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For eugenic sterilization victims, belated justice

North Carolina had among the worst forced sterilization programs in the country. Now it's the first to try to make amends.

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina -- A child as young as nine years old. A 21-year-old mother of six who, a social worker complained, “made no effort to curb her sexual desires.” A woman who, the state’s official Eugenics Board worried, “wears men’s clothing all [the] time.” People considered "feeble-minded" on the basis of dubious testing. 

"These people were dehumanized."'

The targets of that board’s 45-year reign, from 1929 to 1974, were disproportionately black and female, and almost universally poor. They included victims of rape and incest, women who were already mothers – and then their daughters, too. The state’s remedy for all of them: Forced or coerced sterilization.

“These people were dehumanized,” said Latoya Adams, whose aunt, Deborah Blackmon, was sterilized under the state’s eugenics law. “They treated them like animals.” 

Blackmon was among the last to be sterilized, in 1972. The court documents Adams has since obtained read, 

“Final diagnoses: Mental retardation, severe.Eugenic sterilization.Total abdominal hysterectomy.”

Blackmon was only 14. 

North Carolina sterilized 7,600 people through its sweeping eugenic sterilization program, but it wasn’t alone. Thirty states had, and enforced, eugenic sterilization laws on the books, initially on the now-discredited theory that preventing the "defective" from reproducing would benefit humanity. 

But North Carolina is different in some important ways. The state's surviving victims will be the first to get compensation, provided they can meet the deadline on Monday, June 30. So far 630 people have applied for a share of the $10 million budgeted by the legislature, but the state first has to verify their claims based on documents not all survivors may be able to produce. 

“I always say we were the worst, and now we’re going to be the best,” said John Railey, the editorial page editor at the Winston-Salem Journal who has spent over a decade reporting on and advocating for the victims.

"The worst," because it empowered social workers to petition for the sterilization of just about anybody. Other states with sterilization programs conducted them largely through institutions like prisons and asylums.

As Rutgers University historian Johanna Schoen, who has extensively documented the state’s eugenics policy, put it, “The North Carolina program reached into people’s homes like no other.”

"The best," because it's the first to do anything about the state-sponsored encroachment on reproductive freedom. 

Deborah Blackmon’s sister, Margaret Rankin, says she remembers the social workers coming around the house just over 40 years ago. Her parents, a truck driver and a housecleaner in a rural area outside Charlotte, were reluctantly persuaded that sterilization was the best thing for Deborah.

“You don’t hardly find too many men that cry, but my daddy pulled out some tears the time my sister spent in the hospital,” Rankin said.

Having since learned about the extent of the program, Rankin said, she became furious. “They labeled us as poor people, uneducated, black, being mentally retarded,” she said. 

North Carolina, like other states with eugenics programs, took its cues from the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1927 upheld a forced sterilization law for the supposed good of society.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the majority, “It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” 

Within two years, North Carolina had amended its eugenic sterilization law to comply with courts’ desire for some nominal due process. By 1933, the Eugenics Board was formed to rule on petitions recommending sterilization, evaluating their “eugenic history,” including their IQs.

“In 95% of the cases they approved it,” Schoen said.  

That left the people targeted by the state with few options. There was a formal appeals process, but it took “a fairly confident level of resistance,” Schoen said, adding, “Most people were so intimidated by the process that once the petition was authorized, they submitted to it.”

Schoen did find cases of people moving away or taking other steps to avoid a social worker’s reach. “People who had been told by social workers that they had too many children or they would be sterilized, they would hide the children in the closet,” she said. 

Though men were also targeted, the vast majority of the sterilization victims were female. A 1945 fact sheet for the Human Betterment League of North Carolina counseled that “feebleminded girls are particularly in need of the protection of sterilization since they cannot be expected to assume adequate moral or social responsibility for their actions.” 

Castella Jefferson, now 62, said she remembers waking up at age 15, confused, and being told she had undergone surgery.

It was 1969, she said, and her parents had sent her to a state institution called the Caswell Training Center after she had started running away from home and “started looking at boys,” as she put it. 

“I said, ‘What kind of surgery?’ ‘Well, we tied your tubes,’” Jefferson told msnbc. “I didn’t know to talk about it because I didn’t know what was going on.”

Only several years later, when she was trying to get pregnant and sought medical advice, did she learn what had happened to her.

