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Posted: Friday, Jul. 26, 2013

N.C. eugenics program survivor: 'I can't help but think about it'

By Tommy Tomlinson
Published in: News

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On an October day in 1960, Rita Thompson went under sedation expecting to wake up with an incision. Instead she woke up with two.

One was from the C-section the doctor performed to deliver her baby. The other was from where the doctor sterilized her so she could not have another.

She and her father, Ed Thompson, had signed the consent papers. But Rita, who was 21 at the time, says she signed under a fog of medication while she was waiting to give birth at Charlotte Memorial Hospital. And she says her father signed the forms from his bed at the same hospital, where he was recovering from a stroke.

A few close family members knew the story. But for 51 years, Rita never spoke out.

Until now.

North Carolina's Eugenics Board authorized the sterilization of some 7,600 N.C. residents between 1929 and 1974. Mecklenburg County, under the direction of welfare director Wallace Kuralt, sterilized 485 people between 1946 and 1968 - far more than any other county in the state. Now, as the state tries to track down survivors - and, maybe, compensate them - people are slowly stepping forward.

The Observer recently wrote about Janice Black, the first person from Mecklenburg County to go public after her name matched state records.

Rita Thompson - now Rita Thompson Swords - is the second.

She's 71 now, living in Matthews, walking around on an artificial knee. She sits down to talk at the Chick-fil-A at the Arboretum and tells her story in detail.

It's hard to reconcile the woman across the table with the woman in Wallace Kuralt's report. According to an IQ test from 1960, Rita had an IQ of 58. The state labeled her as "feebleminded." But she doesn't get confused answering questions. She doesn't struggle to find the right words. She doesn't seem feebleminded.

Researchers looking back at those times have a lot of questions about those IQ tests. Rita doesn't think about that much. But she still thinks about the fall of 1960.

"Especially when I'm by myself," she says. "That old wheel gets to turning. I can't help but think about it."

Rita's case file

She grew up at 800 E. 16th St., between North Davidson Street and Seigle Avenue. A creek ran behind the Thompson house, and they had a big backyard. They needed it. Rita was one of 15 kids.

Her father ran a print shop, and was the projectionist at a movie theater, and worked odd jobs on the side. Her mom took care of the children. All the kids worked in the garden. They were poor, says Rita's sister Margie Owens, but they always had something to eat.

Rita had a daughter at 18. She says the baby's father offered to pay child support, but Ed Thompson ran him off. He said the family would take care of its own.

Rita's mother died in 1959. Some of the children had grown up and moved away by then, but there were still eight kids, plus Rita's daughter. In 1960 Rita got pregnant again by a different man.

Under the N.C. Eugenics Board's guidelines, only three categories of people could be sterilized: people with mental illness, such as schizophrenia; people with epilepsy; and the "feebleminded" - generally, people with IQ scores of 70 or less.

Everybody sterilized through the Eugenics Board fell into one of those categories. But counties often used other details - poverty, sexual activity, a history of large families - to bolster their case to the state.

In Mecklenburg, Wallace Kuralt (father of the late newsman Charles Kuralt) was in the midst of a 27-year run as county welfare director. His strategy for family planning included reducing the number of children born to families in poverty. Eugenics theory said that the poor, disabled and mentally challenged were that way because of defective genes that would be passed down through generations. By 1960, when Rita was sterilized, most scientists and social workers had rejected that theory. But Kuralt still believed; in 1964 he wrote using sterilization helped control "the thousands of physical, mental and social misfits in our midst."

At some point, the county started a case file to evaluate Rita for sterilization. The report paints a picture of her life back then. Rita says that picture isn't accurate.

Patient is neither physically or mentally able to give her children proper care... She is very unstable, often disappearing for months at a time with no one knowing where she is.

"No, no, no, no," Rita says. "I was never gone. I have no idea where that came from."

Patient is very irresponsible and it is doubtful if she could hold a job even if it could be secured.

"I worked at a curtain factory for years, sewing pleats," she says. "Then I worked in the warehouse at Spencer Gifts for 20 years after that. I always worked."

Both patient and her father are very eager that she have the sterilization operation.

"Neither one of us wanted it," she says.

