Lele Dunston was only 13 when she gave birth to a son in the Chapel Hill area of North Carolina. She said she was unaware why county officials had visited her mother within a year of her son’s birth, or the duress under which her mother was forced to commit her to the home for wayward girls. While Dunston had committed no crime, she was carted off and held for years at the institution. Under North Carolina statute, Dunston was eligible to leave the home only after being surgically sterilized under a platform known as eugenic sterilization.
“They never asked me anything, but later presented documents that I supposedly signed giving them permission to operate on me. It was not my signature. I never signed anything,” Dunston said.
Dunston , along with a handful of other sterilization victims recently told their stories during a Eugenics Task Force Listening Session in Raleigh, North Carolina. In all, more than 7,600 men, women and children as young as 10 were sterilized under North Carolina’s eugenics laws between 1924 and 1979. Eugenic sterilization laws sought to eliminate unwanted social characteristics from society by ensuring that the poor, the weak, the socially deviant, and the mentally or physically unstable, did not produce children.
What began as a medical attempt at better breeding during the antebellum, evolved into a cultural construct that enforced segregation through the sterilization of white females who slept with black men, and served as an agent of population control among Blacks and immigrants. Social workers would coerce families to have their children sterilized under threat of losing their land, public assistance, or custody of the children. Neighbors, rivals, and any law abiding citizen had a right and a duty to report “deviant” behavior to authorities, though most often sterilizations resulted from reports of sexual promiscuity or poverty.
Dunston later ran away from the facility and worked as many as three jobs simultaneously to care for herself. When reunited with her son years later, she would find he suffered a similar fate, and was never able to have children.
“The government claims to have done the sterilization procedure on kids as young as eight or nine, but I believe that they did it on my son before that. According to the state’s view being poor or promiscuous might have been genetic, and they were justified in doing to the kids the same as what they did to the mothers,” Dunston said.
In 2002, North Carolina’s eugenics program came to the attention of state Rep. Larry Womble, who has actively searched for victims of the governments mandates in order to publicly apologize and offer monetary compensation. In 1974, the Eugenics Board was disbanded, and the state formally apologized in 2002.
“These men and women had their God-given rights taken from them and in many instances, their bodies butchered. The sheer helplessness of these survivors in getting their stories heard by those with the power to do something about it, is what we want to fix. North Carolina is the only state in the nation to address this ugly chapter in history. We owe them,” Womble said.
North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue appointed the task force to consider compensating victims and was on hand for the testimonies. Perdue said the testimonies were necessary in order to put faces and experiences with the raw data.
“This is a sad, hard day for North Carolina. We are in the greatest nation on the planet, and you hear these types of things and think, Third World, or someplace far removed. And it is difficult for me to hear because first, and foremost, I am a mother,” Perdue said.
Some of the women, like sisters, Dottie and Flossie Bates, were mere girls when the procedures took place in 1934. Their niece, Karen Bates spoke on behalf the sisters, both now deceased, and said that hunger, and the inability of their father to feed them after his wife’s death, turned the sisters into beggars. Medical records indicated that the sisters had been given appendectomies. It was only after one of the sisters fell ill with an acute appendicitis in 1936, that it was realized something was amiss. Even then, the teenagers had no recourse.
“The law was the law. They labeled both of the girls vagrant and feebleminded, which was all that was needed during that time to have them sterilized. In fact, they were two grief-stricken little girls who were trying to cope with the loss of their mother and deal with an increasingly despondent father,” said Bates.
Others, like Elaine Riddick, were already victims of sexual assault and neglect when the state’s help came to further exacerbate the trauma.
“I was hungry, dirty and unkept. I was the victim of rape, child abuse and neglect and so I was constantly bullied at home and school. But I was not feebleminded or ‘fast’, what they called promiscuous. What I was going through was horrible and then the state of North Carolina came along and cut me open like a hog,” Riddick said.
According to her testimony, the product of that rape, her son Tony, was taken by Caesarian and she was sterilized. Now 57, Riddick said she continues to suffer ongoing medical complications. Tony, 42, also testified before the committee. He said the effects of the sterilization remain.
“What North Carolina did was wicked and wrong. It was nothing short of genocide or pre-meditated murder. What was done to my mother not only affected her, but me as well. I still have flashbacks of walking behind her going down dirt roads to try to hide her bleeding.
Still other women, like Naomi Shank and Margaret Cheek, were married when they were brought before North Carolina’s sterilization board. In 1948, Shank was 17 years old and married when she miscarried the couple’s first child. She said doctors told her husband to sign or make a mark on a form for her care, but nothing else.
“My mother had seven children and all of them had children. My husband said doctors assured him that a normal D&C would be done and that we could try having children again in a few months. The doctors later admitted they had sterilized me instead,” Shank said.
Australia Clay and Bertha Delores Mark spoke on behalf of their mother Margaret Cheek, now deceased, who was institutionalized at the infamous Cherry Hospital, following the birth of her fifth child. Suffering from what is now commonly referred to as post-partem depression, Cheek was tortured, sterilized, and used as a guinea pig for 12 years before being sent home just before Christmas of 1965, after the sterilization consent had been signed. Clay said no one knew the extent of her mother’s trauma until reviewing her medical records through the Foundation.
Clay went on to talk about how she believes her mother was sterilized against her knowledge because she loved her children and their father could not read so the signature that is on the medical forms could not possibly be that of their dad. Clay went on to state that her sister, Delores, taught her father how to write his signature later in life and that they believed his signature had been forged.
“She was 40 years old when they decided to just toss her back into our front yard. She had been given electric shock treatments and operated on without anesthesia. Twenty thousand dollars is not compensation enough; there should be some memorial erected to these people. They were not numbers in some medical research book; they were real people with lives and families, and they were destroyed by the state’s bogus medicine,” Clay said.
In March 2011, Executive Order 83 was issued along with Bill 70, which offered monetary compensation, and Bill 73 that offered professional counseling and healthcare at the state’s expense for eugenic sterilization survivors. In 2008, the House Select Committee originally considered $50,000 in compensation to each surviving victim, but later reduced their suggestion to $20,000 per living victim for fear the legislation would not pass.