Until 40 years ago, the state of North Carolina forcibly sterilized poor people. The Winston-Salem Journal exposed the story that was right under everybody’s noses in 2002. Now, victims are finally getting compensation, but is history repeating itself with new policies that hurt the poor?

by Jonathan Michels

At one time in the United States, wealthy and powerful individuals promoted eugenics, the belief and practice of using flawed science to “purify” the human race. It fell out of fashion following the revelations of Nazi atrocities during World War II.

While the rest of the country curtailed their eugenics programs after the Holocaust, North Carolina was the only state to dramatically increase the forced sterilizations of poor black and white citizens. By 1974, 7,600 men, women and children from every county in the state had been forcibly sterilized.

Nationally, titans of industry such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller Jr., funded and promoted the belief that the poorest Americans were unfit to breed. Locally, hosiery king and longtime Forsyth County commissioner James G. Hanes partnered with the heir of the Proctor & Gamble fortune along with other eugenicists to create the Human Betterment League in 1947. At the time, Winston-Salem, the ultimate company town, held great sway in North Carolina and throughout the South. The manufacturing industries that enriched the city’s elite benefited greatly from a plentiful and cheap supply of black and white labor.

Winston-Salem’s manufacturers, adept at using Jim Crow racism for economic gain, also painted themselves as forward-thinking community leaders who believed in the welfare of all. Eugenics played right into this paternalistic framework and offered a “scientific” legitimacy and a softer face to the brutal inequalities of the New South. The number of sterilizations declined by 1945 but the league injected the state’s eugenics program with renewed vitality and legitimacy. Sterilizations in North Carolina soared and Winston-Salem led the upsurge.

One of the most avid promoters of the eugenics movement was actually the Winston-Salem Journal. The Journal had already played a decisive role in defeating the civil rights unionism of an interracial union at RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. It was during this time that the Journal also began promoting North Carolina’s forced sterilization program with articles like the 1948 feature, “The Case for Sterilization — Quality Versus Quantity,” were critical in selling the benefits of forced sterilization to North Carolinians.

However, the Journal came full circle in 2002 when its series “Against Their Will” exposed North Carolina’s forced-sterilization program. The Journal’s revelatory investigation was the catalyst for an 11-year campaign to financially compensate victims. Although North Carolina continued its forced sterilizations much longer than any other state, with the passage of the Eugenics Asexualization and Sterilization Compensation Program in 2013, it became the first and only state to offer more than just an apology. With the June 30 application deadline quickly approaching, the history of the struggle for compensation is a current event. The individual milestones of the campaign for compensation have brought back the top-notch investigative journalism of a bygone era, giving voice to the struggle of and a pursuit of justice that fused humanity and partisan politics in the halls of the General Assembly.

A champion sidelined

In December 2011, state Rep. Larry Womble was leaving his home in east Winston-Salem when his car slammed head-on into a drunk driver. Paramedics rushed Womble to Baptist Hospital where doctors pronounced his death, not once but twice. He suffered several broken bones and lost vision in one eye.

When Womble regained consciousness, one of his first acts was to call a longtime friend and legislative colleague, state Rep. Earline Parmon.

By 2011, Womble had already established himself as one of the main advocates of compensating North Carolinians who were forcibly sterilized during the eugenics movement. “What’s the status of the sterilization compensation bill? What’s being done?” Womble asked Parmon as he recuperated in the intensive care unit.

Parmon told him not to worry. The bill had been filed.

Womble’s level of commitment for sterilization compensation wasn’t surprising to people who knew him. By the time of his car wreck, Womble had been leading the push in the legislature to compensate these victims for eight years. Although recovery from the car accident would be a personal struggle for the legislator, it paralleled the many hurdles that would confront the campaign to compensate victims of North Carolina’s forced-sterilization program.

Pulling back the curtain

North Carolina’s sterilization program, brought to light in the Journal’s series, began with a simple act: A staff member of the State Archives handed Johanna Schoen three rolls of microfilm. Schoen, a doctoral candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill, had no idea what she would find on the rolls of film that she clutched in her hand, and she didn’t ask.

“Rather than ask questions, I marched straight to the microfilm reading room, threaded in the first reel and this time was faced with a gold mine,” wrote Schoen in her 2005 book, Choice and Coercion. Scrolling across the illuminated screen she found 30 years’ worth of meeting minutes of the North Carolina Eugenics Board along with more than 7,000 summaries of all the case files it reviewed.She quickly realized that the documents were a window into a hidden chapter of the state’s history.

It’s important to note that the staff member was fulfilling a request from an academic researcher. But Schoen can’t help but feel like the unidentified person went above and beyond the initial request, that this person wanted the sordid details of the state’s eugenics program to get out. It’s not an exaggeration to say that without this unlikely exchange, our knowledge about forced sterilization in North Carolina would still be buried in the state archives.

