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NC Eugenics: A Victim's Story

Julie Rose
Janice Black (victim on right) and her caretaker Sadie Long.

Janice Black (right) with her care-taker Sadie Long Janice Black doesn't say much, but she has a sly grin that gives way to an infectious chuckle when something strikes her right. She smiles and laughs a lot - which is a tribute to her resilience. Janice has developmental disabilities and disfigured hands that make it impossible to live on her own, but not to make a difference. "She's a very productive part of this society," says Sadie Long, Janice's life-long friend and legal guardian. "Janice has been able to hold down a job three days a week and commute between two buses and go to work," says Sadie. "She can maintain her personal needs. She can iron her own clothes. She doesn't cook for herself, but sometimes we are labeled wrong when people say 'Oh you're this or you're that.' I think that was very wrong in Janice's case." Sadie and Janice grew up in the same neighborhood on the eastern edge of Charlotte and Janice came to live with Sadie in the mid-90s. They consider themselves sisters and talk at length about everything. But there was a secret in Janice's past that neither woman fully understood until recently. Janice occasionally mentioned the surgery she'd had as a teenager and Sadie had accidentally walked in on Janice changing clothes once and noticed a scar on Janice's stomach. "I said what happened to you?" recalls Sadie. "Janice said, 'Remember I told you they had me fixed.'" Sadie left it alone until she saw a report last fall about the North Carolina Eugenics Board. She thought of that scar and asked Janice for permission to send away for more information. A month and a half later, a manila envelope came in the mail. Janice doesn't read well enough to decipher the stack of type-written notes from social workers, doctors and state bureaucrats on the Eugenics Board. They said Janice - who was 18 at the time - had the mental capacity of a 7 year-old and was at risk of ending up pregnant. Sadie read the words to Janice out loud "and it really kind of tee'd both of us off, didn't it Janice?" "Yes it did," nods Janice. "Because really and truly some of it was actually lies, saying that she would walk off - she wasn't allowed to walk off," says Sadie. "Janice never had a boyfriend, she's never been out on a date, she's never been sexually involved." Janice was living with her stepmother at the time. Her parents were dead and her older brothers had left home. Nowadays, parents can petition a judge to have a child sterilized as a last resort. The North Carolina Eugenics Board made it much easier in Janice's time. She doesn't remember if it was her stepmother or a social worker who told her to sign the sterilization form. The 11 letters in her name were the only ones she knew how to write. She didn't know what the papers said. The Eugenics Board decided Janice wouldn't make a fit parent, but Sadie says Janice shouldered most of the house-keeping duties in her stepmother's home and practically raised her stepsister's five children: "She dressed these babies, she made bottles for these babies," says Sadie. "She kept these five babies cleaned. She didn't nurse these babies, but she rocked these babies to sleep." "I took care of them," says Janice. "I made sure that nothing happened to them." Sadie didn't like how Janice was made to work "like Cinderella." Eventually, Sadie brought Janice to live with her family. Janice has her own room with a TV that she likes to watch sports on. She cleans hospital equipment at Carolinas Medical Center three times a week as part of a work program for people with disabilities. "I'm happier now, than I ever been," says Janice. She's happy, even knowing the truth about the scar on her stomach. In a way, she says, it's a relief to know that she wasn't alone. The North Carolina Eugenics Board ordered sterilizations for more than 7,600 people. Some 2,000 may still be alive and state officials are considering paying each of them $50,000. That's a start, says Janice, "but there's no amount of money, it's not gonna bring back what was taken away. You're not gonna ever get that back." She spent so much time helping raise other people's kids that she's not sure she would have chosen to have her own. But at least, says Janice, it would have been her choice to make.