Numbers of sterilizations performed in NC counties during the era of the NC Eugenics Board. Image courtesy of NC Sterilization Victims Foundation.
Mecklenburg County was particularly active in the North Carolina Eugenics program. During the busiest years, it had three times more sterilizations than the next highest county - Guilford, which was nearly the same size population-wise.
What was happening in Mecklenburg County at that time? Were people here that much more obsessed with sterilization? That answer is complicated. The North Carolina Eugenics Board didn't drive around town plucking people off the street to be sterilized. Its five members were state bureaucrats who did their work in a conference room in Raleigh. They rarely met the people they were sending to the cold steel of a doctor's table. Middlemen did the leg work, picking candidates and summarizing their lives into terse paragraphs with just enough unsavory detail to convince the board. Take this one for a 23-year old single mother: "Patient shows very poor judgment, talks and laughs inappropriately, emotionally unstable and irritable." Another one for a 12-year-old girl says she is "often away from home for hours," "constantly talks about boyfriends," and "displays dime store rings" they give her.
Thirty-one states had sterilization laws during the 20th Century. Most took affect in the 1910s and 1920s. Most states ended their sterilization programs in the mid-1950s to early 1960s, although laws may have remained on the books for several years. The last sterilization in North Carolina occurred in 1973, but its law wasn't repealed until 2003. Virginia, in 1979, was the last state to sterilize people.
The middlemen volunteering these girls and women for sterilization were often social workers. That's what makes North Carolina stand out in the history of eugenics laws. Other states left the referral process to doctors working in prisons or mental hospitals. Only in North Carolina did social workers have that power, and not a single county escaped their reach.
Mecklenburg County, though, was a hotbed - more than 485 people sterilized - half of them in just six years between 1956 and 1962. Most of the social workers from that period are dead, but not all.
"WHAT A TIME, WHAT A MESS"
Merlene Wall still lives in Charlotte. She's 80, a widow. Her memory is going, but she's willing to talk.
"It was an interesting time," says Wall. "We stayed busy, we really did." She had a big caseload. Mecklenburg County was booming in the 1950s. People on welfare were typically single mothers with four or five kids. About half were African American. The monthly welfare check was about $900 in today's money.
"I don't know how they lived to tell you the truth," says Wall. "Just having the soap to wash clothes, you know? Little things."
Politicians and public officials were worried about something else: They saw how fast the welfare rolls were growing. Unwed mothers seemed to be taking over the system. The North Carolina Eugenics Board offered a solution. Since the 1930s, it had been sterilizing people in mental hospitals and schools for troubled youth. Now, in the '50s, the focus shifts to women on welfare, and social workers like Merlene Wall.
"It was a double-sided kind of thing," says Wall, thinking back on the sterilizations she recommended for clients. "I had one case and there were retarded daughters - my gosh what a time and what a mess. And how do you protect the children that these two females had and make sure that they get what they need? And yet, do they have the capacity to mother?"
She sounds so matter of fact. But I get the impression that was one of the few sterilization cases she was personally involved with and through the fog of failing memory, it still haunts her.
"I don't drive myself crazy with it anymore, cause I drove myself crazy when I was working," says Wall. "It was a hard thing to do. I don't know what the answer is. What do you do? You do what you can and you do the best that you can. And it's not just protecting the children, you gotta protect that mother too." Merlene Wall headed Mecklenburg County's Department of Social Services from 1989 to 1993. As a young social worker in the agency, Wall recommended some people for sterilization under North Carolina's eugenic programs.
"PROTECTION" FOR CITIZENS
A lot of people were wrestling with this question in the 50s. One group of powerful elites in Winston Salem was busy writing newspaper articles and publishing glossy brochures. They called themselves the Human Betterment League. Heirs to Procter & Gamble, Hanes Hosiery and RJ Reynolds Tobacco were major backers. One of the league's brochures from 1950 talks about how children shouldn't be born to parents with limited capacity - "morons," the league called them. "The job of parenthood is too much to expect of feebleminded men and women," reads the brochure. "North Carolina offers its citizens protection in the form of selective sterilization."
The Human Betterment League made social workers and doctors and public officials feel like humanitarian heroes for sterilizing people. But that was true statewide and still doesn't explain why Mecklenburg County had so many more sterilizations than others. The answer to that turns out to be buried in the Eugenics Board records.
No matter what county the cases come from, the summaries are similar, except for one common thread in the Mecklenburg County files. Take this sampling from the summer of 1955.
This is a single woman 21 years of age with one child four years of age. Patient is eight months pregnant at present time. A psychological examination revealed in IQ of 38. The patient is receiving assistance from the Welfare Department. She is highly nervous. She sits and grins and is very uncommunicative and refuses to talk with anyone around. Diagnosis: Feebleminded. Sterilization proceedings instituted by Wallace H. Kuralt.
This is a single girl 19 years of age with one child one year of age. A psychological examination revealed an IQ of 42. This girl has no moral judgment and has no idea of the name of the father of her child. She takes no responsibility for her child. Diagnosis: Feebleminded. Sterilization proceedings instituted by Wallace H. Kuralt. This is a single woman 25 years of age. She has no children but the physician and parents state that she is highly sexed and needs to be watched constantly. The parents are afraid she will become pregnant and have an afflicted child.A psychological examination sh
ows an IQ of 30. Diagnosis: Feebleminded. Sterilizations proceedings instituted by Wallace H. Kuralt. This is a single girl 16 years of age with two children 14 months and 3 years of age. The psychologist pronounces this girl definitely defective in mental ability. She is not capable of caring for the two children she has and is absolutely irresponsible. Diagnosis: Feebleminded. Sterilization proceedings instituted by Wallace H. Kuralt.
EMPOWERING WOMEN THROUGH STERILIZATION
Wallace H. Kuralt was the head of Mecklenburg County public welfare from 1945 until 1972. This story would end right here if Kuralt were a hardcore eugenicist trying to boost the caliber of the population. But Kuralt was a much more complicated character. "In fact I would say he probably totally disagreed with eugenic theory," says Johanna Schoen. She's a history professor at Rutgers who's spent a lot of her career researching Kuralt and the eugenics program. "Wallace Kuralt was somebody who was extremely progressive and he basically looked to all the tools that he had, including the eugenic sterilization program, that he might be able to use to the best effects for his clients," says Schoen.
Kuralt's name may sound familiar because his son Charles was a famous journalist. Wallace Kuralt got his start in social work in the 30s, when the welfare system was just starting out. Down in the trenches of post-Depression poverty, he watched women get pregnant again and again when they couldn't afford to feed the children they already had. He once said that for the poor "sex is their recreation," a "spontaneous activity, not planned in the same way middle class families plan sex."