Lela Mae Moore Dunston of Raleigh was a courageous advocate, passionately arguing that she and the other victims of the state’s forced sterilization program should be compensated. She died July 9, shortly after hearing that the state Senate had let the strong push to compensate fizzle.
Dunston was just 63 when she died from longstanding health problems. Other victims have repeatedly told me that the state is waiting for them to die so it won’t have to compensate them.
Dunston’s death should stand for something. It should be a clarion call for Gov. Bev Perdue to spend her last weeks in office pushing the state legislature to finally help these hurting and dying victims.
I feel fortunate that I met Dunston, a nurse’s aide disabled by a back injury, at some of the meetings of Perdue’s task force on compensation. She eloquently spoke out at those meetings. She was friendly and tough.
The story of Dunston’s sterilization is tragic. But it is not that different from many other victims of the state’s program.
She was 13. She lived with her mother in Wilmington. She was pregnant with her first child. It would be the only baby the state would let her have.
Like most victims, Dunston had no idea that what happened to her was part of a nationwide movement. Finally, a few years ago, she read about the state sterilization program in a newspaper. She tracked down state records that confirmed she was one of the more than 7,600 victims of the program that, by zeroing in on black women and girls like her in its last years, was genocide.
“I didn’t understand it,” Dunston told me. “They just went on and did what they wanted to do. Chopped on us like we were animals.”
For 10 years, ever since the Journal exposed the brutal inner workings of the program, one of the hardest-driving in America, politicians have made lame promises of help.
The program, supported by prominent families and doctors across the state, was as much about thinning the welfare rolls as it was about “bettering society.” Dunston was termed “mildly retarded” as the justification for sterilization. She emphasized to me that she wasn’t mentally handicapped.
The mental evaluations were often based on flawed testing. Other victims were sterilized for reasons including epilepsy, blindness or rumors of promiscuity.
Petitions to sterilize often contained racism and class prejudice. The petition to sterilize Dunston said she and her mother “live in an area that has a low socio-economic level.” Dunston was described as “a rather alert little Negro girl” who “wore a very ragged sweater and her hair literally stood on end all over her head.”
That was “a bunch of baloney,” Dunston told me.
In the early 1960s, the program began targeting black women and girls of modest means. The petitions occasionally contained outright lies, as in this line from Dunston’s: “Both the mother and Lela Mae understand that sterilization will result in Lela Mae not being able to reproduce and both seem happy with this.”
Dunston said she didn’t know what the operation was about. “I was only 13. Thirteen years old, you don’t know nothing about this kind of mess. You’re a child yourself.”
Dunston never consented to her operation. When she got the paperwork, Dunston realized that her mother gave the consent. The petition notes that the family was on welfare. Social workers pushing sterilization would often tell families that their payments would end if they didn’t consent.
Dunston once told me this: “I just want them to compensate me, that’s all. They did this to us.”
How many more victims have to die waiting for the state to do the right thing?
Railey is the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal.
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