Thousands Sterilized, a State Weighs Restitution
by: kim severson
LINWOOD, N.C. — Charles Holt, 62, spreads a cache of vintage government records across his trailer floor. They are the stark facts of his state-ordered sterilization.
The reports begin when he was barely a teenager, fighting at school and masturbating openly. A social worker wrote that he and his parents were of “rather low mentality.” Mr. Holt was sent to a state home for people with mental and emotional problems. In 1968, when he was ready to get out and start life as an adult, the Eugenics Board of North Carolina ruled that he should first have a vasectomy.
A social worker convinced his mother it was for the best.
“We especially emphasized that it was a way of protecting Charles in case he were falsely accused of having fathered a child,” the social worker wrote to the board.
Now, along with scores of others selected for state sterilization — among them uneducated young girls who had been raped by older men, poor teenagers from large families, people with epilepsy and those deemed to be too “feeble-minded” to raise children — Mr. Holt is waiting to see what a state that had one of the country’s most aggressive eugenics programs will decide his fertility was worth.
Although North Carolina officially apologized in 2002 and legislators have pressed to compensate victims before, a task force appointed by Gov. Bev Perdue is again wrestling with the state’s obligation to the estimated 7,600 victims of its eugenics program.
The board operated from 1933 to 1977 as an experiment in genetic engineering once considered a legitimate way to keep welfare rolls small, stop poverty and improve the gene pool.
Thirty-one other states had eugenics programs. Virginia and California each sterilized more people than North Carolina. But no program was more aggressive.
Only North Carolina gave social workers the power to designate people for sterilization. They often relied on I.Q. tests like those done on Mr. Holt, whose scores reached 73. But for some victims who often spent more time picking cotton than in school, the I.Q. tests at the time were not necessarily accurate predictors of capability. For example, as an adult Mr. Holt held down three jobs at once, delivering newspapers, working at a grocery store and doing maintenance for a small city.
Wealthy businessmen, among them James Hanes, the hosiery magnate, and Dr. Clarence Gamble, heir to the Procter & Gamble fortune, drove the eugenics movement. They helped form the Human Betterment League of North Carolina in 1947, and found a sympathetic bureaucrat in Wallace Kuralt, the father of the television journalist Charles Kuralt.
A proponent of birth control in all forms, Mr. Kuralt used the program extensively when he was director of the Mecklenburg County welfare department from 1945 to 1972. That county had more sterilizations than any other in the state.
Over all, about 70 percent of the North Carolina operations took place after 1945, and many of them were on poor young women and racial minorities. Nonwhite minorities made up about 40 percent of those sterilized, and girls and women about 85 percent.
The program, while not specifically devised to target racial minorities, affected black Americans disproportionately because they were more often poor and uneducated and from large rural families.
“The state owes something to the victims,” said Governor Perdue, who campaigned on the issue.
But what? Her five-member task force has been meeting since May to try to determine what that might be. A final report is due in February.
This week, the task force set some priorities. Money was the most important thing to offer victims, followed by mental health services.
How much to pay is a vexing question, and what North Carolina does will be closely watched by officials in other states. In a period of severe budget cuts and layoffs, money for eugenics victims can be a hard sell to legislators.
States began practicing eugenics in earnest in the United States in the 1920s and ’30s, driven by a philosophy of social engineering once so popular that President Woodrow Wilson, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. of the Supreme Court and Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, were ardent supporters.
Before most of the programs were closed down, more than 60,000 people nationwide had been sterilized by state order.
The reasons were chilling, reports from state records and interviews with survivors and researchers show.