Heartland News Service
Eighty-three-year-old Virginia Brooks remembers when she learned she would never give birth to a child.
The Maxton resident was American Indian, 14, and it was the spring of 1943. She was in pain and lying in a hospital bed, recovering from a procedure that she thought had been performed to remove her appendix.
When a nurse’s aide read her chart and blurted out that Brooks would never have “bread-eaters,” Brooks learned the truth — the surgery was a state-ordered tubal ligation, which had robbed her of her ability to create life.
For Brooks and others sterilized by force or coercion, news that the North Carolina Senate had blocked a House measure to provide compensation for the 146 verified victims of the state’s sterilization program came as yet another blow.
“I don’t think it’s right. We deserve something for our lives being murdered for no reason at all,” she said. “They should have to give me something and they should give it to me now, not wait until I’m dead and gone.”
Brooks is one of the estimated 7,600 people — mostly women — who were sterilized under North Carolina’s eugenics program from 1929 to the mid-1970s. An estimated 1,800 victims are still living — but their numbers are decreasing with each year.
If the $11 million provision had been included in the budget approved Friday, it would have meant $50,000 in compensation for each victim.
“Nothing can compensate for what she went through,” said Brooks’ adopted daughter, Carol Chavis. “But maybe it will make the last years of her life more comfortable.”
Brooks says that “no one but the Lord” can understand what she has been through. The sterilization denied her the chance to have her own children, cost her a husband — and has shadowed the 69 years since, shattering her sense of self-worth.
Born into poverty in 1928, Brooks made it to the fifth grade at Union Chapel before her “foster” family no longer had the means to send her to school. The ramshackle wooden home where Brooks grew up, in an area between Lumberton and Pembroke that Brooks calls Maynor Center, was owned by Moslyn and Virginia Graham, an older couple Brooks calls “mama and daddy.” The house was home to the Grahams, Brooks, Brooks’ five siblings, and her mother, Maddie Hunt.
“It was just a miserable life,” she said. “I did have that much sense, to know that others had things that I couldn’t have.”
Eventually, Maddie Hunt married and moved out, taking the youngest child with her. Moslyn died, and Virginia was forced to move into another home.
“She was a real old woman and we really had no one to take care of us,” she said. “We lived the best way we could live.”
Brooks continued to visit her mother, who lived nearby. It was during a three-day stay at the age of 12, for which she had been called to watch Maddie and her husband’s six children, when “the law” arrived to take her away.
“He was a policeman, and he asked me to go with him,” she said. “He said there was someone in Lumberton who wanted to talk to me. ‘It ain’t no problem’, he said, ‘they ain’t gonna bother you. Just wants to talk to you’. But nobody there ain’t talked to me yet. They just took me down and locked me up.”
Brooks was not forced to go; she wasn’t handcuffed, and she didn’t resist.
“See, when you’re that young, you don’t know nothing,” she said. “When you ain’t been teached nothing and ain’t got no education, you don’t know what’s going on.”
Her incarceration in the Lumberton jail, which lasted 10 days, would lead to a stay of nearly two years in Samarcand Manor at Eagle Springs, also known as the State Home and Industrial School for Girls. Although Brooks said that while it may have been considered a school, as “white ladies” taught domestic skills to hundreds of white and Indian girls, she thinks of it as a prison.
“They kept a watch on you, they wanted to know what you were saying,” she said. “A lot of them would get together and slip away when they got a chance if they could. They’d run away, but they’d catch them and bring ‘em back, and lock ‘em up.”
Samarcand Manor was one of four institutions in North Carolina where sterilizations were performed, according to a report by the now-defunct Eugenics Board of North Carolina. The board reported 300 sterilizations performed on white and Indian girls to the state.
“If Indian girls at Samarcand were sterilized, it would be a good thing — the unfit should be sterilized,” a public-school principal identified only as “Mr. Lowry” said in a report to the state, according to a series on sterilization by the Winston-Salem Journal. “The lower class and the Holiness people would fight it, but there is no teaching of the Indians as a race to oppose sterilization.”
Brooks wasn’t sterilized, however, at Samarcand Manor; after a 23-month stay, during which she received no contact from her family except for a single letter, she was driven, along with two other girls, to Lumberton’s Baker Sanatorium by a social worker. Brooks was 14.
“She told us, on our way there, ‘We’re going to take you to the hospital. Ya’lls appendixes is a-botherin’ you and we’ve got to take them out’,” Brooks said. “And we weren’t sick. We weren’t hurtin’ or nothin’. We didn’t know what was goin’ on.”
Brooks was placed in a hospital bed in a room on the second floor, at the first window next to the street, and was told not to get up. She was soon given anesthesia, and went to sleep.
“When I woke up, I was in pain,” she said. “I just kept wondering why I had to go, why they took me there. I wasn’t sick, I wasn’t hurting.”
A few days after her surgery, a nurse’s aide revealed the truth.
“My chart was on the foot of my bed,” Brooks said. “She looked at it and said ‘huh’. I asked her what was wrong and she said, ‘you won’t never have no bread-eaters.’ Just like that. I would never have no bread-eaters. That meant that I would not have no children.
“I just laid there and wondered, and cried, and wanted to go home,” she said, her eyes welling.
After an 11-day stay in the hospital, she was released to her sister, Ruby Clark, and Ruby’s father-in-law, Ward, with whom Ruby was living while her husband was overseas serving for the military. She never learned what had become of the other two girls.
“I don’t know where those other girls are but God bless ‘em wherever they’re at. I guess their life was always miserable just like mine,” she said.
Brooks never received an explanation. When she asked her mother or her sister about it, they would not talk. Brooks also said Ward Clark told her that he was required to give reports on her behavior to authorities.
When Brooks was 18, she married Ernest Chavis, and after nine years the couple adopted Carol.
“I felt good. I knowed I had me a baby and that the Lord had given her to me,” Brooks said. “Even though I didn’t have her like most mothers had children, I was proud of her, and I’m still proud of her.”
Still, Brooks’ joy was overshadowed by the fact that her husband, a musician, stayed out all hours of the night and had begun to grow distant. When Carol was 7 years old, Chavis left the two alone in the home the family had shared in Baltimore and was gone forever. Brooks blames Chavis’ departure on her inability to have children, although he had promised that didn’t matter.
“He told a lie, that’s just what he done,” she said. “He lied. He left her and me alone in the world.”
Brooks said she struggled with emotional issues that made holding down a job difficult.
“I couldn’t work that much because I was hurting; my nerves was shot,” Brooks said. “I would sit and cry, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat — we lived on $30 a week.”
In the late 1960s, Brooks and her daughter moved back to Robeson County, to a home near New Prospect Church. Brooks worked odd jobs, and made meals for Carol when she came home from school to eat lunch. Eventually, she remarried and moved into her home of the past 41 years, on Brooklock Road in Maxton.
“I told him the same thing I told that other man,” Brooks said of her husband, Howard. “He has never questioned me.”
These days, Brooks spends quiet days at home, caring for her aging husband and cooking for Carol and Carol’s children, Kacie, Angela, Stacey and Lawrence when they come to visit. She delights in her grandchildren and five great-grandchildren she says the Lord has blessed her with; still, painful memories continue to haunt her.
“There ain’t nobody knows what I’ve been through but the Lord,” Brooks said. “It’s been rough. My life has been rough.”
Carol said she’s glad that the state’s history, and the truth about what happened to her mother and others, has come out in the open.
“It’s helped her self-esteem,” she said. “I knew all along she didn’t have that.”