,000. The task force agreed Wednesday that $20,000 is a “starting point,” based on compensation for other victims of civil rights violations, such as those whom the U.S. government confined in Japanese internment camps during World War II. The amount also would have a chance of clearing political and fiscal hurdles in the Legislature.
Clay and Marks said the $50,000 would be fair, adding that if they chose to sue the State of North Carolina over their mother’s treatment, they would bear the financial burden.
Task force members noted there could be other considerations that could increase the figure, such as the victim’s age at sterilization and the type of procedure, castration, for example.
“Even a million dollars wouldn’t be enough, said task force member Lenwood Davis, a historian and teacher from Winston-Salem. “But we need to be realistic. We need to get this resolved. It’s been dragging on for years.”
The money would have to be appropriated by the General Assembly, which it has failed to do for eight years. There have been discussions of dipping into the Tobacco Trust Fund, which task force member Fetzer Mills, a former judge, strenuously opposes.
“If the state has committed a wrong against its citizens, the state itself should be required to pay out of the general fund from the taxes citizens pay,” Mills said. “To look elsewhere is shirking responsibility.”
Last year, Gov. Beverly Perdue included in the state budget a $250,000, three-year grant for the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Foundation, which conducts outreach to find eugenics survivors and oversees the task force.
However, the Legislature has not funded any of the substantive initiatives that the task force and other agencies have recommended. The only two recommendations that have been completed are the eugenics historical marker at McDowell and Jones streets in Raleigh and the inclusion of the history of the national eugenics movement in public high school curricula.
Due to the lack of funding and turnover and cutbacks at state agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services, there has been no progress on providing health insurance for survivors with medical problems as a result of their sterilization or offering them mental health and educational benefits.
“I’m looking at this like it’s the damages phase of a trial,” Mills told his fellow task force members. “One of the aspects of damages is to let the wrongdoer know what he did was wrong and not to do it again. We need to make sure the State of North Carolina never gets in this business again.”
Several victims' family members are expected to tell their stories at the task force's next meeting on June 22 at 10 a.m. The meeting will be held at the Governor's Crime Commission, 1201 Front St., Suite 200, in Raleigh.
If you or someone you know may have been forcibly sterilized under the North Carolina eugenics program and would like to verify your status and access your patient files, contact the Foundation at 1-877-550-6013 or 919-807-4270. The website is www.sterilizationvictims.nc.gov.