NC Eugenics Victims Speak Out, State Seeks To Compensate Them

Jun 23, 2011

North Carolina was one of more than 30 states that had laws - some lasting until the 1970s - that could force people to be sterilized against their will. But North Carolina's Eugenics Program was particularly active. It allowed social workers, doctors and even regular citizens to refer someone from sterilization. Now the state could be the first to actually compensate its victims. The NC Eugenics Task Force will continue to take comment from victims through a 24-hour telephone comment line for two weeks. Victims may record a message up to five minutes in duration by calling 919-807-4273 by 5 p.m. Thursday, July 7. At a hearing in Raleigh yesterday, sterilization victims and their families spoke to state officials. Of the nearly 7,600 people who were sterilized, most were women. But there were men. They've been reluctant to come forward, but yesterday a few of them finally spoke out. Willie C. Lynch from Littleton, North Carolina is 77. He was sterilized when he was 14 years old. Lynch had been sent to a reform school and state officials told his parents he had to have a vasectomy before they'd let him come home. He doesn't remember much from the surgery. "They didn't explain nothing," he says. "I was laying on the operating table and the nurse told me to sing, because I loved to play the guitar and sing. She put that mask on my face and put me to sleep. I didn't know anything. Next day I got out of bed all stooped over you know." Lynch wouldn't learn until much later why it was that he couldn't have kids of his own. It still pains him. Eugenics Board records show more than 1,000 men were sterilized under the program. They were prisoners, patients in mental hospitals, boys like Lynch who went to reform schools or men like Charles Holt (pictured) who has learning disabilities. He was sent to the Murdoch Developmental Center in Butner, North Carolina when he was a teenager and sterilized at 19. His stepdaughter Melissa Hyatt (pictured) spoke on his behalf at yesterday's hearing. "He would have made an awesome father and the child would have had discipline and schooling," said Hyatt. "He knows how to take care of schooling, for he always has. He knows how to change diapers, cook, clean. And most important, he knows how to love." Hyatt believes her stepfather's grief over being sterile made his depression worse and led him to drink. Charles Holt is 61 today and among the estimated 3,000 victims of North Carolina's eugenics laws still living. They also include 65-year-old Nial Ramirez who was coerced into sterilization after she gave birth at 17. A social worker told Ramirez her family would lose their welfare benefits if she didn't get the procedure. She was too ill to come to the hearing yesterday, but sent her daughter Deborah Chesson with a letter to read: "I was told when I was operated on that I could have it reversed, but I was lied to and butchered," read Chesson from her mother's letter. "I have been traumatized from this experience. I was no longer able to have children like God created me to." The North Carolina Eugenics Board was created in 1933 and operated for decades with little public scrutiny. Sterilization was seen as a way to limit the public cost of welfare and improve the caliber of the population. A booster group called the Human Betterment League circulated a brochure in 1950. "You wouldn't give a responsible position to a person of little intelligence," said the brochure. "Yet each day the feebleminded and the mentally defective are entrusted with the most important and far reaching job of all -- the job of parenthood." The North Carolina Eugenics Board was disbanded in 1974 and the state apologized to its victims in 2002. "We thank you North Carolina for your apology, but it's not enough," said Australia Clay at the hearing. Her mother Margaret Cheek was sterilized against her will in 1965. A few years ago, a legislative committee recommended paying sterilization victims $20,000, but that's not enough according to Australia Clay. "You're gonna have to do more, you're gonna have to dig deep," said Clay. If North Carolina does compensate victims, it would be the first of state to do so. A task force appointed by Governor Bev Perdue is now wrestling with the question and will make a preliminary recommendation in August. Dr. Laura Gerald chairs the five-member volunteer task force. "It was an emotional morning," said Gerald after yesterday's hearing. "As a physician who is charged with doing no harm, it's hard to hear that people who should have been protecting children and people who needed help, actually harmed them." Yesterday's hearing had two purposes - to let victims tell their stories and to help determine what is appropriate compensation. Governor Bev Perdue also briefly attended. She thanked the victims for having courage to speak out, called the state's Eugenics past "reprehensible" and pledged to try and make amends. A hotline for victims of North Carolina's Eugenics Board has been established at 1-877-550-6013. Click here for more information.