According to Rita's case file, Dr. Elizabeth Corkey - an obstetrician with the county health department who handled many sterilization cases - recommended that Rita be sterilized. Wallace Kuralt agreed. A handwritten line on the typed report noted that she was pregnant and due to deliver soon.

That's when, Rita says, she and her father gave their consent without knowing what they were consenting to. She has a document he signed years before, when he was buying a car. The signature is tall and solid. The signature on the consent form is wobbly and small.

On Oct. 24, she went into labor. She woke up with two scars. She gave up the baby for adoption.

"After everything happened, I do remember my daddy talking to me about it," Rita says. "He kept hugging me and telling me he was sorry."

When doctors were treating her father's stroke, they found a brain tumor. He would be dead a year later.

Controversial IQ testing

Rita says she doesn't remember taking a psychological test. But her case files shows she was given the Stanford-Binet psychological test on Oct. 2, three weeks before she gave birth. The Stanford-Binet test has been around more than 100 years and has changed several times. The version used in the late '50s and early '60s measured vocabulary, definitions, math concepts and short-term memory, among other things.

That test pegged Rita's IQ at 58.

But Johanna Schoen, a researcher who wrote the book "Choice and Coercion" on the N.C. eugenics program, says the IQ tests of the time were flawed - especially when testing poor people. She says the test questions often involved objects or concepts that poor people might not be familiar with.

"If you then listen to the stories of deprivation sterilization subjects frequently suffered as children - I am reminded of one of the victims' stories about having no forks and spoons in the house - it becomes clear that the tests were unreliable," Schoen wrote in an email. "They certainly did not measure any kind of 'innate' intelligence as eugenic board members claimed."

In 1972, the Eugenics Board created new guidelines that acknowledged IQ tests weren't a good measure of intelligence for people who scored 55 or more. Other research said the tests aren't as reliable for adults.

Rita, whose IQ was measured at 58 when she was 21, fell into both those categories.

Anger and sadness

So much from the fall of 1960 is gone. The stretch of East 16th Street where the Thompsons lived doesn't exist anymore. It's woods, an eventual part of the Little Sugar Creek Greenway.

A lot of the people are gone, too. Wallace Kuralt and Elizabeth Corkey are dead. One of the caseworkers named in the paperwork is still alive. Contacted at home, she didn't remember Rita's case. It was 51 years ago.

Rita and her family remember hearing about the Eugenics Board when it was in the news in the early 2000s, after the Winston-Salem Journal published a series about it. When the state started looking for survivors again this year, Rita filed the paperwork, and got official word that her case matched state records.

Rita was angry about being sterilized, then sad. After that, well, she had to keep living. She married a man named Gene Swords, and they were together 45 years before he died a year ago.

Rita lives with her oldest daughter, Patricia, in Matthews. Twenty years ago, the daughter Rita gave up for adoption found her. They had a rough time of it at first, but now they talk on the phone, and Rita spent part of her Thanksgiving at Bridget's house up in the mountains.

Those two daughters produced eight grandkids and 16 great-grands, and Rita loves being around the children.

When the state matched Rita to the Eugenics Board's records, and sent her the case file, Rita's sister got angry. In those days, "moron," "imbecile" and "idiot" were technical terms referring to levels of mental impairment. The IQ test labeled Rita a borderline moron. Margie Owens did not like that at all. She wrote a letter to whom it may concern.

"So guess what my sister had no one in her corner," the letter says. "Her mother was dead and her father was sick... We don't like her being degraded like this. My heart goes out for all those people that was treated the same way."

Rita hesitated to make her story public. But when she read about Janice Black, she realized that there were others. She hopes other survivors will see her story and step forward, too.

She just wishes all this had happened a little earlier. Her husband died a year ago. She knows it left a little hole in him, that he and Rita couldn't have children of their own.

She wishes he was here to see this, she says. To see something finally being done.


If you think you were sterilized under the N.C. Eugenics Board's program, or if you think a family member was, call the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation toll-free at 877-550-6013, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays.

The Observer also is looking for other victims and family members. Contact Tommy Tomlinson at 704-358-5227 or

Tommy: 704-358-5227;; Twitter @tommytomlinson

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