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N.C. Becomes First State To Compensate Eugenics Victims

More than 30 states once had eugenics laws, but North Carolina's were particularly aggressive. Some 7,600 men, women and children were sterilized by the state's eugenics board. After the 1960s, the victims were mostly black. Often they were mentally ill or disabled. In many cases they were ordered sterilized simply because they were poor and on welfare.

Now North Carolina has gone further than any other state in attempting to make amends.

At the same moment North Carolina lawmakers were voting to compensate the state's eugenics victims, Janice Black was coming home from her job cleaning medical equipment at the very hospital where she was sterilized nearly forty years ago.

Black was one of the last victims of the North Carolina Eugenics Board which disbanded in 1974.  Black was 18 that year and living with her stepmother. She has a big smile and a contagious chuckle, but her developmental disabilities led the Eugenics Board to conclude that  she wouldn't be a fit parent and ordered her sterilized.

She kept it a secret until last year, when North Carolina state leaders began talking seriously about compensating eugenics victims. Speaking out was cathartic for Black.

"It kind of gave me some relief - like getting a monkey off your back," she says, chuckling. No amount of money can make it right, but she says what the state has done now - "it helps some."

Tuesday afternoon, North Carolina lawmakers allocated $10 million to be split among the living eugenics victims who agree to come forward and have their claims verified in the eugenics board records. Of 7,600 in all, some 1,500 victims are estimated to still be alive. Only 177 have come forward so far, which means Black could get as much as $50,000, but possibly far less. Victims have until next June to apply for compensation, but checks won't be cut until June 2015.

Republican State Representative Nelson Dollar pleaded with his legislative colleagues to "right a great moral wrong."

"Never in the last century of our state, has the power of government been so misused," said Dollar. "Citizens mutilated, maimed and scarred for life."

Rita Thompson Swords agrees. She was sterilized at 21 after giving birth to her second child as an unwed mother. She says her father was coerced into signing the form from another hospital room where he was undergoing treatment for brain cancer.

Coercion and uninformed consent are common themes in the state's eugenics records.  Victims were branded "morons."

"It took a lot of years to get over it you know," says Swords, who lives in Matthews. "I don't see how they had the right, or how they could have done anybody like that."

The legislative decision to compensate victims like Swords is the culmination of more than a decade's crusade for former North Carolina State Representative Larry Womble. He first heard about the eugenics program from a reporter in 2002:

"When he first called me, I didn't believe him," says Womble. "Because nobody else had heard anything about it. I hadn't heard anything about it. Come to find out they kept it hidden. And I said, 'Now that I know this, I have to do something'."

Every year he ran a bill to compensate eugenics victims and every year, it went nowhere. Then, in 2012, House Speaker Thom Tillis took the issue on as a personal mission.

"And as a result, North Carolina has distinguished itself - it has partially made amends," says Womble.

More than half of states had eugenics laws. Some half a dozen have formally apologized for them. But North Carolina is the only one to actually compensate its eugenics victims.