Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in The Charlotte Observer and is made available here through a content-sharing agreement.
By Ann Doss Helms, The Charlotte Observer
RALEIGH – As North Carolina inches toward compensating victims of its eugenic sterilization program, about three dozen living victims have been verified, including some from the Charlotte area, a state official said Wednesday.
Another 50 to 60 people have applied for compensation but the state hasn’t finished checking old files to see whether their sterilizations were authorized by the state Eugenics Commission, which was active from the 1940s to the 1960s, said Charmaine Fuller Cooper, director of the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation.
Victims, families and a state legislator showed up at a meeting of the Governor’s Eugenics Compensation Task Force Wednesday to urge the five panelists to aggressively push the state to make up for the decades-old wrongs.
“Twenty thousand dollars is not enough for my body, for them to take and humiliate and cut me up,” said Lela Dunston, 63, who said she was sterilized after giving birth as a 13-year-old in Wilmington. She said she did not consent, but her mother apparently signed papers declaring her mentally disturbed.
Almost 5,400 people, mostly women, were sterilized under the authority of the eugenics board between 1946 and 1968, the most active years (the program was formally abolished in 1974). Mecklenburg accounted for 485 of those, topping any other county, with hundreds more from surrounding counties.
The commission had the power to order sterilization of people deemed mentally defective, epileptic or “feeble-minded,” with petitions coming from mental institutions, jails and local welfare boards. Some children as young as 10 were sterilized.
Then-Gov. Mike Easley apologized for the program and created a Eugenics Study Committee in 2003. Gov. Bev Perdue created the current task force this year to advise her and state legislators on compensation.
The task force is scheduled to give Perdue a preliminary report by Aug. 1 and a final report in January. Members expected to discuss the victims’ statements they heard last month and start planning for their interim report.
All agreed they support monetary compensation, though they didn’t settle on a figure. The state estimates that 1,500 to almost 3,000 victims could still be alive. At $20,000 each, the figure that has been suggested, that would come to $30 million to $60 million if all of them come forward.
“Some of the victims said they don’t think that was enough, but there’s nothing we can do about that,” said task force member Lenwood Davis, a historian.
“We’re not trying to say ‘This is what your life is worth,’ ” agreed Dr. Laura Gerald, a physician who chairs the group.
A majority of members said today they think payments should be limited to living victims, rather than including family members of those who have died. They cited the complexity and expense of broadening the pool.
That drew objections from the small group attending. Gerald agreed to let people in the audience speak.
“We were victims too, and we don’t want you to forget that,” said Australia Clay, whose mother, Margaret Cheek, was sterilized after having a “nervous breakdown.”
N.C. Rep. Larry Womble, D-Forsyth, urged the panel to recommend quick action and generous compensation that could go to the estates of deceased victims.
“They’ve been going on with this for 40 and 50 and 60 years. It’s a shame and a disgrace what’s happened to them,” he said. “We essentially spayed and neutered human beings, and to add insult to injury, we did it when they were children.”
“We’ve made some baby steps,” he added, “but the baby steps don’t get it.”