In reviewing the documents, Schoen was particularly horrified by stories of children who were sterilized because of incestuous rape. One case summary from 1962 related a pedophilic father’s admission of sexually abusing his 14-year-old child and his request to have her sterilized so he could continue to rape her. The five-member Eugenics Board granted the request. While the documents expanded and strengthened the chapters in Schoen’s book dealing with the history of abortion in North Carolina, they also tugged at what she felt was her moral obligation to bring the state’s eugenics program to light. Schoen was born in Hamburg, Germany, and grew up hearing about atrocities the Nazis committed in the name of eugenics. Like many other German boys and girls, she was imbued with the responsibility of exposing wrongdoing in a public way so that they wouldn’t happen again.

For Schoen, this meant that the revelations of North Carolina’s shameful sterilization program couldn’t just collect dust on a bookshelf.

“We write academic books and nobody really reads this stuff except other historians,” Schoen said.

“At the time I was writing this, the state of Virginia was apologizing for their sterilization program. It was my hope that North Carolina could apologize for its program, too.”

Schoen first relayed her discovery to reporters at the Raleigh News & Observer in 2001, resulting in a single story about the state’s sterilization program. Although the N&O article questioned whether Gov. Easley should apologize for North Carolina’s role in sterilizing citizens, the history of sterilization quickly faded back into the darkness. Schoen became consumed with writing and teaching. It never occurred to her to take her research to the Journal, where the city’s elite, and even the Journal itself, played an especially dark role in ramping up the number of sterilizations in North Carolina.

Johanna Schoen (photo by Nick Romanenko)
Johanna Schoen

Gaining trust

From the Journal’s Washington, DC bureau, reporter Kevin Begos had an increasing interest in science reporting. He’d already completed a fellowship in biomedical-science journalism when he came across a series of articles about Virginia’s sterilization program, the second largest after California’s. Curious about the extent of his own state’s sterilization program, Begos contacted Paul Lombardo, a longtime eugenics scholar who had advocated for sterilization compensation in Virginia and California. Lombardo informed Begos that not only did North Carolina have a robust sterilization program, but an intensely local connection with the national eugenics movement in the form of a man named Wickliffe Draper. Draper, a wealthy white supremacist, had given $100,000 to the Bowman Gray School of Medicine’s new genetics department with the express purpose of promoting a brand of eugenics that supported the superiority of whites over blacks in response to the growing civil rights movement.

From there, Begos reached out to Johanna Schoen and to his surprise, she offered more than just expert analysis.

“When I realized that Johanna had the [sterilization] records, that was a major revelation,” Begos said. “That got me trying to convince her through a period of a few weeks to share them with the Journal.”

Begos knew that part of a journalist’s job is to cultivate trust with sources and to be sensitive to their unique positions in the larger narrative. Schoen’s concerns were twofold: First, she wanted a guarantee that the identities of sterilization victims wouldn’t be compromised. Second, as an untenured professor, she wanted to make sure that prematurely releasing the records would not prevent her from eventually publishing her academic research.

“It’s hard to get people to share,” said Carl Crothers, then executive editor at the Journal. “Academics are smart enough to know when something’s explosive…. This was explosive.”

While Begos worked to gain Schoen’s trust, he pitched the sterilization story to Crothers back in Winston-Salem. In contrast to the News & Observer, Crothers and Begos quickly saw that the history of North Carolina’s sterilization program had all of the elements of a good investigative series. It was virtually unknown to most North Carolinians, unique because the state had ramped up its sterilizations while other states pulled back, took a racial turn during the civil rights movement and, with the connection to the Bowman Gray School of Medicine, it was local. Crothers brought Begos back to Winston-Salem to work full time on the story. Having gained Schoen’s trust and agreement on the larger themes, she gave him access to thousands of case summaries. Because of the scope of the project, it was clear that Begos would need help.

Carl Crothers (photo by Melissa Melvin-Rodgriguez)
Carl Crothers (photo by Melissa Melvin-Rodgriguez)

Uncovering sterilization

As a reporter at the Tampa Tribune, investigative reporting was Carl Crothers’ specialty. One of his inquiries sent three county commissioners to prison for bribery. Crothers came to the Journal in 1996 to head up a newsroom with less than half the staff of the Tribune. Even with enormous resources, investigative reporting can be a costly and time-consuming endeavor. But Crothers’ believed that even smaller newspapers could produce good investigative journalism.

“That was the essence of what a newspaper ought to be doing,” said Crothers. “Not just covering the news but uncovering the news.”

The 1990s were fat times for the Journal, a mid-size newspaper with bureaus in Raleigh and Washington, and four traveling sports reporters. Investigative reporting was already a fixture of the paper, which won a Pulitzer Prize for meritorious public service in 1971. Crothers didn’t create the newspaper’s investigative spirit, but he embraced it and revived it, said veteran Journal reporter Phoebe Zerwick, who left the paper in 2010 to teach at Wake Forest University.

During Crothers’ tenure, the newspaper produced some of its most memorable stories, including a series on race relations and the Darryl Hunt investigation, which many believe was a driving force in Hunt’s release and exoneration.

