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Alice Mae Jackson and eugenics in N.C.

By Fannie Flono
Associate Editor
Jack Betts
Fannie Flono writes on news, politics and life in The Carolinas. Her column appears on the Editorial pages of The Charlotte Observer.

For the N.C. lawmakers and others who fought mightily against compensating the victims of the state’s long-running eugenics program, Alice Mae Jackson offers another poignant story for consideration.

Jackson isn’t alive to tell the story, having died in 1969 of breast cancer at age 42. So it’s left to daughter Henrietta to tell the tale. That’s probably as it should be because Henrietta plays a starring role.

Alice Mae Jackson’s is the eugenics story that hasn’t been told much. Yes, like so many others – 7,600 is the official count – the state sterilized Jackson so she couldn’t have any more children. “Butchered” is how Henrietta’s aunts characterized it, she says.

But that “butchering” didn’t happen until after welfare officials carried out the threat they so often made to reluctant participants – to take away their children.

In Alice Mae Jackson’s case, it was one child, the middle one, daughter Henrietta.

Henrietta, 61, doesn’t remember a lot about those days. “I was four, maybe. I know it was before I started school.”

But she does remember the pain and heartache of the parting – and the “crying, crying, crying.”

The day started out like many others when Alice Mae took her three children – two girls and the youngest, a boy – to the Mecklenburg County “welfare department” in Charlotte for her regular review to get state aid. (Alice Mae, a laundry woman, actually had given birth to four children at the time but Henrietta wouldn’t discover that until years later.)

“She would bring us to the reviews,” Henrietta recalled. “And we were always afraid.”

That fear was spawned by incessant warnings from welfare officials. If you don’t get sterilized, we’ll take your children away, officials would say at each visit.

Alice Mae’s experience has been corroborated by secret files made available to a researcher in the 1990s. That research revealed the existence of the N.C. eugenics program, the most aggressive state-sponsored program in the nation, lasting from 1929 to 1974.

The files told of county social workers and public health nurses often threatening women and young girls and their parents if they didn’t “agree” to be sterilized. Threats included placing children in orphanages or foster care.

Henrietta remembers the day the threat was realized for her family. “That day, we stayed at the welfare office all day long. People kept coming in and out of the room. They must have been making a decision about what to do with us children. Finally, for some reason, I don’t know why, they decided to take me. Looking back, I think it was just to punish her because she wouldn’t comply with sterilization.

“Me and my sister (who was older) were just crying, crying, crying. I remember being in a play pen and then being taken away. I was put in an orphanage. I don’t know how long I stayed. But eventually, my mother came for me. My aunts said it was after it was done. The state butchered her, they said.”

Alice Mae never talked to Henrietta about what happened but years later memories of that scary time would flood back to the daughter when she met a woman who resembled her mother.

They were both working in a nursing home, she said. The resemblance so startled Henrietta that she struck up a conversation with the woman named Sheila and discovered they had several family members in common. After more investigation, Henrietta found that Sheila was her sister. Her mother, so fearful of the state’s warnings against having more children, had given her to a family member to raise, she said. Sheila was born just a year after Henrietta – and a year before Alice Mae’s son Henry. Fearing the state would take her baby, Henrietta said, Alice Mae hid the birth and placed her baby where she’d know where she was - with family.

Alice Mae Jackson’s story adds even more to the heart-wrenching stories that living victims of the eugenics program told a state compensation task force that more than a year ago recommended that N.C. lawmakers provide $50,000 to each living victim. Tearful victims included women who were as young as 13 when the procedure was done. Some victims were described as being mentally deficient but others were just said to be of bad moral character or exhibiting “provocative behavior.” State officials would carry out the procedure sometimes on the basis of a single comment or complaint about the victim.

Mecklenburg County recorded more sterilizations – more than 400 – than any other county in North Carolina by a large margin. Wallace Kuralt, the county’s welfare director from 1945 to 1972, was proud of that record. He said in a 1970 interview that “we’ve pursued sterilization of the inadequate parents more actively than any place in the world... Our activities (in birth control and sterilization) have caused us to give aid to less than 50 percent of the families we would have had to give aid to if it were not for these activities.”

Kuralt is still lionized by some for his efforts to provide birth control options for other women. But his role in the state’s eugenics program deserves no praise.

The bipartisan effort among state lawmakers and two governors to get the state to finally make amends – though still inadequate – through legislation does deserve recognition.

Former Democratic Rep. Larry Womble of Winston-Salem got the legislative ball rolling some years ago and fought tirelessly for compensation. Former Gov. Bev Perdue, also a Democrat, established the task force that brought recommendations about how to proceed. Before she left office last year Perdue put in her budget $10 million in compensation.

At the same time, Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis of Mecklenburg courageously got the House to also approve $10 million in compensation. But that legislative effort failed when Senate leaders balked.

Yet Tillis continued to press for compensation this year, and with Republican Gov. Pat McCrory on board – he included the $10 million in his budget – resistance finally fell at the end of the 2013 session.

As the number of living victims continues to dwindle – maybe about 150 are still around according to some counts – this compensation is long past due. Alice Mae Jackson’s story shows the far-reaching pain it caused. The disgraceful eugenics program will always remain a sad chapter in N.C. history. But state leaders finally wrote it a worthy postscript.

Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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