Between 1929 and 1974, North Carolina sterilized more than 7,500 of its residents. Most were operated on without their consent, having been deemed “feebleminded” and unfit to reproduce by the state Eugenics Board. Eighty-five percent were women; about 40 percent were black or Native American. As many as 2,000 victims are thought to still be alive.
Nationwide, 32 other states had eugenics programs during the 20th century, resulting in the sterilization of more than 60,000 Americans. While several states have formally apologized for this ugly chapter in their histories, North Carolina is the only one that has attempted to compensate its victims. In January, a state task force recommended that each living, verified victim be paid $50,000. Last month, Gov. Bev Perdue requested $10.3 million to cover the cost.
Elaine Riddick (above) has been one of the most outspoken advocates for the victims of North Carolina’s eugenics project. In 1968, when she was 14, she was raped and impregnated by an older neighbor. The Eugenics Board declared her “feebleminded” and “promiscuous.” Immediately after she gave birth to her son by cesarean section, she was sterilized. Her illiterate grandmother signed the consent form with an X. “I’ve never been feebleminded,” Riddick said during a hearing last summer (PDF). “They slandered me. They ridiculed and harassed me. They cut me open like I was a hog.”
Riddick’s son, Tony also spoke at the hearing. “If you want to know why I’m so passionate about this,” he explained, “[it] is because I saw what was done to my mother. I saw the rape that was done to my mother through the state.”
The majority of North Carolina’s sterilizations took place between 1946 and 1968; only 48 people were sterilized after 1971. Janice Black (above) was one of the final victims. When she was a teenager, Black’s family decided she shouldn’t have children and social workers labeled her “feebleminded.” Her name was the only thing the 18-year-old Black knew how to write when she agreed to be operated on in 1971. Today, she cleans medical equipment at the same hospital in Charlotte where her stepmother brought her to be sterilized more than 40 years ago. Black told the Charlotte Observer, “Sometimes I—what I feel like—that I wasn’t treated fairly. Like I was a human being. I was treated like I’m not no human being.”