“He wasn’t afraid of hard-hitting stories and he also wasn’t afraid to commit to long projects,” Zerwick said. “It takes some nerve to do that.”

Investigative stories often take months, gathering interviews and sifting through complex material. Removing reporters from their daily assignments to work on these kinds of projects means the rest of the newsroom has to pick up the slack. Misjudging the length of a project can often result in growing animosity amongst the rest of the newsroom staff.

“When you start a big project, you’ve got to have the discipline to maintain the original vision of the project,” said Crothers.

“You can get these things done if you plan well and you don’t fold the tents before the camp has left.”

This dogged style of journalism is the stuff of Pulitzer Prizes, though in the case of their investigation of the sterilization program, merely putting pen to paper was sure to cause reverberations across the state and even the country. An effort of this magnitude required a dedicated team.

As Begos worked with Schoen and combed the case files to shape the vision of the larger story, Scott Sexton, Danielle Deaver and John Railey were tapped to join the team. Sexton, editor of the paper’s Raleigh and Washington bureaus, was a natural team leader, Crothers said. Deaver was a good journeyman reporter, said Crothers. Zerwick remembered Deaver returning from the newsroom from the archives at the Wake Forest School of Medicine excited about what she’d dug up. Railey, a former religion reporter, was tasked with tracking down victims and putting faces to the story.

“Railey was and still is a compassionate, empathetic person and a good writer,” said Crothers. Railey spent hours making cold calls out of the phone book to people like Nial Cox Ramirez and Elaine Riddick, who would soon become the face of North Carolina’s forced sterilization program.

Finding a voice

Nial Cox Ramirez was 18 years old in 1965, the year she was sterilized with the approval of the NC Eugenics Board. After becoming pregnant with her first and only child, a state social worker convinced the poor African American woman that if she didn’t have the operation, her family would be denied financial welfare from the government. Nine years later, Ramirez became the first woman to file a lawsuit against the state Eugenics Board as well as the doctors and social workers who helped sterilize her, according to the Journal. Ramirez was defeated in court, but the press coverage helped lead state legislators to finally dissolve the Eugenics Board in 1974.

Elaine Riddick wasn’t fortunate enough to even get that modicum of justice.

Riddick was 13 years old when she became pregnant after being raped by an older man. State social workers visited her at her grandmother’s home in Winfall. Based on flawed IQ tests, they deemed her “feebleminded” and promiscuous. Social workers coerced her grandmother into signing the consent form to have her granddaughter sterilized. Because her grandmother was illiterate, she signed the form with an “X.” Shortly after Riddick gave birth to her son, doctors sterilized her. As she began to fully comprehend what the state had done to her, Riddick withdrew.

“I couldn’t believe that my government could do that,” Riddick said. “I was devastated, humiliated. I felt like I wasn’t human.”

Several years later, Riddick, like Ramirez, contacted the ACLU for justice. Her $1 million lawsuit against the state eventually made it to the US Supreme Court, but the justices refused to hear her case. Riddick was crushed.

“In 2002, when John Railey approached me, I felt like a door had opened up,” she said. “I promised myself that I was going to make sure that someone heard what I had to say.”

Railey made the trip to Atlanta to interview Riddick and Ramirez. Eventually more victims would come forward, eager to talk about their own experiences.

This assignment was different. The reporters were already being transformed by the ethical weight of the investigation. It was becoming more than just another news story. This assignment was different. In the process, these reporters were changed. Once their story was published, history itself would not be the same.

Five months later, there was no going back.

“‘Against Their Will’… that captured the whole notion of what was wrong with the program,” remembered Crothers.

Lawmakers in Raleigh agreed. The campaign for compensation was just beginning.

The political meets the personal

The ink on the Journal’s final installment of its “Against Their Will” series had barely dried when Gov. Mike Easley sent the newspaper an official apology in 2002 for the state’s involvement in forcibly sterilizing its citizens. The story soon began shaking things up at the General Assembly as well. From his legislative office, Rep. Larry Womble received a phone call from Journal reporter John Railey, informing him of the contemptible role that Winston-Salem played in promoting and practicing forced sterilizations. As a representative of Forsyth County, Womble felt a sense of ownership for the issue but like most people who had come into contact with the details of this dark history, the political became personal.

“I had a sense of ownership whether it happened in Winston-Salem or not,” Womble said.

“These acts should not be done on any human being. I don’t care where they are, where they live and what their status in life is.”

Although the Eugenics Board had been disbanded 30 years earlier, Womble was shocked to discover that the state could still sterilize citizens against their will. In 1975, the powers of the Eugenics Board morphed into a law that allowed district court judges to rule on the sterilization of individuals for “mental, moral or physical improvement” for the “public good,” according to the Winston-Salem Journal. Womble and other legislators moved quickly to get the law off the books.

