It was the kind of story that was hiding in plain sight: From 1933 to 1974, the state of North Carolina sterilized more than 7,600 people against their will. The program targeted women and men, blacks and whites, almost all poor, who were merely promiscuous, epileptic or “feeble minded” as prospects for sterilization based on the pseudoscience of eugenics.
Eugenics was widely practiced across the United States, but North Carolina undertook one of the most extensive programs, along with Virginia and California. The California program in particular inspired the Third Reich’s racial purity laws, but after World War II while many states reined in forced sterilization, North Carolina’s program accelerated, with the support of leading industrialists in Winston-Salem and other urban centers.
As the new documentary The State of Eugenics — premiering on on PBS on Jan. 29 — attests, numerous people who became aware of the monstrous actions of the state felt compelled to do whatever was necessary to ensure that the public learned the truth and to redress a historical wrong.
Researcher Johanna Schoen says, in the film’s trailer, when she looked at long dormant files on microfilm at the NC Division of Archives and History, it felt like the sterilization victims “were pleading with me for some form of acknowledgement.”
Schoen recognized that a book wouldn’t do justice to the victims, and she arranged to pass the files along to the Winston-Salem Journal. North Carolina’s sterilization story is a testament to how newspaper editors and reporters who display courage and leverage their resources wisely can make a big difference, as the Winston-Salem Journal demonstrated with its 2002 “Against Their Will” series based on Schoen’s files.
The newspaper kept the issue in front of the public even when it wasn’t popular. As Editorial Page Editor John Railey says in the trailer: “I get readers telling me: ‘We’re sick of hearing about this.’ I’ve had friends tell me: ‘You might want to back off this.’”
He didn’t, and neither did former Democratic state Rep. Larry Womble, who became an unflagging champion of justice for sterilization victims in the state General Assembly. Thanks in large part to Womble, an unlikely political coalition that also included former Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis — now a US senator — North Carolina became the first state to provide compensation to victims.
The Porter Byrum Center on the campus of Wake Forest University is hosting a sneak preview of The State of Eugenics, followed by a panel discussion hosted by journalist and professor Melissa Harris-Perry, and featuring Womble and Railey, along with filmmaker Dawn Sinclair Shapiro and Laura Gerald, former chair of the Governor’s Task Force on Compensation. The event takes place on Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m.
This is a lesson that — even in the face of the darkest machinations of the state — people of conscience can still come together and nudge society towards the light.