Thom Tillis North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis hosted an emotional town hall meeting in Charlotte last night to discuss plans for compensating victims of the state's Eugenics program. Some 7,600 people were sterilized by the state against their will and as many as a third of them may still be alive.
Mecklenburg County had by far the most sterilizations, which is why Charlotte was the site for last night's meeting. Among the 80 or so people in the audience were several who'd never spoken publicly about their sterilization, and most weren't about to start talking just yet.
"It's like a family shadow, nobody speaks of it," said Odessa Price. She came to the town hall meeting on behalf of her two sisters and felt compelled to take the microphone after listening to 90 minutes of tense discussion about the history of the state's forced sterilization program. "I believe both of my sisters were sterilized at a early age," Price told the crowd. "And I know my mother feel guilty - she did the best she could - but she signed the paper to continue to get welfare. She didn't know. And I just want you to know it runs deep. It runs deep."
Sitting in the room last night, Price discovered her family was not alone. Others with no direct tie to eugenics program came to learn about a program they'd heard rumors of and couldn't believe was true.
One question nagged at Frank Jones: If a person refused sterilization, was the state able to force them into it?
"I've got that answer for you," said a woman standing nearby. Her name is Carol King. "This is the first time that I've come forward," said King, choking on tears. "I've never admitted it to anybody. My husband left me, I had two children and I thought I might be pregnant and I was told to receive food stamps I had to do this. So that's how it happened - you were talked into it."
King has not yet gone through the formal process of confirming with the state archives that her sterilization was ordered by the Eugenics Board. It's a step she'll need to take in order to qualify for any compensation state lawmakers approve.
Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis said last night that he'll have a compensation bill ready for the General Assembly to consider when it convenes in May, but he wouldn't commit to a specific amount. Last month, a task force appointed by Governor Perdue recommended $50,000 for living victims. A legislative committee in 2008 said $20,000 was a good number. Tillis says his goal is to get "pretty close" to what those task forces recommended and thinks there's bi-partisan support for it. But town hall attendee Jesse Muehlbauer voiced a perspective likely to come up in the funding debate.
"What occurred in the state during the eugenics program reveals the most disturbing elements of human nature," said Muehlbauer "However, I had nothing to do with this and I refuse to accept as guilt the fact that since the perpetrators of these heinous crimes are either unidentifiable or deceased or unable to remunerate for their actions - THEIR ACTIONS - that that leaves me responsible to pay for their crimes."
Tillis quickly disagreed. "Those evil people may have been evil, but they were enabled by legislators," said Tillis. "They were enabled by government." Tillis also admitted he was hesitant to hold last night's meeting. "I was trying to determine whether something as emotionally charged could actually be managed in a respectful, civil sort of framework and this was a test case," said Tillis. He was pleased with the dialogue and now says he'll hold others soon - most likely in Winston Salem and Raleigh.
Tillis needs all the public support he can muster to get a compensation bill through this year. Otherwise, he worries new lawmakers elected this fall won't put the same priority on the issue. The state has been talking about compensating its eugenics victims for ten years. It shouldn't take any longer, says Tillis.