For Rep. Earline Parmon, a newly elected state representative, the effort to repeal the sterilization law was an education in lawmaking. Parmon and Womble became friends and political allies when she managed Womble’s first campaign for the Winston-Salem Board of Aldermen in 1981.Twenty-two years later, Womble guided the freshman legislator through the tumultuous process of turning a bill into law.

“You have to know what makes a bill passable,” Parmon said. “You can’t be bullheaded because people have different ideas. You have to sell your idea.”

Repealing the last vestige of the sterilization program was an easy case to make. Within a few months, the law was unanimously repealed by both houses of the legislature and signed by Gov. Easley. Victims Nial Cox Ramirez and Elaine Riddick attended the signing ceremony and received a standing ovation to a packed crowd on Jones Street.

A bond developed between Womble and victims like Riddick. He wanted to be more than a voice for them in the legislature. He wanted to be a friend.

“Some of them expressed skepticism that anything would be done,” Womble said.

“But I told them as long as I had breath in my body, whether I was a legislator or not, I would fight this cause.”

Political hot potato 

Things moved quickly during the months following the publication of the Journal series. In 2003, Gov. Easley appointed a special study committee to be co-chaired by Womble and Carmen Hooker Odom, then secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services. The committee would investigate how the program was created, how to prevent similar sterilizations in the future and how to redress the wrongs that were done to victims.

“Just apologizing is cosmetic,” said Womble. “But let’s get to the essence of it, the substance.”

Even during these early stages, it seemed obvious to Womble that victims should be compensated monetarily for their suffering.

The committee’s recommendations to Easley called for victims to receive medical care, free education benefits at state universities and community colleges, and included a tentative push for reparations. For a time, it felt like the idea of the state going beyond just an apology and making amends to victims in a tangible way was not just a question of if, but when. After all, repealing sterilization managed to unite Republican and Democratic legislators like few issues can.

Womble said it was easy to erect an historical marker in remembrance of the victims of the state’s Eugenics Board, creating a traveling exhibit about the history of sterilization in North Carolina and adding a section about sterilization to student’s North Carolina social studies curriculum.

“When you come to actually paying somebody, it became a political hot potato,” said Parmon.

She believed the biggest obstacle in passing compensation in those days was opposition from Republican legislators. But that doesn’t explain why the majority of the Democrat-controlled legislature and a Democrat governor showed little to no political will to move discussion about compensation forward. Compensation was indeed like a hot potato — only a few individuals were willing to pick it up and carry it forward.

For the remainder of Easley’s administration, the wheels that seemed to be carrying victims towards compensation came to a grinding halt.

A new day

For legislators working to pass compensation, the election of Beverly Perdue in 2008 must have seemed like a new day. North Carolina’s first female governor campaigned on passing compensation for eugenics victims, calling the state’s sterilization program “one of the most heinous things” she had ever heard of. No doubt she found enthusiastic support from Womble and other members of the North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus, who began sponsoring sterilization compensation bills every legislative session since 2005, only to have them die in the appropriations committee.

“Every year there was some excuse for not passing it,” Womble said. “Mainly it was because it involved money.”

The 2008 financial crisis did little to convince both sympathetic and fiscally conservative legislators. But Womble wouldn’t hear it.

“If we find money for everything else, we find money for this,” he said. “They thought maybe I’d stop, but I didn’t.”

Making good on her campaign promise, one of Perdue’s first acts as governor was to pave the way for the creation of the state Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation. The foundation, which wouldn’t be funded until 2010, would identify and locate victims and determine how they should be compensated. Whoever was chosen to lead the effort would have to navigate an increasingly complex political environment after Republicans took control of the House and Senate for the first time in 100 years. This would require an empathetic executive director who could identify and locate victims with the knowledge that revisiting this subject may cause them more pain and suffering.

Enter Charmaine Fuller Cooper, who became the executive director of the foundation and who the New York Times called “part counselor, part detective and part politician.” By the time she was picked to lead the foundation, Fuller Cooper was already a well-known face at the General Assembly as a staff member of the Carolina Justice Policy Center, where she worked on issues related to the death penalty. In this role, she had lobbied legislators to pass a moratorium on executions and later, worked for the passage of the Racial Justice Act.

She first heard about the campaign for compensation when her work with the center brought her in touch with Womble and Parmon. At Fuller Cooper’s request, the two legislators agreed to run the politically divisive legislation in the House, even while they received death threats for doing so, Fuller Cooper said. When she took the position to lead the sterilization foundation, Fuller Cooper had so much respect for Womble and Parmon that she was just as nervous about letting them down as she was letting down Gov. Perdue. She also knew that other people might see the position as just another job rather than a chance to advocate for victims.

“I went into the foundation thinking: This is my opportunity to change the world and to give these men and women a voice,” Fuller Cooper reflected.

Part of Fuller Cooper’s first few months at the foundation were spent trying to understand the shifts of power in the legislature. Then there were the hours awash in documents recounting tragic episodes of poverty and coercion. The ones you don’t hear about are the worst, she said, like the sterilization of an entire family except for one child who escaped to the North. She also worked to locate victims and took phone calls from the very people she was reading about.

