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State prepares reparations for eugenics victims

North Carolina has begun carrying out a program of reparations for victims of its forced sterilization program that ran through 1970s.

The North Carolina Eugenics Board approved the sterilization of approximately 7,600 people between 1929 and 1974, making it the last state to end the controversial practice. A task force on the issue appointed by Gov. Bev Perdue published a final report Jan. 27 that recommended compensation of $50,000, mental health services and other educational measures to surviving victims. The state legislature will likely consider the report’s suggestions in May.

Eugenics is the term for the pseudo-science that aims to minimize the genetic presence of certain traits while favoring others. Historically justified as a method of ridding the population of social vice, modern critics claim it was in fact a form of racial purification.

State officials noted that the main priority for the state at the moment is the search and confirmation of living victims, estimated to be almost 1,500 to 2,000 individuals. The North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, a division of the state Department of Administration, announced March 19 that it had officially confirmed 111 cases of forced sterilization in the state.

“You can’t write a check to erase this because you can’t write a check to the real victims—the never-born,” said Edwin Black, author of “War Against the Weak,” an in-depth analysis of the eugenics movement. “It is a down payment compared to what North Carolina must do—ensure this never happens again.”

Steps for the future

Many of the report’s provisions are already being addressed and carried out by the foundation, particularly as a support network for victims. Current funding for the organization, however, will be depleted June 30, and the foundation is still pushing for more funding and staffing.

The first task of the reparation process is to “identify, verify and certify victims,” according to the report.

Charmaine Cooper, executive director of the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, said in August 2011 that the process is complicated because victims sometimes hesitate to come forward because they fear their files may have information that claims they are mentally unstable or victims of rape or incest, The Chronicle previously reported.

Due to the global relevance of the issue, the confirmation process must be transparent and the identities of victims must be made public, Black said.

“By claiming to protect the identity of the victims, the perpetrators are protecting their own identities,” he said. “This was not the act of a few disgruntled racists. These were the upper echelon members of our education system, courts and governments.”

The Department of Public Instruction has added eugenics history to the syllabus of schools across the state, another step proposed by Perdue’s task force. The report also recommended funding a traveling N.C. Eugenics Exhibit that was created in 2007 but had limited travel due to lack of funding. The state is working to secure consistent funding for the future.

A blemish in state history

Following the Holocaust, the United Nations defined a form of genocide as a government “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.”

Most states disbanded their eugenics boards following this international proclamation. North Carolina, however, saw its single most active period of sterilization in history from 1950 to 1952. The last national case of sterilization was in North Carolina in 1974, and its laws were not officially repealed until 2003.

Nonwhites comprised 40 percent of sterilizations—some victims were as young as 10 years old, according to the report.

“This was a systematic genocidal attack by the North Carolina elite on the state’s weakest members,” Black said.

Race was a compounding factor in the southern eugenics movement, said Robert Korstad, Kevin D. Gorter professor of public policy and history. Blacks in the state were more likely to be found in lower socioeconomic levels or arrested for crimes over their white neighbors.

Rewriting the textbooks

Despite the significance of these numbers and the far-reaching repercussions of the state’s action, the issue is not yet being taught in schools nor openly discussed at the local level, said Robert Clark, Winston-Salem City Council member.

Winston-Salem played a role by housing the Human Betterment League, a nonprofit that rallied support for the eugenics movement before disbanding in the mid-1980s. Since then, however, the public has remained silent about the issue, Clark said.

“This is not a city issue,” he said. “Whatever needs to be done needs to be done by our representatives in Raleigh.”

Korstad said he doubts the state will take action beyond the compensation due to its history of racism and the resulting lack of public awareness of the issue.

“The legislature must mandate education on this odious matter even if districts don’t want to acknowledge their involvement in the crimes,” Black said.

Black added that Duke is considered a world-class education institution, but it does not encourage open discussion about this issue in classes.

The University contributed thousands of dollars to eugenics and were involved with Eugenics Quarterly, a journal that published academic support for forced sterilization.

Correction: A previous version of this article said that Duke founded Eugenics Quarterly, while in fact the University was only involved with the journal. This article has also been updated to reflect an accurate rendering of Charmaine Cooper's comment in August 2011. The Chronicle regrets the errors.

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