Here’s a headline we rarely get to use: Something good happened in state government this month. Score this event in the win column for people who value access to the free flow of informationjournalists, scholars and, hopefully, you.
As recently as nine years ago, thousands of pages of North Carolina’s eugenics board records were publicly available and had been released to journalist Kevin Begos and to University of Iowa historian Johanna Schoen, who was researching the movement. To protect their privacy, the names of the victims had been appropriately omitted from the records, and no one had suggested that these names be released.
It was public access to the records that led to the Winston-Salem Journal Against Their Will series, which, in turn, prompted an apology to the victims from Gov. Mike Easley.
But then state officials withdrew these records from the public sphere. Maybe it was to shield the perpetrators and proponents from scrutiny and criticism. Perhaps it was to avoid embarrassing North Carolina for the crucial role it played in the nationwide eugenics movement. Whatever the reason, the records were off-limits, stowed beyond the public view. (When Lara Torgesen, who wrote about sterilization for the Indy last year, tried to obtain the records, the N.C. State Archives denied her request.)
Although Begos had obtained many of these documents before the state slammed the door on access to them, as a freelancer for the Indy he pressured the governor’s office earlier this month to reopen these records.
And amazingly, Gov. Beverly Perdue’s office agreed to officially change the policy to allow media and scholars to view eugenics records, as long as the victims’ names are redacted.
We applaud the governor for reopening the records, although we think that all people should have equal access to them, just not journalists and academics. Still, it’s a positive step in shining a light on a dark corner of the state’s history. We call on our fellow journalists and on scholars to test that policy change: Ask for the records. Let us know if you receive them.
We call for another positive step: that the General Assembly finds the money to compensate the victims of involuntary sterilization. Yes, lawmakers are misguidedly slashing and burning vital state programs to avoid a tax increase. Yes, we’ve heard about the budget woes. However, while conservative members of the Legislature saddle up their moral high horses to oppose same-sex marriage and to defund Planned Parenthood, their morality seems to conveniently evaporate when they would be required to stand for something instead of against it. If these lawmakers are truly concerned about justice, the right to life and the “nuclear family,” then they should be all for reparations for people who were deniedby state and local officialsthe chance to enjoy those very rights.