“In her paperwork, she was labeled as being feebleminded,” said Jefferson’s stepdaughter, Pauline Watson. “By no means is she feebleminded.”

Jefferson was also told her mother had signed a consent form, but later, “I found out after that that my mother never signed that paper,” she said.

In 1935, a report by the state’s Eugenics Board contended that “none of the inmates of Caswell Training School should be released before being sterilized, except in the few instances where normal children have been committed through error.” According to Schoen, there were 572 petitions to the Eugenics Board from Caswell between 1937 and 1966. 

Eugenics – at least, as a practice of alleged genetic purification -- officially fell out of favor after the Nazis became its best-known proponents. (Hitler’s physician and the head of his eugenics program, Karl Brandt, cited U.S. eugenics laws in his defense at trial.) But the sterilization programs remained, with new justification.

"I'm so sorry it happened, but throwing money don't change it, don't make it go away. It still happened."'

Under Jim Crow, African-Americans were excluded from both state institutions like Caswell and from the welfare benefits that drew the attention of social workers. Integration brought a sickening form of inclusion: African-American women became the primary targets. In the late 1960s, despite being a minority of the population, they became the majority of sterilization victims.

“The eugenic sterilization really was an attempt to control the reproduction of women on welfare more than anything else,” Schoen said. Defenders stopped talking about the gene pool and started talking about saving the state money – and even claimed it was for the women's own good. “It turns into this notion that this is something that will save people money. It will pull them out of poverty,” Schoen said.

Railey put it more bluntly: “It became a form of American genocide.”

The Eugenics Board was never a secret. The state attorney general sat on the board, as did the director of public health. The program drew the attention of feminist activists in part because Nial Ruth Cox, a victim of the program, unsuccessfully sued the state in the early 1970s. (One of her attorneys was current Supreme Court Justice and then-ACLU attorney Ruth Bader Ginsburg.) 

It has been more than a decade since Schoen’s research and Railey and his paper's reporting put the program in glaring modern light. Still, the compensation efforts, led by Democratic state Rep. Larry Womble, hit a wall. Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, spoke passionately about the plight of the victims. There was a task force. And then nothing. 

Once Republicans took over all of the branches of state government in 2011, Railey found another angle to push for reparations.

“I would editorialize, I’d say, 'Look, y’all care about the sanctity of life, y’all hate big government. This program ran over the sanctity of life, this program was big government run amok. Reconcile for it,'” Railey recalled. “And eventually, they came to see that.” 

The issue was indeed championed by another Republican, the state House Speaker and current Senate candidate Thom Tillis. "Every once in a while,” he said on the House floor, “I feel like you have the chance to make history. This is one of those chances.”

Not everyone was convinced.  

"You just can't rewrite history,” said the late Republican state Sen. Don East, in a 2012 interview with the AP. “I'm so sorry it happened, but throwing money don't change it, don't make it go away. It still happened." 

East was among those who openly feared that giving compensation to the sterilization victims would open the door to other reparations claims. One advocate for reparations, Daren Bakst, conceded that “there is probably no greater concern among compensation opponents than the argument that such a move could provide justification for providing reparations for slavery.”

Bakst proposed a solution in his report for the conservative John Locke Foundation, which has been highly influential in North Carolina’s recent turn to the right: Limiting the funds to only living victims, and not the families of dead ones.

In the end, those were the terms under the compensation funds included in the budget signed into law by Republican Governor Pat McCrory in 2013. It applies to all victims who were alive at the time of the signing.

The Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims is officially in charge of outreach to victims and to help them file their claims, including direct mail; the state’s NAACP has been trying to find more victims, and University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights has been holding legal clinics for them. The process isn’t simple, and there are no extensions, though applicants can submit more paperwork if they get their first claim in by the deadline.  

The payments are scheduled to go out a year from now. “The state is just dragging it out,” said Frances Midgett, 46, whose mother, Dale Hymes, was sterilized after her birth. “I’m thinking, these are elder people. Are they just waiting for these people to die?”

There is a budget proposal in the House to start payments as early as October.

“I’m glad that she’s going to be compensated in some way, but that’s not enough. That can’t replace life,” said Midgett of her mother. “Nobody should be deprived of having children. That’s a decision they have to make themselves.”