“I don’t want any money. There’s nothing you can do for me to ever change what has happened.”

“I just feel relieved to know that finally somebody’s telling my story.”

“My family members say: Just get over it. There’s nothing you can do.”

With each new compensation bill dying in the appropriations committee and a Democratic governor increasingly at odds with the Republican-controlled legislature, it became apparent that in order for the campaign for compensation to move forward, or even to survive, North Carolina’s sterilization program would once again have to be thrust back into the light.

Phoebe Zerwick (photo by Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez)
Phoebe Zerwick (photo by Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez)

The game-changer

Phoebe Zerwick was skeptical. She had spent her 20-year career as a reporter at the Winston-Salem Journal being skeptical of government agencies and special task forces because in her experience, these kinds of commissions were plentiful but accomplishments were scarce. In early 2011, Gov. Perdue signed an executive order creating the Sterilization Task Force with the primary purpose of determining the method of compensation for sterilization victims. Although the task force would be guided by Fuller Cooper and the foundation, it wouldn’t include a single legislator. Instead, the task force would be comprised of a former judge and journalist, a physician, a historian and an attorney. With a phone call from the governor’s office, Zerwick was asked to join the kind of commission of which she’d always been skeptical.

“They wanted a journalist,” she said. “Obviously, they couldn’t pick somebody who was working at a newspaper because anybody who was still an employed, full-time journalist would be regarded as a conflict of interest. Employed journalists can’t go and become a bureaucrat for a year. I had a good reputation in the state. I figured that’s why they chose me and that I was no longer working for a newspaper.”

Her humility belies the fact that her writing was respected around the state, particularly her series on the Darryl Hunt case, which played a factor in bringing public pressure to bear on officials to take another look at the case and later, set him free.

Zerwick’s skepticism quickly transformed into doubt as she wondered: Would the task force accomplish anything? “The politics were not in our favor,” she said. “It was a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature. It seemed for awhile that it was going to be a colossal waste of my time.”

Nine years after the publication of “Against Their Will,” it seemed like North Carolina’s eugenics program was slinking back into the shadows. It was clear to just about everybody that the creation of the foundation, and later the task force, were signals that Gov. Perdue was more than ready to sign off on a compensation program. Just as obvious to Fuller Cooper was the need to get the issue back into the public eye so legislators felt the pressure to finally pass sterilization compensation.

“My idea was, let’s get the victims,” said Fuller Cooper. “Let them speak.”

On a hot day in June, sterilization victims were invited to tell their stories to a packed meeting of the sterilization task force, which included a small army of journalists ready to get their testimonies out to the world. The entire North Carolina press corps, CBS News, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, documentary crews from Chicago and France — the response was so big that the task force had to move into a larger room to accommodate the media and the victims who had come to speak.

“That was the game-changer,” Zerwick said. “It’s not the kind of story that North Carolina wants on the front page of the New York Times.”

The Winston-Salem Journal was there, too. In fact, the paper never stopped covering sterilization. Having taken a position as the editorial page editor at the Journal, John Railey continued to write articles about the importance of passing compensation and didn’t hesitate to call the state out for moving too slowly.

“John was that needle in your behind,” Fuller Cooper said. “I could see it around state government that he would come out with an article and the next day, whoever he had addressed that article towards, they were moving. People can say a lot about John Railey but he helped keep the ball rolling because he helped keep it in the press.”

Putting a voice and a face to such a painful travesty and disseminating it out to the local, state and national press was the equivalent of pointing a finger at the legislature and asking, “What are you going to do now?”

If the public hearing sounds strategic, it was. But just as the Journal reporters were changed by the state’s heinous acts, so too, were the men and women who gathered in the conference room for the public hearing.

“Hurry up and do something”

They were hurt and they were angry. They knew that the state had violated them and they wanted justice.

“What am I worth?” Riddick asked the task force with tears in her eyes. “The kids that I did not have, could not have, what are they worth?”

“Hurry up and do something,” Lynch pleaded. “I’m 77 years old. I ain’t got much time to live.”

For the victims, it must have been easy to confuse the five-member task force with the five-member Eugenics Board that approved their sterilizations. Elaine Riddick and Willis Lynch didn’t have the option to appeal to the Eugenics Board before or after they had been cut. But as they filed up to the podium to tell their stories to the task force, perhaps they felt like they had finally gotten the chance to address the state.

“People kept saying, ‘You did this to me,’” Zerwick recalled. “Of course, none of us had done anything to anybody. But that experience did drive home for me that in a way, they’re right. If you live in a democracy, all of us are responsible for the actions of our government.”

From the beginning, the majority of the task force agreed that victims should be compensated with money. The bills that Womble and others had been sponsoring specified that each victim should receive $20,000 each, and those bills were going right to the chopping block. This track record convinced some task-force members that any figure above $20,000 was sure to meet a quick death. Interestingly, according to Fuller Cooper, Gov. Perdue wouldn’t put her name to such a low figure.

