The week after she got a breast cancer diagnosis, Rita Thompson Swords of Matthews learned shed be eligible for compensation as a victim of state-ordered sterilization.
It has crossed her mind to wonder whether shell live to collect the money in two years. But Swords, a 73-year-old widow, is an upbeat person. Shes already thinking how nice it would be to spruce up her 45-year-old trailer and finish buying the land it sits on.
I said, Praise the Lord, Im going to get something done, she said. I just cant explain how tickled I am. Id probably do cartwheels if I could.
North Carolina was not the only state that ordered surgery to prevent child-bearing among women, men and children with mental retardation, mental illness and epilepsy as well as others labeled promiscuous, unruly and otherwise unfit to raise a family. The eugenics movement swept the country in the early part of the 20th century, convincing many medical and political leaders that sterilization gave protection to the disabled and improved the nations gene pool.
But while many states backed off when Hitlers extermination program gave eugenics a bad name, North Carolinas program flourished in the postwar years. Between 1929 and 1974, the N.C. Eugenics Board authorized the sterilizations of about 7,600 people. Mecklenburg County accounted for 485, far more than any other county.
Last week state lawmakers made North Carolina the first state in the nation to approve compensation, setting aside $10 million to be divided among living victims in 2015. The amount they get will depend on how many qualify. For instance, $10 million divided among 200 people would be $50,000 each, the amount that was proposed in a previous bill that failed.
After decades of silence, the story of North Carolinas eugenics program emerged more than a decade ago. The decision to pay victims may write the final chapter in a long struggle to come to grips with that past.
The quest to confront the truth has unearthed family trauma and forced communities to re-examine beloved leaders and respected institutions. Stories that look hideous in hindsight young sexual abuse victims sterilized, teens forced into surgery because their guardians couldnt control them, welfare clients pressured to go under the knife were accepted as the norm, partly because the victims were those with little voice in society.
Many are dead, and others have kept silent. As director of the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, Charmaine Fuller Cooper spent hours listening to victims and family members who chose to confront long-buried personal stories.
This is something that needs to be told, Fuller Cooper said last week, and we cant tell it enough.
Poor and single
Swords, then Rita Thompson, was a 21-year-old unwed woman giving birth to her second baby when she was sterilized at the old Charlotte Memorial Hospital in 1960. She was one of 15 children. Her mother was dead, and her father was hospitalized for a stroke and a brain tumor.
Swords says she and her father both signed consent forms under duress from the Mecklenburg welfare department.
That office, led by Wallace Kuralt (father of the late newscaster Charles Kuralt), authorized more than 400 sterilizations. Kuralt, who died in 1994, was revered in Charlotte as a compassionate advocate of rights for women and the poor.
But he advocated eugenic sterilization as a way to root out poverty and control welfare costs, even after it had been discredited among most scientists. In 1964 he wrote that using sterilization helped control the thousands of physical, mental and social misfits in our midst.
Janice Black of Charlotte was one of the last people sterilized under the auspices of the Mecklenburg welfare department and the state eugenics program. In 1971, an 18-year-old who had never given birth, she was sterilized at the request of her family, who said she needed to be protected because of her mental retardation.
Black never married. She eventually moved in with her longtime friend Sadie Long, who became her legal guardian, and started working at Carolinas Medical Center the new name of the hospital where she had been sterilized decades earlier.
Stories like these might have died with the people who lived them. Many kept their secrets even from family and friends,
But Johanna Schoen, an academic researcher who specializes in reproductive issues, came across the North Carolina program. She obtained records that were later sealed by the state and shared them with reporters from the Winston-Salem Journal.
A 2002 series, Against Their Will, chronicled the way that citys business leaders and medical institutions took leading roles in promoting the eugenics movement.
In the ensuing years, victims, advocates and state leaders grappled to come to terms with that chapter of history. The move toward compensation inched along, accompanied by official apologies, emotional public hearings and political debate.
The issue created strange partnerships. The state NAACP and the conservative John Locke Foundation both endorsed compensation the former as restitution for racial and social injustice, the latter as a warning against government intrusion into personal lives.
Former state Rep. Larry Womble, a black Democrat from Forsyth County, became the leading spokesman for compensation. House Speaker Thom Tillis, a white Republican from suburban Mecklenburg, lent support that eventually pushed the groundbreaking measure to victory.
When the state created the Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation in 2010 and offered to release records to living victims or heirs of those who had died, Mecklenburg Countys role in the program came to light. In 2011, the Observer examined hundreds of records of local cases to tell the story of the people who created one of the nations most aggressive sterilization campaigns and the people whose lives were changed by that quest.
Thats when Black and Swords stepped up to tell their stories.
It would be hard to find a less likely public figure than Black, a soft-spoken, diminutive 61-year-old. Long, whos as bubbly as her friend is shy, does most of the talking for both of them.
But since they went public with Blacks story, Black has been featured in newspapers, radio and TV. Theyve been interviewed for a documentary and a book. Their photo has been in Essence magazine.
Black enjoys the attention, propping her chin on her hand for a photographer, then breaking into a mischievous grin. Journalists have been calling all week since the vote on compensation.
More of yall going to come, Black says. Its going to be headlines, sure enough.
Black smiles when she talks about using the money to visit New York City and the beach. But she sobers when a reporter looks at the file the state sent two years ago. It hurt to look at it then. It still hurts to think about strangers reading what her family and the state said about her at the time.
Fuller Cooper understands that well. She hopes state officials understand, too, when a new office is created to take applications for compensation.
This is not just another government function, she says. This is people revealing long-held secrets that can be laced with shame and anger. She sometimes spent hours listening to victims talk: A whole umbrella of emotions would collapse.
Swords understands that, too.
Years after her surgery, she married Douglas Gene Swords, who didnt mind that they couldnt have children. They were married 44 years before his death in 2010.
She has led a full life, but she still feels the sting of seeing records that remind her what it was like to be labeled feebleminded and treated like I just wasnt no count at all. She doesnt believe the reports that pegged her IQ at 58. It was her familys income, not her intelligence, that was low, she says.
More pain ahead?
The compensation vote isnt likely to end the pain, anger and controversy that have dogged the long struggle.
The budget bill specifies that people who were sterilized as competent adults with informed consent wont get any money.
Victims, advocates and members of a state panel that studied compensation argued that there should be no such limits. Declaring some people ineligible subjects them all over again to the kind of state scrutiny that declared them unfit for parenthood decades ago, they said.
Throughout the deliberations, some accused the state of waiting for victims to die and some did.
Lela Dunston, who gave emotional testimony at a 2011 public hearing about being sterilized when she was 13, died the next summer.
It will be two more years before anyone gets a check. Jordan Shaw, a spokesman for Tillis, said the state allowed plenty of time for filing and processing claims is to make sure that everyone who has a claim has time to get it in.
Compensation cant undo history, but perhaps thats the point. Long, like many victims and their advocates, says this is history that needs to be remembered.
Just like you put the Wright Brothers in the book, I think we should put these guys in the history book, too, she says of the victims who had the courage to come forward. I think we owe them that.
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter @anndosshelms
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