A little sunlight just seeped into one of the darkest corners of our state’s history. Last week, a five-day Winston-Salem Journal series, “Against Their Will: North Carolina’s Sterilization Programs,” provided the first in-depth account of the state’s eugenics efforts–and of the terrible toll, in the form of stunted lives, that those efforts wrought. (The series is online at http://againsttheirwill.journalnow.com/.)
The numbers begin to tell the story. Between 1929 and 1974, state government eugenics boards authorized the surgical sterilization of more than 7,600 North Carolinians deemed to be “feebleminded,” “moronic,” “delinquent” or “promiscuous,” as the administrative papers put it. More than 2,000 of the victims were under age 18. Ninety-nine percent were women. Tellingly, as the civil rights movement gathered steam in the 1960s, the sterilizations, which already disproportionately targeted African Americans, were increasingly meted out against young blacks.
North Carolina, the series reveals, was a hot-bed of private and public support for such so-called “human betterment.” After California and Virginia, the state conducted the third highest number of sterilizations in the country. Enthusiasm for eugenics–even after the disclosure of the Nazi’s horrific endeavors in the field–ran high in the South after World War II. Economic elites, civic leaders and social scientists saw an aggressive sterilization program as a means to “improve the race,” shrinking the welfare roles and reducing the black population along the way.
The newspaper series goes beyond the numbers and logistics, sharing testimony from several living victims as well as some of the retired doctors, social workers and state officials who had a hand in authorizing and promoting the practice. The lasting pain left by social engineering run amok is evidenced by stories like that of Elaine Riddick Jessie, who was an Edenton 14-year-old when she gave birth to her only child in 1968. Hours after she gave birth, a doctor “tied her tubes” on orders of the state. “It is the most degrading thing, the most humiliating thing a person can do to a person is to take away a God-given right,” Jessie told the Journal.
The revelations in the Journal prompted a long-overdue mea culpa. “On behalf of the state I deeply apologize to the victims and their families for this past injustice, and for the pain and suffering they had to endure over the years,” Gov. Mike Easley said last Thursday. “This is a sad and regrettable chapter in the state’s history, and it must be one that is never repeated again.”
The apology’s a good start, civil rights and mental health advocates say. But, as state NAACP director Skip Alston has argued, some form of restitution for the surviving victims, perhaps reparations, will now be expected.
And there’s at least one additional significant step the state can make to come clean on what was long a dirty secret: tell the whole story by publicly releasing the files of the eugenics program. According to Debra Blake of the state archives in Raleigh, an estimated 50 cubic feet of records on the program remain under official seal. While state and federal laws forbid disclosing the personal data in the files, such information could be redacted from the documents prior to release, opening up a valuable historical resource and promoting greater accountability.
Reporters from the Journal have filed a request for access to all of the records. They expect a response this week.