“Gov. Perdue gets all the credit for really pushing the amount higher,” Fuller Cooper said. “She pretty much said, ‘I can’t support this if it’s going to come out at a low amount.’”

The task force recommended each victim be compensated with a minimum amount of $50,000. Fuller Cooper felt that 2012 would finally be the year that compensation would pass. And why not? Perdue was making plans to put the money in her proposed budget and, more importantly, because of the success of the public hearing, several Republican legislators were joining the ranks of compensation supporters.

But just as one lawmaker was joining the campaign for compensation, a tragic accident was about to sideline another of its most vocal advocates.

‘An apology without restitution is empty’

At 5 a.m. on Dec. 3, 2011, Fuller Cooper got a phone call notifying her about Womble’s horrific car accident. Even as the most vocal advocate for sterilization compensation struggled for his life, she never doubted that compensation would pass.

“A lot of people don’t speak about this, but when Rep. Womble had his car accident, a lot of the leadership in the House had promised him that they were going stay on in getting compensation passed,” remembered Fuller Cooper.

By the time of his accident, support in the House for compensation had grown, not just in terms of votes but influence. House Speaker Thom Tillis and Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam, both Republicans, became some of the most prominent supporters of passing a compensation program. It’s unclear why Tillis chose to make the issue his own. He did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Stam says it was revelations that the largest amount of sterilizations occurred in Mecklenburg County, where Tillis’ home district is located, that caused the House speaker to embrace the issue.

“A large part of it, disproportionately happened in Charlotte,” Stam said. “I believe Speaker Tillis felt a moral responsibility to correct a grave wrong.”

A series of articles were published in the Charlotte Observer in 2011 that revealed that Wallace Kuralt, Charles Kuralt’s father, was the architect of Mecklenburg’s eugenics program. A report from the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank, supporting compensation likely influenced Tillis as well.

“As somebody who has sat in this chamber and actually heard people talk about the wrongness of annexations, the wrongness of other government takings… and how sometimes we even need to go back and reverse past decisions of other elected officials; I look at this and I think this is probably the most egregious example of that,” said Tillis during a House session.

From the perspective of a conservative legislator who hates big government and campaigns against abortion, there’s hardly a better example of government overreach resulting in the infringement of a person’s civil liberties than North Carolina’s sterilization program.

A letter written by Rep. Stam, which explained why he supported compensation, sheds more light on why the Republican leadership in the House chose to make the issue a priority. Inspired by several passages in the Bible, including Numbers 5:7, Stam wrote that he believed merely apologizing for such a violation without making amends would be empty. In the letter, he argues for smaller government and the sanctity of life.

Stam, an ardent opponent of abortion, criticized Margaret Sanger’s early support for eugenics. Sanger was also an avid supporter of birth control, and she founded the organization that would become Planned Parenthood. Both Tillis and Stam backed last summer’s abortion bill, which critics said would limit a woman’s right to make her own reproductive choices in North Carolina.

Stam said one reason why some lawmakers refused to vote for compensation was that they had difficulty distinguishing between sterilization compensation for living victims and reparations to the descendants of slaves.

Given North Carolina’s long history of slavery, concerns about whether reparations of slavery would follow the passing of sterilization compensation were voiced by some Republicans almost as soon as the concept of compensation was raised in 2003. Stam said much of his effort to lobby fellow Republicans in the House was one on one, reassuring his colleagues that a vote for compensation was not a vote for slavery reparations.

Despite dissenting opinions, Republican and Democratic lawmakers met to shape the sterilization compensation bill in a final attempt at restitution.

State House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam
State House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam (photo by Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez)

Choice and coercion?

Gov. Perdue added $10 million into her budget proposal for sterilization compensation in her 2012 proposed budget. Following months of rehabilitation and still unable to walk, Larry Womble pleaded for lawmakers to pass the sterilization bill.

“This has been an 11-year fight for me,” Womble said through tears.

“This is not a perfect bill but it is a bill that separates North Carolina from the rest of the world. I’m beginning to see some light at the end of this long journey.”

In June, House lawmakers drafted and passed a bipartisan compensation bill, but the bill sat in the Senate and died. Fuller Cooper was deflated. She saw the bill as an opportunity for both parties to work together and deliver at least a little bit of justice to victims.

“We had the votes to pass it but people in the GOP didn’t want a Democratic governor to get credit,” Fuller Cooper said.

The passage of the sterilization compensation program in 2013 during Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s first year certainly seems to support this feeling.

“While Democrats had talked about compensating victims for almost 10 years, it was during the first Republican majority in over 100 years that such a bill made it to the House or Senate floor,” Stam wrote in the letter.

It’s difficult to believe that compensation would have passed as soon as it did without Republican support. The state’s eugenics program had occurred right under the noses of Democrats during most of the 20th Century. Despite the work of legislators like Womble compensation failed to pass under Democratic rule. The measure only gained real traction when Republicans came into power. After the latest defeat to pass compensation,Speaker Tillis vowed to put sterilization back on the table in 2013.

