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Next step: Locating additional living victims
RALEIGH — On Tuesday afternoon, the House Judiciary Committee pushed forward a bill introduced last week that would give each living, confirmed victim of North Carolina’s eugenics and forced-sterilization campaign $50,000 in compensation.
The committee voted to move the bill to the finance committee.
“I think today went well,” said Rep. Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth, a co-sponsor of the bill. “It took a lot of people to get the majority to move.”
The proposal offers money to victims of the N.C. Eugenics Board, which forcibly sterilized approximately 7,600 mentally retarded, feeble-minded and otherwise “undesirable” citizens between 1929 and 1974.
Though originally intended for use in state institutions, sterilization by the 1950s had increasingly became a weapon used to control reproduction among the poor.
The N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, which was created by Gov. Bev Perdue in 2010 to provide justice to victims, estimates that there are currently 1,500 to 2,000 victims still alive.
However, only 132 victims have been identified. Of those, only 118 are living. In Western North Carolina, living victims have been identified in Swain and Transylvania counties, according to information from the foundation. Another has been identified in McDowell County, according to The McDowell News.
Buncombe and Transylvania counties had the most sterilized residents, with 139 and 46 respectively. Clay had the least, with only 13 procedures performed. Every county in the state participated in the program.
“Part of this bill will be a significant amount of money that goes towards outreach to find victims,” said Charmaine Fuller Cooper, the foundation’s executive director. “We’ll be conducting field, media and community outreach to find the victims.”
North Carolina was one of 33 states to have eugenics boards in the 20th century. If approved, the state’s compensation program would be the first of its kind in the United States.
Though the majority voted to pass the bill, there were a few vocal detractors who noted that such compensation programs couldn’t erase the state’s history.
“I have a problem with compensation,” said Rep. George Cleveland, R-Onslow. “People today paying for the past is not right for the future of the state and for the future of the General Assembly.”
Rep. Larry Womble, D-Forsyth, said it’s the opportunity to be “on the right side of history” that’s led him to fight for a compensation bill for the last 11 years. He is a primary sponsor of the measure.
This was Womble’s first appearance at the General Assembly since getting into a car crash in December. He was crying and visibly moved as he delivered a speech during the comments portion of the meeting.
“This is not a perfect bill, but it is a bill that separates North Carolina from the rest of the world,” Womble said. “This is a proud day, this is an auspicious time in the history of North Carolina. I congratulate you and support this history-making event that no one else in this nation has ever done.”
If the bill is passed in the General Assembly’s short session, victims will have to prove their identity to the foundation. Family members of deceased victims will be able to collect the money if the victim was still alive on March 10, 2010. The victims and victims’ families would have until December 31, 2015, to collect the money.
“We cannot fix all the problems of the past,” said Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, who supported the bipartisan bill. “We can’t go back and change history. But living among us are one- to two-thousand people. We can pay compensation … so they can enjoy it before they die.”
The meeting was open to the public, and some citizens spoke out against putting time limits or restrictions on the ability of deceased victims’ estates to receive compensation, too.
“We don’t need the deceased victims to be victimized all over again,” said Australia Clay, who said that her mother was a victim of the Eugenics Board, but died before 2010.
Elaine Riddick was sterilized at the age of 15 after she was raped and became pregnant.
“I’m here on the behalf of myself, the deceased and children,” Riddick said. “I’m so glad you are standing up for us.”
Read ongoing special report coverage on the legacy of the state’s eugenics program on Western North Carolina and its residents.