Sterilization victims in Scotland County — one of the top sites in the state — may be helped by twin bills filed recently in the N.C. General Assembly.
Charmaine Fuller Cooper, executive director of N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, visited The Laurinburg Exchange on Friday to talk about the issue and its impact locally.
It is estimated that 7,600 men and women were sterilized by the N.C. Eugenics Board between 1933 and 1974, 85 percent of them women. Nearly 2,000 of them are likely to be alive, according to Fuller Cooper.
Victims came from all ethnic backgrounds. About 60 percent were white, with nearly 40 percent black and a few Native American. In Scotland County, 104 individuals were sterilized, placing the county in the state’s top 10 for sterilizations performed. Hertford County is the only other rural county in the top 10.
“North Carolina had the most aggressive program in the nation,” Fuller Cooper said. “We ran our program from 1933 to 1974 whereas other states stopped their programs during World War II when they saw how horrific it was. Since the youngest victims in North Carolina were ten years old, we have victims who are still living. Our youngest victims are 51 years of age.”
Legislation introduced last week may entitle victims of the state’s eugenics board to $50,000 in compensation.
“On Wednesday, a bipartisan group in both the House and Senate introduced identical bills that basically reiterate the governor’s wishes to pass compensation for people who have been sterilized by that board,” Fuller Cooper said.
If passed, each living sterilization victim will be entitled to $50,000 in compensation. The sum will be tax-free in North Carolina and will not endanger any benefits such as Social Security or Medicare that victims may already receive.
According to Fuller Cooper, the one thing binding almost all victims of the Eugenics Board was poverty.
“We’re trying to really reach everybody in the community and make sure that they understand that it wasn’t a different shade or just one gender that was sterilized,” said Fuller Cooper. “It could have been anyone. Typically it was under the umbrella of poverty - the more impoverished your situation was, the more likely it was that your name could have been brought before the eugenics board.”
Most victims were labeled as unintelligent, with IQ scores in the 30s and 40s in some cases. Only one recommendation for sterilization was required for a name to be reviewed by the eugenics board for sterilization.
“The typical designation was that you had to be feeble-minded or that you had to have some kind of health disability,” Fuller Cooper said. “The vast majority of people were labeled as feeble-minded, whether or not they had any mental disabilities. Unfortunately, any reason could have been used to sterilize someone, and typically they were grouped as being feeble-minded.”
At present, 118 living victims have come forward to the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation. None of the victims who lived in Scotland County at the time of their sterilization have been among them.
The foundation encourages those who may be victims of sterilization to come forward to the foundation to verify their identity and potentially receive compensation, even if they are unsure.
“Some people may not know, since they were 10, 11, or 12 years of age,” said Fuller Cooper. “For a lot of people, we’re encouraging them to come forth if they just have an inkling, wondering why they were never able to have kids or why they’ve always had a scar on a certain part of their body that was always unexplainable.”
Gov. Mike Easley first issued a verbal apology to sterilization victims in 2002, but that in itself failed to acknowledge the scope of the problems created by the eugenics program, critics said.
“Various task forces found that just a verbal apology was insufficient, and while they recognized that they could never repay someone for what’s been done, they felt that financial compensation would signal a huge message that this should never be repeated or duplicated,” Fuller Cooper said.
Impetus behind placing funds for reparations in the state budget has risen in recent years, and will come to a head on Tuesday when the House Judiciary Committee meets to debate the bill.
“We have a huge chunk of the population who’s still living who remembers what happened and have been fighting for this for several years, but this is the first time we’ve gathered enough public support and had enough public education for the public to really start to understand the enormity of what happened in North Carolina,” said Fuller Cooper. “We’re really encouraging people to contact us as soon as possible - the likelihood of the legislation passing within the next four weeks is stronger than a lot of other issues. I think it has the highest level of support of any issue that’s currently in front of the legislature.”
Because of the longevity of North Carolina’s sterilization program, there are still many who remember it and have rallied behind reparation to the victims.
“Every researcher who’s looked at the issue has said that North Carolina had the most egregious program in the nation,” said Fuller Cooper. “Not only did we continue after other states stopped it, we went beyond just sterilizing people in institutions, which in itself was wrong. Other states primarily focused on people in state institutions, whether it was mental health facilities or prisons. North Carolina went into people’s individual homes and would recommend them for sterilizations.”
Those who think they may have been sterilized by the state and wish to come forward can contact the foundation’s toll-free hotline at (877) 550-6013 or (919) 807-4270. Information may also be found at www.sterilizationvictims.nc.gov.