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Mecklenburg Had Most Sterilizations In State Eugenics Program

During the peak of North Carolina's state-sanctioned eugenics program, Mecklenburg County had the highest number of sterilizations - three times that of second-ranked Guilford County. Between 1946 and 1968, 465 people living in Mecklenburg County were sterilized - often against their will. Next week, victims of state sterilization will have a chance to share their stories with a task force appointed by the governor. Elaine Riddick gave birth to her first - and only - son at the age of 14. It was 1968. She lived in a small town in rural Perquimans County, North Carolina and she'd been raped. During a C-section, the doctors sterilized her. Technically, Riddick's illiterate grandmother had given permission for the procedure, but Riddick says her grandmother was coerced into signing an "X" on the form. Riddick says the state told her grandmother "that her welfare food supplements - the canned goods, powdered eggs and cheese and stuff - that she would not get it any more if she did not do that to me." Riddick didn't find out she'd been sterilized until she was 19, married and ready to have another child. "I was devastated," says Riddick. "I had already been called barren and useless and all that stuff. I didn't know what I was. I didn't know if I was a male or female or what." At the time, Riddick thought she was the only one who'd been sterilized by the state. In fact, the North Carolina Eugenics Board authorized sterilizations of nearly 7,600 men, women and children as young as 10. White women comprised the largest group until the 1960s, when the data show the number of black women in the sterilization program increased. Surgeries approved by the Eugenics Board involved removing or cutting the Fallopian tubes or ovaries in women and castration or vasectomy for men. The program lasted from 1929 until 1977. Often the sterilizations happened at a social worker's recommendation, but anyone could suggest a person be sterilized. "Feeble-minded" or "promiscuous" are frequently-cited reasons in the state's medical records. Karen Beck recounts "some of the more ridiculous things they said" about her great-aunt Dottie in her sterilization record from 1936. Dottie was 14 and living in Winston Salem. Doctors told her she was getting her appendix out. The record cites how Dottie "liked to wear coveralls," says Beck. "The case worker reported that Dottie had a hard time playing in groups and couldn't look anyone in the eye. And the caseworker also said she'd given Dottie a Bible, at her request, and had never actually seen her read it." Beck believes the real reason Dottie and her sister Flossie were sterilized as girls was because they were "poor and were runaways." When their mother died, Dottie and Flossie were taken away from their alcoholic father and put in foster care. Flossie - who was Beck's grandmother - was also sterilized without her knowledge when she was 16. Next Wednesday, Beck will share her family's story with a task force appointed by Governor Bev Perdue. The task force is supposed to come up with a recommendation for how to compensate for victims of the state sterilization program. To this day, victims have never received a penny, though Governor Mike Easley did issue an official apology in 2002. In 2008, a legislative committee recommended victims receive $20,000 each. "That's an insult on top of an insult," says Elaine Riddick, who now lives near Atlanta. "What you're saying is 'We're gonna give you $20,000 to shut up." "I would hate myself if I accepted $20,000 for the degradation and the humiliation that they put me through, for the pain and the suffering," says Riddick. The governor's Eugenics Task Force will make a recommendation on compensation for victims in August. A sterilization victims hotline has been established at 1-877-550-6013. And estimated 3,000 victims are still living and may qualify for compensation.