MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This week, North Carolina mailed out the first compensation checks to victims of a state-run eugenics program. It existed for almost 50 years ending in 1976. And it was one of the most aggressive in the country. More than 7,000 people, poor African-American or disabled, were sterilized, many against their will.
Last year, North Carolina passed a law to compensate victims. But as we hear from Eric Mennel of member station WUNC, some of them have to fight harder than others to get their money.
ERIC MENNEL: In January 1972, two social workers went to the home of Debra Blackmon. She was about to turn 14. Court and medical documents offer some details about what happened. They point out the Blackmon was, (quote) "severely retarded" and had, (quote) "psychic problems" that made her difficult to manage during menstruation. Her parents were counseled and it was deemed in Blackmon's best interest that she'd be sterilized.
DEBRA BLACKMON: My name is Debra Blackmon. And I was the one that had the sterilization a long time ago.
MENNEL: Debra Blackmon is 56 years old now. She has a hard time with the details but she remembers a few things about that day at Charlotte Memorial Hospital.
BLACKMON: My daddy said don't hurt his baby. And he was crying.
LATOYA ADAMS: We didn't find out until recently the extent and, you know, exactly what all they did to her.
MENNEL: Latoya Adams is Blackmon's niece. Adams grew up knowing her aunt had been sterilized. So after the compensation law was passed, she went looking for documentation. She came back with the mother lode. There was a court order, names of social workers and the entire procedure outlined from pre-op to discharge. The doctor had labeled it a, (quote) "eugenics sterilization." And while it was a relief to have the information, it was also remarkably sad.
ADAMS: They were telling my grandparents that the surgery was going to be, you know, minimally invasive. They told them that it would be a tubal ligation. And they winded up doing a full abdominal hysterectomy on a 14-year-old.
MENNEL: With all this evidence, Latoya and her family thought they had a case. They filed the paperwork and waited to hear back. The news wasn't good.
ADAMS: The denial letter, the only thing it really stated was that there were no records found and that her case wasn't approved by the North Carolina Eugenics Board.
MENNEL: The problem lies in a technicality. The new compensation law says operations had to have occurred under the state's Eugenics Board. As it turns out, the Eugenics Board likely wasn't aware of all the sterilizations taking place. Judges and social service workers were green-lighting sterilizations as well. Bob Bollinger is an attorney representing Blackmon and a few other people claiming to be victims.
BOB BOLLINGER: And that's kind of become the fundamental problem here. You've got some old dusty file cabinet in Raleigh that's full of Eugenics Board paperwork from decades ago, but yet you've got all these people who got sterilized involuntarily, where it was instigated at the local level. And their paperwork somehow or another didn't end up being preserved in the eugenics files in Raleigh, if it was ever there to begin with.
GRAHAM WILSON: A lot of people may have had this procedure done under the auspices of local county groups. They're not qualified.
MENNEL: Graham Wilson is a spokesman for the North Carolina Industrial Commission, the state agency deciding who qualifies for compensation.
WILSON: They may think they're qualified. And obviously they had this procedure done to them. But if it was not done under the Eugenics Board of North Carolina, then they're not qualified.
MENNEL: Lawyers working with the victims estimate hundreds of people could fall into this category - people like Debra Blackmon. Blackmon's operation was ordered by a judge who was part of the state court system. That judge cited a state law. So I asked Wilson doesn't that make the state responsible?
WILSON: That's kind of hard to say. I mean, again, it's an unfortunate part of our history. It was just like a lot of things in our past. It was just something that was done. So it's kind of hard to say that the state would be responsible when it was just kind of an accepted practice.
BLACKMON: It's frustrating sometimes. It really is.
MENNEL: Debra Blackmon isn't the only one frustrated. Her niece, Latoya Adams, says the denial feels like a double blow.
ADAMS: Everything is there. It's all in the paperwork. Everything is there, but because you're saying that you can't find a piece of paper stating that OK, that she had it done, approved under the North Carolina State Board, that you're saying that you're not going to be compensated. I think it's sad. It's like you've hurt her once before but then now I feel like you're turning around and hurting her once again.
MENNEL: There is an appeals process, and Adams and Blackmon are working through that right now. As for people who will be compensated, the first half of the money went out this week - 220 checks for $20,000 each. The rest will go out next summer after the approval process is complete. For NPR News, I'm Eric Mennel in Chapel Hill.
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.