Early that year, bills creating the Eugenics Compensation Program, which specified that $10 million would be divided between victims who had been verified by state records, were put before legislators for a vote. Ironically, legislation to appropriate the money was dropped into the general budget bill. It’s still unclear how Tillis was able to lobby Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger to bring enough Republican votes in the Senate to pass compensation.

“I think this was such a high priority for Speaker Tillis that even if there was strong opposition in the Senate, Sen. Berger went along with it,” said Mitch Kokai, director of communications at the John Locke Foundation.

“I’m sure there were some items that were high priority for Sen. Berger but were not priority items for Speaker Tillis that they relented to get it in the budget.”

The strategy of dropping the legislation into the general budget bill turned out to be a double-edged sword. It might have been the only way to pass what had always been the roadblock for many legislators — the money — but it only helped to shape a skewed narrative — that only Republicans care enough for victims to pass compensation, Fuller Cooper said.

For Earline Parmon, the sword cut deeply. She had worked alongside Womble to pass compensation almost since the effort began and she continued to lead the fight after Womble’s car accident put him on the sidelines. By the spring of 2013, Parmon had allied herself early on with the Moral Monday movement, which began in the midst of the budget vote. The grassroots protest movement sought to bring attention to what it called “extreme and damaging” legislation like the General Assembly’s refusal to expand Medicaid and allowing jobless benefits to expire.

Parmon saw the budget as just another piece of an agenda that threatened to bring North Carolina back to the 1950s. Her decision to vote on the budget became tantamount to a Sophie’s choice: Which do you want to sacrifice? She knew that the reason people were forcibly sterilized in North Carolina was that some people were seen to have more value than others. Inserting the compensation measure inside the 2013 budget bill seemed like an unfortunate re-enactment. Now, North Carolina was consolidating power again at the expense of others.

“While it was giving compensation to people who had been forcibly sterilized,” Fuller Cooper said, “[the budget] amounted to new eugenics, to a new form of sterilization to folks who needed any level of services in the state of North Carolina.”

Parmon refused to vote on the budget, and in the process, money for sterilization victims.

“When I looked at the larger picture, how many people were going to be hurt, how many people were going to be helped, I had to go with how many people were going to be hurt,” Parmon said.

“It was one of the hardest decisions I had to make in my life.”

Womble, who retired from the General Assembly, has a different perspective. He didn’t care how compensation was passed, just that it was passed.

“There’s a famous saying: ‘Any means necessary,’” Womble said.

“I’m glad it was put in the budget. Whether you agreed with the budget or not, the main thing was trying to get this sterilization bill appropriation passed and it did pass.”

Thirty states passed sterilization laws. Only seven states apologized for it. And just one state, North Carolina, decided to compensate victims.

State Sen. Earline Parmon (photo by Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez)
State Sen. Earline Parmon (photo by Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez)

Never again?

In 2003, the law allowing forced sterilization in North Carolina was repealed. In 2013, victims of the state’s eugenics program were promised compensation. This campaign ended in victory, but scholars that study the roots of the eugenics program in Nazi Germany and in the United States say similar forces that drove the sterilization program are reappearing in North Carolina today. What drove the eugenics era was not the science of evolution or genetics, but a particular attitude of superiority of one group of people over another, said Paul Lombardo, a longtime eugenics historian and a professor of law at Georgia State University.

“The attitude was to magnify public contempt and to say that it was better if we didn’t have them around or have them reproduce,” Lombardo said. “These ideas are really no different than they were 100 years ago. When other people want to pass restrictive laws about who should have children and who shouldn’t and that seems okay, that’s the greatest irony to me.”

The United States is replete with examples of various ways that inequality has been justified, and the South has a particularly heinous history when it comes to race. Eugenics merely added the veneer of flawed science to promote the superiority of the wealthy at the expense of the poorest North Carolinians.

Robert Korstad, a Duke professor of public policy and history, spent years researching the supremacist attitudes of Winston-Salem’s manufacturing elite towards the city’s poorest people and he sees similarities between their mindsets and those in power in Raleigh. Last summer, Korstad joined dozens of other North Carolinians to protest these social policies as part of the Moral Monday movement.

“The general attitude that the [Republican] majority in the General Assembly has is somehow poor people are dispensable people, that society doesn’t need them,” Korstad said. “In a way, they don’t the right to exist.”

“They’re not sterilizing poor women and poor men, but the impacts on these social policies have some similar kinds of impacts on people,” he said.

He pointed to the legislature’s refusal to expand Medicaid, which could lead to the deaths of hundreds of people. Cuts in long-term unemployment benefits could put people, young men in particular, at risk of viewing crime as an option to escape poverty.

Fuller Cooper knows all too well that the belief that some people are more deserving than others can be extraordinarily damaging to people’s lives The story of how legislators came together to pass compensation, a recognition that the issue was really about humanity, could be the same answer for attitudes of superiority that seem to be resurfacing in North Carolina.

