Victims of N.C. eugenics program seek justice

The location of the North Carolina Eugenics Board, dissolved in 1977, now has a historical marker at it's location in Raleigh, N.C. Photo: North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program

While Elaine Riddick may look as though she has sailed through life without many troubles her story is a portrait of loss, sorrow and anger.

Riddick shared her story at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching in Cullowhee, N.C. during the annual gathering of Holocaust educators. The seminar focused on teaching tolerance in relation to the Holocaust and its connection to eugenics programs across the country.

Her story sheds light on the North Carolina eugenics program that was in place for 45 years, a program that claimed over 7,600 victims.

Riddick was 14 when she gave a birth to her son and right after that she was sterilized without her knowledge. It was 1968; she lived with the grandmother who was poor and uneducated. The child was a result of a rape, but that seems not important. Her diagnosis was “feebleminded”. Riddick said that she still doesn’t fully understand what it really means.

“What does feebleminded mean? How were they able to label me as that? I’m smart, I’m not feebleminded,” protested Riddick.

Riddick was unaware that she was sterile until she tried to start a family with her husband when she was 18 living in Long Island, N.Y. After exploratory surgeries, doctors discovered that she had been sterilized, and explained that the hemorrhaging and abdominal pains she had since her teens were directly related to her sterilization.

Riddick said that her grandmother was forced to sign the papers allowing for her sterilization. Since her family was so poor, they relied heavily on community programs for food. Riddick learned from her grandmother that after her rape, somebody came to their house and forced her grandmother to sign the papers to allow for the sterilization, out of fear that their food source would be taken away.

“My grandmother couldn’t read. She didn’t know what she was signing. What would you do if somebody threatened to stop bringing you food?” asked Riddick.

North Carolina General Assembly passed the first sterilization law in 1919 but no sterilizations were performed at that time. Ten years later, in 1929, North Carolina passed the Sterilization Act along with 29 other states.

By 1933, the first case against sterilization was heard by the N.C. Supreme Court. The Court ruled that sterilization was unconstitutional based on lack of public hearings and the absence of patient notification. However, the same year, a new, more aggressive sterilization law was heard and passed by the U.S. Supreme Court which established the Eugenics Board of North Carolina, authorizing sterilization of the feeble-minded, mentally diseased and epileptics.

The North Carolina Eugenics Program in its 41 year existence approved sterilization of  more than 7,600 victims for being feebleminded, blind, unwed, or mentally retarded, among other reasons. The majority of victims were African-American.

The sterilization program ended in 1974, yet many victims have not received explanations for their sterilizations. Riddick, with the assistance of her son Tony, sought to find out more information on her procedure when she discovered her diagnosis.

She filed a civil lawsuit in 1983 in search of compensation for her sterilization, but lost.

Before Riddick spoke, N.C. House Representative Earline Parmon spoke to educators with urgency to compensate victims in any way. The eugenics program is still not widely known to many North Carolina citizens. Representative Parmon explained that throughout her political career, she has fought for equality for all people, yet has found it difficult to make strides in regards to the eugenics program. The most recognition that the state of North Carolina has made towards eugenics is a placard at the historical site of the North Carolina Eugenics Board.

Although North Carolina has had difficulty in assisting victims, the NC Justice for Sterilization Victims was formed in 2010 by Gov. Bev Perdue to provide justice and compensation for victims.

Charmaine Fuller Cooper, executive director of the NC Justice for Sterilization Victims, has been working to encourage victims to come forward.

“We want to make sure to provide assistance for people who have suffered sterilization,” said Fuller Cooper.

Fuller Cooper added that as more people come forward about their own sterilizations, others have found the courage to do so as well.

“You can be completely anonymous, we just want those who have suffered sterilization to know that there is somebody out there fighting for them,” said Fuller Cooper.

Although support for sterilization victims is available, in a statement from Gov. Bev Perdue on March 19, only 111 eugenics victims have been verified by the state.

On April 25, Gov. Perdue placed a $10.3 million request in her budget for sterilization victims. This would take up around two-third of Gov. Perdue’s budget for next year and would guarantee that all living victims would receive a $50,000 tax-free lump sum from the state of North Carolina. The $10.3 million would also support the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims. The budget will be voted on during the annual session, beginning in May.

Many victims of sterilization in North Carolina have yet to come forward with their stories. Riddick has spent her life bringing awareness to the issue, in hopes that other victims will find the strength to tell their story. Accompanied with the NC Justice for Sterilization Victims and Gov. Perdue, awareness of the eugenics program in North Carolina is increasing, and sterilization victims are finding support that they need.

Read more on the eugenics program and its victims in the Winston-Salem Jounal special project Against Their Will: North Carolina’s Sterilization Program and in Carolina Public Press: New numbers show slow pace of IDing N.C.’s sterilization victims .