N.C. Tries To Make Amends For Forced Sterilizations

More than half of states once had eugenics laws, but North Carolina's forced sterilization was one of the most aggressive. Nearly 7,600 men, women and children were ordered sterilized by the state — often merely because they were poor or mentally ill. Now, North Carolina has become the first state to compensate its eugenics victims.

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In the early 1900s, more than half of the states in the U.S. passed laws allowing people to be sterilized against their will. North Carolina's eugenics program was particularly aggressive. Some 7,600 men, women and children were sterilized often because they were poor or mentally ill.

Now, North Carolina has done more than any other state to make amends, as we hear from Julie Rose of member station WFAE.

JULIE ROSE, BYLINE: At the same moment North Carolina lawmakers were voting to compensate the state's eugenics victims yesterday - Hi there, Janice. How are you? - Janice Black was coming home from her job cleaning medical equipment at the...

Carolina lawmakers were voting to compensate the state's eugenics victims yesterday - Hi, there, Janice. How are you? - Janice Black was coming home from her job cleaning medical equipment at the very hospital where she was sterilized nearly 40 years ago.

JANICE BLACK: When I go there, I don't even think about it. I just go do my work.

ROSE: Black was one of the last victims of the North Carolina Eugenics Board which disbanded in 1974. She was 18 that year and living with her stepmother in Charlotte. She has a big smile and a contagious chuckle, but her developmental disabilities led the Eugenics Board to conclude she wasn't fit to be a parent and ordered her sterilized. She kept it a secret until last year. Speaking out was cathartic for Black.

BLACK: You know, it kind of gave me sort of relief, you know, like they say like getting a monkey off your back.

(LAUGHTER)

ROSE: No amount of money can make it right, she says, but what the state has done now?

BLACK: It helps, you know? It helps some.

ROSE: North Carolina lawmakers have allocated $10 million to be split among living victims who come forward and have their claims verified by the state. Some 1,500 victims are estimated to still be alive. A little less than 200 have come forward so far, which means each could get as much as $50,000, but possibly far less. State Representative Nelson Dollar urged his legislative colleagues to right a great moral wrong.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE NELSON DOLLAR: Never in the last century of our state has the power of government been so misused. Citizens mutilated, maimed and scarred for life.

RITA THOMPSON SWORDS: I agree with that, yes.

ROSE: This is another of North Carolina's eugenics victims.

SWORDS: I'm Rita Thompson Swords.

ROSE: Swords was sterilized at age 21 after giving birth to her second child as an unwed mother. She says her father was coerced to sign the form from another hospital room where he was undergoing treatment for brain cancer. Coercion and uninformed consent are common themes in the state's eugenics records. Victims were branded as morons.

SWORDS: It took a lot of years to get over it, you know? It does. I mean, I don't see how they had the right or how they could have done anybody like that.

ROSE: The legislative decision to compensate victims like Swords is the culmination of more than a decade's crusade for former State Representative Larry Womble. He first heard about the eugenics program from a reporter in 2002.

LARRY WOMBLE: When he first called me, I didn't believe him because nobody else had heard anything about it. I hadn't heard anything about it. Come to find out they kept it hid. And I said, well, I see what I have to do something. I just - now that I am aware, and I know this, I'll have to do something.

ROSE: So every year, he ran a bill to compensate the victims, and every year, it died, until the speaker of the State House made it his personal mission. And now, North Carolina has become the first to pay its eugenics victims out of more than 30 states that had such laws.

For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose in Charlotte.

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