The North Carolina Senate rejected a plan to compensate victims of a mass sterilization plan that targeted mostly poor minorities for decades in the 20th century.
On Wednesday, Senate Republicans refused to support the measure put forth by the House to set aside $10 million in the state budget for compensation, which would have given victims $50,000 each. The move would have made North Carolina the first state to compensate eugenics victims.
“I’m sorry that it happened,” Sen. Don East told a Raleigh-based newspaper. “I just don’t think money fixes it.”
From 1929 to 1974, an estimated 7,600 people were sterilized by consent, coercion or without their knowledge as a part of the North Carolina Eugenics Board program, according to the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation. The office estimates that up to 1,800 victims are still living, and 146 have been verified so far.
Charmaine Fuller Cooper, the executive director, told reporters that the foundation would shut down by the end of the month because state funding is ending.
North Carolina ran one of America’s most active eugenics programs, targeting people who were poor and undereducated, and those with physical or mental disabilities. The North Carolina Eugenics Board, a five-person panel, made its decisions in the name of social welfare.
Elaine Riddick, 58, was one of the victims. Pregnant after she was raped at age 14, Riddick was sterilized without her knowledge when she went to a North Carolina hospital to give birth to her son in 1968. Years later, she learned what had happened to her.
Riddick’s attorney, Willie Gary, said Riddick was “hurt” and “in tears” after hearing the state senate’s decision Wednesday. Riddick has said she would file a class action lawsuit seeking compensation from the state.
“She’s suffered for so long, and now this is just pouring salt on a wound that has been there for years and years and years,” Gary said.
Deemed “promiscuous” and “feebleminded” by a social worker at the hospital, Riddick, who came from a Black family on welfare, was recommended to the state for sterilization. Riddick’s illiterate grandmother was told that they were doing a “procedure” that was necessary to help the young girl; she signed the consent papers with an X. The state authorized and paid for the procedure, and without her consent or even her knowledge, Riddick was sterilized shortly after she gave birth.
“They didn’t have permission from me because I was too young, and my grandmother didn’t understand what was going on,” Riddick said. “They said I was feebleminded, they said I would never be able to do anything for myself. I was a little bitty kid and they cut me open like a hog.”
At one time or another in the 20th century, more than half of the states in the U.S. had programs that allowed for the sterilization of those the government deemed unfit to procreate.
When most programs began in the early 1930s, this usually meant those in institutions for mental illness or mental retardation, but over the decades criminals, the blind, the deaf, the disabled, alcoholics, those with epilepsy and ultimately the rural poor on welfare would fall under the umbrella of “unfit to procreate.”
In all, 65,000 Americans were sterilized before the last state program was shut down in the early 1980s the majority of them Black.
Though detailed, often meticulous records of these sterilizations survive in state archives, America’s experience with selective sterilization has for the most part been a buried chapter in the nation’s history.
“Eugenics in the U.S. is something that’s still not nationally known. People associate it with Nazis; they don’t realize that the U.S. did it too,” said Rebecca Kluchin, an assistant professor of history at California State University in Sacramento who specializes in the U.S. eugenics programs.
Only seven of the 33 states that ran such programs have even publicly acknowledged or apologized to victims of sterilization. North Carolina, which had the third largest sterilization program in the nation, is the only one to have considered compensating its victims.
“I was raped twice,” Elaine Riddick said, “once by the perpetrator and once by the state of North Carolina.”