A Bitter Fight Over Forced Sterilization

North Carolina rejects payments to eugenics victims | “I’m so sorry it happened, but throwing money don’t change it”

Melba Newsome

Elaine Riddick


In 1973, Elaine Riddick had been married for a year when she and her husband decided to start a family. She was surprised when her Brooklyn doctor told her it wasn’t possible — and even more surprised to discover why: She’d been medically sterilized during a hospital stay in rural Edenton, N.C., where she grew up.

Five years earlier, Riddick had become pregnant at 14. While performing the Caesarean delivery, doctors made sure that her son, Tony, would be her only child. Social workers with the Eugenics Board of North Carolina labeled her feeble-minded and promiscuous. They told her illiterate grandmother that Riddick had to be sterilized. She consented by marking an X on the form.

Riddick is one of an estimated 7,600 North Carolinians sterilized under the state’s eugenics program. On the books from 1929-74, its goal was to keep those deemed to have undesirable traits from having kids. The vast majority marked for sterilization were minorities, poor, undereducated, institutionalized, sick, or disabled. Eighty-five percent were female, some as young as 10 years old. “To find out that my government has done something so hideous only brought shame upon me,” Riddick says.

Now an administrative assistant living in Atlanta, she’s spent four decades telling her story and pressing state politicians for redress. In May it looked like that would finally happen. A bipartisan bill in the North Carolina House that would pay each living victim $50,000 attracted more than 50 co-sponsors, including the Republican speaker, Thom Tillis, and easily passed. The House established an $11 million fund. North Carolina was on its way to becoming the first state in the country to compensate those harmed by eugenics programs.

That’s when things fell apart. Opponents of reparations in the state senate have blocked the bill, claiming there’s no money to spare in North Carolina’s $20.2 billion budget. “While our hearts go out to the victims, the budgetary and economic realities we inherited prevent us from pursuing a financial solution,” Republican Senator Phil Berger said in an e-mail. Others don’t couch their objections in fiscal jargon. “You just can’t rewrite history,” GOP Senator Don East told the Associated Press. “I’m so sorry it happened, but throwing money don’t change it, don’t make it go away. It still happened. If they’re sterile, they’re still sterile.”

Indiana enacted the country’s first eugenics legislation in 1907. Eventually 32 states followed, and more than 60,000 people underwent forced sterilization. The practice was largely abandoned after World War II, but North Carolina didn’t officially end its program until 1974. In 2003, a five-part series in the Winston-Salem Journal put the state’s shameful past back in the news. Then-Governor Mike Easley, a Democrat, apologized to the victims and their families, calling it “a sad and regrettable chapter in the state’s history.”

His successor, Democrat Bev Perdue, has made reparations a priority. In 2010 she established the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation to determine the number of people harmed by the program and how many are still alive. So far, 146 of the estimated 1,500 to 2,000 living victims have been identified through government records.

Following the senate’s decision to strip compensation money from the budget, Governor Perdue tried to compromise by offering to cut the fund in half. Republican lawmakers refused and, with the help of several Democrats, overrode her veto of the budget. The issue is now dead until at least next year.

Riddick is no longer counting on politicians to do the right thing. She and hundreds of others who were sterilized are now considering bringing a class action against the state. “It’s not because we’re greedy,” says Riddick, who points out that $50,000 isn’t enough to make anyone rich. “It’s the principle.”

The bottom line From 1929-74, North Carolina sterilized 7,600 people as part of a eugenics program that mostly targeted minorities and the poor.


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