North Carolina was poised to become the first to compensate people who had been sterilized against their will under decades of eugenics laws. More than half of states had forced-sterilization laws, but North Carolina’s were particularly aggressive.
A bill to pay the victims nearly passed in recent months. But nearly isn’t enough for the victims who risked their reputations to go public with their stories.
Now they — and their advocates — wonder what comes next.
Few people have championed compensation for eugenics victims in North Carolina longer than John Railey. He writes editorials for the Winston-Salem Journal, but back in 2002, he was a reporter, standing out on the loading dock of the paper with his editor, who’d invited him out for a chat.
“And so, we’re standing here and he’s going, ‘I got a really big story.’ And I’m going like, ‘What could you have?’ And he said, ‘What if I told you that our state had a forced-sterilization program and Winston-Salem was right in the thick of it?’ And I’m just going, ‘B.S.'”
But up in the dingy filing room where the paper keeps yellowed-clippings of stories dating back to the 1940s, he learned the truth. Articles referring to people as “morons” whom the North Carolina Eugenics Board had “saved from parenthood.” Editorials extolling the board’s work.
“This program was always hiding in plain sight,” Railey says. “And now I’m the editorial page editor of my paper, pushing for compensation of these folks. That guys who sat in my chair back in the day, pushed to have sterilized, for all intents and purposes.”
A Compensation Effort
The North Carolina Eugenics Board sterilized more than 7,600 men, women and children, often merely because they were poor or mentally ill. It went on until the mid-1970s. But no one seemed to know about it until the Winston-Salem Journal published a series in late 2002. North Carolina’s governor issued a formal apology. There was talk of compensating the victims.
But it went nowhere until Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis took up the cause.
“Sometimes we have to look at what the predecessors in this institution did and say, ‘That was wrong,'” Tillis says.
Tillis was the most powerful lawmaker ever to back the compensation effort. A bill to pay living eugenics victims $50,000 sailed through the North Carolina house, but senators refused to take it up. Tillis has vowed to bring it back with better luck next year. But advocates like Railey worry time is running out. The victims are aging and ill. At least one has died since the compensation bill failed in June. Railey feels like he failed them. If only he’d been a better writer.
“More persuasive, better read, something, anything,” Railey says. “God, they were wronged.”
‘We’re Not Giving Up’
Janice Black was ordered sterilized at age 18 because of her developmental disabilities. She’s 60 now and plans to join several other eugenics victims in suing the state.
“We’re not giving up. Justice will prevail,” Black says.
As many as 2,000 may still be alive, but only about 130 have come forward to receive possible compensation. Rita Thompson Swords, 72, did, because she was sure the bill would pass.
“Oh yes, I was very disappointed that it didn’t,” Swords says.
She hoped to buy a heater for her small trailer home near Charlotte, N.C. Swords was sterilized by a doctor after delivering her second child. She was 21, unwed and poor, a combination that made her unfit for more children, according to the North Carolina Eugenics Board. Swords isn’t joining the lawsuit. She still hopes lawmakers will come through, if stories like hers stay in the headlines.
“Please don’t let this die. Just keep it a-going as long as you can. And maybe they’ll do something,” Swords says.
They haven’t been compensated yet, but the fight — and plight — of North Carolina’s eugenics victims has started something. In Virginia, where some 8,000 people were sterilized, one lawmaker is now urging payment for them, too.