“Do we need to take a step further to make sure that we don’t have other abuses that are being created right now?” Fuller Cooper wondered.

“If you don’t give people access to education and the ability to have a potential to move forward in their lives and become productive for themselves,” she said, “everything that we saw in the past can happen all over again.”

Should the deadline be extended?

The June 30 deadline for victims of North Carolina’s eugenics program to apply for compensation is quickly approaching. As of June 1, only 518 claims were made out of an estimated 1,500 people have been verified by the state for compensation.

“They need to get rid of this June 30 deadline,” said Elizabeth Haddix, an attorney with the UNC Center for Civil Rights.

The center works with low-income African-American clients, similar to the people that North Carolina targeted for sterilization during the eugenics program’s final years.

The sterilization compensation program passed in 2012 by the House included money to find victims. A glaring difference between the compensation program that eventually passed in 2013 is the omission of money for outreach needed to identify victims, who are primarily low-income.

Finding victims is a daunting task. There isn’t a master list of the people who were sterilized by the state.

Many of the documents are at least 40 years old and don’t always contain full names of victims or Social Security numbers. Addresses have changed. People have moved. Buildings have been knocked down. And even if the state  had an address that was somewhat reliable,  it could be violating patient confidentiality laws by sending letters informing them that they might have been sterilized by the state and could be eligible for compensation.

In 2010, the state Center for Health Statistics estimated there were between 1,300 and 1,800 living victims, with 1,500 being the most likely figure. Living victims are mostly low-income African-American women. The majority don’t have children and might not have access to a computer.

There are two parts in compensating victims: money and outreach. Recommending victims receive $50,000 each, members of Gov. Perdue’s sterilization task force also acknowledged the importance of  a broad campaign to reach victims that would include mainstream media, along with grassroots efforts like partnering with churches, senior centers and other community organizations. As it turned out, the state did little to get the word out in mainstream outlets and almost nothing on a grassroots level.

House Bill 947,the sterilization compensation program introduced and passed in the House in 2012, followed many of the task force’s final recommendations, including funds for outreach. That bill died in the Senate.

The compensation program that finally passed in 2013 didn’t appropriate any money for finding victims.

“One of the major limitations [in finding victims] is budget,” said Dee Jones, the chief operations officer of the Department of Administration. “When it comes to publicizing the effort there wasn’t any money earmarked.”

The department is responsible for outreach, receiving applications from victims and then matching victims with records from the state archives. With no money, state employees are utilizing the resources of other agencies to get the word out. Outreach so far includes sending more than 1,400 brochures to doctors’ offices around the state, broadcasting advertisements at local Division of Motor Vehicles offices, and radio, television and newspaper interviews by communications officers about the approaching deadline.

“We’re doing the very best we can with limited resources,” Jones said. “I think we’ve done a very good job of that under the circumstances.”

Currently, only 518 claims have been logged for verification by the Department of Administration. That number is expected to shrink as claimants are matched with state archives. But even if 500 people were verified for compensation, that’s an estimated 1,000 victims that might not see a dime.

“These are good people working on this,” Haddix said. “But there’s only so much you can do. They need to get rid of this June 30 deadline.” There are those who are against allocating additional resources and time to reach victims. House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam, a Republican from Wake County and a co-sponsor of the 2012 and 2013 compensation programs, believes the state should go forward with the June 30 deadline.

“[Extending the deadline] would be unjust to the ones who made a claim because it reduces the amount of money for them,” Stam said.

Content with the state’s outreach efforts, Stam believes that one reason that few victims have come forward is because of the shame of being forcibly sterilized.

“People had notice for several years now that there would be such a deadline, and officially they’ve known of a deadline for almost a year. I think that’s fair to stick with the deadline.”

Haddix contends that extending the deadline would not delay payment to victims as the state won’t begin making payments until June 30, 2015 either way. She said she disagrees that victims are too ashamed to come forward.In light of the state’s failure to appropriate money and staffing for outreach, the UNC Center for Civil Rights and other nonprofits have stepped in to provide free legal counsel to potential victims and their families, and help them fill out the claim forms. The problem of identifying and registering victims is not insurmountable, but appears to be a question of the state extending the deadline with adequate resources.

Following an interview on an African American radio program in Greenville, Haddix received a call from a victim who thanked her for telling her about the compensation program. It wasn’t the radio program that informed her about compensation, but a flier created by the center about how to file a claim for compensation that it sent to churches across the state. It turns out that one of the fliers was delivered to a victim in Greenville by a volunteer from Meals-on-Wheels.

“She’s in the eugenics board files,” Haddix said.

“She’s a victim. She would have missed it all if we hadn’t done the outreach.”

If you or someone you know might be a victim of North Carolina’s forced sterilization program, call the Office of Justice for Sterilization victims at 877.550.6013 or visit sterilizationvictims.nc.gov.

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