MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
An update now on an effort to right an old wrong in North Carolina. The state was poised to become the first to compensate people who had been sterilized against their will.
More than half the states once had forced sterilization laws and North Carolina's were especially aggressive. A bill to pay the victims made progress in the state legislature, but ultimately stalled. Now, the victims and their advocates wonder what comes next.
Julie Rose reports from member station WFAE in Charlotte.
JULIE ROSE, BYLINE: 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.
JOHN RAILEY: This is where we go outside to gossip and smoke and shoot the breeze.
ROSE: Railey's editor invited him out for a chat.
RAILEY: So we're standing here, you know, and he's going, I got a really big story. And I'm going, well, what could you have? And he's - what if I told you that, you know, our state had a forced sterilization program and Winston-Salem was right in the thick of it? I'm just going, BS.
ROSE: 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, quote, "saved from parenthood." Editorials extolling the board's work.
RAILEY: This program was always hiding in plain sight and, you know, now, I'm the editorial page editor of my paper pushing for compensation for these folks that guys who sat in my chair back in the day pushed to have sterilized for all intents and purposes.
ROSE: 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 this man took up the cause.
STATE REPRESENTATIVE THOM TILLIS: Sometimes, we have to look at what the predecessors in this institution did and say that was wrong.
ROSE: Republican House Speaker Thom 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 John 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.
RAILEY: More persuasive, better read, something, anything. God, they were wrong.
JANICE BLACK: We're not giving up. Justice will prevail.
ROSE: 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. As many as 2,000 may still be alive, but only about 130 have come forward to receive possible compensation.
Seventy-two-year-old Rita Thompson Swords did because she was sure the bill would pass.
RITA THOMPSON SWORDS: Oh, yes. I was very disappointed that it didn't, you know.
ROSE: 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.
SWORDS: Just, you all, don't - please, don't let this die. Just keep it a going as long as you can, you know. Maybe they'll do something.
ROSE: 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.
For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose in Charlotte.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.