By Adam Searing, NC Health Access Coalition
In North Carolina, it was state policy between 1929 and 1974 to involuntarily sterilize men, women and children for often vague reasons such as “feeblemindedness” or “promiscuity.” Seventy-six hundred people were sterilized and 2,000 were age 18 or younger including one 10 year old boy who was castrated. For many years, sterilizations were carried out in rough proportion to the racial distribution of the population. That changed in the 1960s when more African-Americans started to be targeted with the goal of saving money for the state by looking especially hard at mothers getting federal and state welfare assistance.
This shameful chapter in North Carolina’s history is one that many would like to forget. Thanks to reporting from the Winston Salem Journal, which ran a series of stories about the program in 2002, we are at least reclaiming some of this tarnished legacy. In addition, after years of delay, the state Department of Health and Human Services recently unveiled an excellent museum exhibit outlining in clear panels and recordings how North Carolina had harmed so many.
Despite a growing awareness of the atrocities committed in the name of all North Carolinians, the General Assembly continues to drag its feet in redressing our mistakes.
During the budget debate in the General Assembly last week, Representative Larry Womble, a longtime champion of redressing the wrongs of the sterilization program, asked once again for compensation for victims. In addition, several victims of the program spoke about their experiences. This included victims like Jesse Riddick, who was 16 when she was sterilized and didn’t realize what had happened until years later after she was married and trying to start a family.
This call for compensation and reform was again rebuffed and another study was ordered of the issue. Recommendations and a study were already put forth in 2003 and efforts have been made every year since then by Womble to bring the issue up for a vote.
Despite foot-dragging by legislators, there is a great need for an accounting. The recent museum exhibit on the sterilization program shows this by highlighting the role of one state official. Dr. Ellen Winston was a prominent North Carolinian who was the state Commissioner of Public Welfare, the precursor to today’s state Department of Health and Human Services, from 1944 until 1962. She then became the first national Commissioner of Welfare in 1963 in the administration of President Lyndon Johnson. Dr. Winston took many progressive steps to advance the care of vulnerable people, especially the elderly. She served with distinction at both the state and national levels. She also was a prime mover and often one of the only people attending the North Carolina committee that approved and promoted the involuntary sterilizations of thousands.
I met Dr. Winston as a child through her work with my mother who was then a young social worker with an interest in issues surrounding older adults. Dr. Winston was a towering figure but one with what was no doubt a terrible and largely unacknowledged burden that I and many others were never aware of. In the General Assembly resolution honoring her after her death in 1984 there was no mention of her work on the sterilization program. The importance of her effort in this part of North Carolina’s history is only starting to be fully explored.
It’s truly past time for us to acknowledge our mistakes and take at least a few steps to righting the wrongs that were done in our names. There have been recommendations and suggestions since 2002, but three clearly stand out.
First, there is no reason not to immediately pay compensation to surviving victims of the program. Estimates place the number of living survivors at around 3,000. A $30,000 payment spread over two years to each victim would cost the state $45 million each year – less than the $50 million annual (and unending) tax break given this session to some major businesses to help with their energy costs.
Second, the excellent museum exhibit DHHS has put together should be duplicated and given a permanent and prominent place in the NC Museum of History in downtown Raleigh. The History Museum is steps from the Legislative Building and a critical place to remember not only the triumphs of the Wright brothers but also those times when our moral compass went badly off track. We cannot vow “never again” if we do not remember what we did in the first place.
Third, as the 2003 study commission recommended, North Carolina’s high school curriculum should include information about the sterilization program and a health care fund should be established to help survivors with health problems resulting from the sterilizations.
We can never undo the terrible mistakes we made as North Carolinians but we can move to remember and compensate at least in part for the burden than we all share.
Adam Searing is the Director of the N.C. Health Access Coalition