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NC Eugenics Victims, Advocates Wonder What Next?

Old newspaper clippings about NC's eugenics program. Phtoto: Julie Rose

The unsettling truth about North Carolina's eugenics past has drawn international attention. Thousands of people were sterilized against their will until the mid-70s. It was outrageous. And legislation to compensate living eugenics victims seemed poised to pass. But it didn't. Now, victims who risked their reputations to go public with their stories - and the people who championed their cause - wonder what they could have done differently and what they can do next. 

Few people have been advocating for North Carolina's eugenics victims longer than John Railey. The calling came in the summer of 2002, on the loading dock of the Winston-Salem Journal where staff went to "gossip, smoke and shoot the breeze," recalls Railey. He was an investigative reporter and his editor invited him out to the dock for a chat.

"We're standing here and he's going, 'I got a really big story,'" says Railey. "And I'm going like, 'What could you have?' And he said, 'What if I told you that our state had a forced-sterilization program and Winston Salem was right in the thick of it?'"

Railey didn't believe it, but agreed to look into it.

"Hiding in plain Site"

Upstairs in the dingy filing room where the newspaper keeps yellowed-clippings of stories dating back to the 1940s he searched under "S" for "sterilization."  In the file, he found articles referring to people as "morons" whom the North Carolina Eugenics Board had "saved from parenthood." It wasn't just articles. Railey found editorials written by his predecessors at the paper, extolling the program that sterilized 7,600 men, women and children - often merely because they were poor or mentally ill.

"How ironic," thought Railey. "This program was always hiding in plain sight, and now I'm the editorial page editor of my paper pushing for compensation for these folks that guys who sat in my chair back in the day pushed to have sterilized for all intents and purposes."

The in-depth series Railey and a team of reporters at the Winston-Salem Journal published in December 2002 prompted shock and outrage. North Carolina's governor became the first to apologize to the state's eugenics victims. Talk of compensation started.

In reporting the stories of those victims, Railey came to consider many of them friends. When he shifted to the editorial page of the Winston-Salem Journal, it felt natural to become their advocate. In January 2012, Railey resolved to write one editorial a week pushing for compensation of eugenics victims. Momentum was building. A governor's task force recommended $50,000 for living victims. House Speaker Thom Tillis got behind the effort and said he would consider it a personal failure if the bill didn't pass.

"A matter of education"

In hindsight, Tillis says he "took for granted that other (lawmakers) were equally informed on the issue." The compensation bill sailed through the House, but died in the Senate. Tillis now thinks it was simply too controversial a topic to undertake during the legislature's short-session. Next January they'll convene for a longer session. Tillis will reintroduce the bill then.

"I think it's really just a matter of education," says Tillis. "We'll come back and get it done."

John Railey is reluctant to get his hopes up again. It's an election year. There'll be new lawmakers and a new governor for the next session. Meanwhile, many surviving victims are aging and ill. At least one has died since the bill failed in June. Railey feels like he failed the victims. If only he'd been a "better writer, more persuasive, better read."

"Something, anything," says Railey. "God, they were wronged."

"Nothing for the victim"

"I feel like everyone has received something out of this process except for the victims," says Charmaine Fuller Cooper. She leads the state's foundation for eugenics victims and has been honored for her work as an advocate on the issue. Media outlets, including WFAE, have been honored for their reporting on eugenics.

The victims have gotten nothing.

Charlotte resident Janice Black has vowed not to give up: "Justice will prevail." Black was the first Mecklenburg County resident to go public with her story of sterilization at age 18. She's 60 now. Done waiting for North Carolina to make things right, Black is joining a lawsuit to force the matter.

"Please don't let this die"

Another Mecklenburg County victim - Rita Thompson Swords - isn't sure a lawsuit is the way to go. She worries about owing attorneys fees if they lose. Her sterilization happened at the hands of a doctor delivering her second child. Swords was 21 and unwed. Her father signed the paperwork, but he was in another hospital bed, suffering from a stroke and brain tumor.

Only recently did Swords, now 72 years old, gain access to the Eugenics Board file on her sterilization. It infuriates her.

"Talking about that I had a low IQ and all this and that," says Swords, shaking her head. "If I was so dumb, way they wanna put it, how'd I work so many jobs for 15 and 20 years."

She started telling her story to reporters when she thought compensation was all but a sure thing. She doesn't regret that, but she does have a request for those reporters. "Please don't let this die," says Swords. "Just keep it a-going as long as you can, and maybe they'll do something."