CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- They were labeled unfit parents, promiscuous or simply feebleminded, then sent by the thousands to surgeons who ensured they would never have babies again -- or never at all.
The records are interred in rows of gray boxes in a cold basement of the state archives, waiting for survivors of North Carolina's eugenic sterilization program to step forward and claim them.
State officials say they believe at least 1,500 of the women, girls, boys and men sterilized under state authority from 1929 to 1974 are still alive.
But one year into a three-year quest to find them, only 34 files have been matched with living survivors or descendants of the dead. And officials' talk of paying for the victims' pain could end as a false hope.
A handful of survivors have gone public with their wrenching stories, drawing national attention. Yet those closest to North Carolina's effort to make victims whole question whether the state is acting in good faith.
"Some of (the survivors) have told me, 'Mr. Womble, they're trying to wait until we all die,' " says state Rep. Larry Womble of Winston-Salem, who's been pushing the victims' cause for a decade.
Gov. Bev Perdue created the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation last year to shine some light on a dark time in North Carolina history. In the early part of the 20th century, authorities in this and other states embraced the idea of eugenics -- the science of improving the human race by reducing the number of children born to parents with undesirable traits.
In practice, "undesirable" parents included ones with epilepsy and mental illness; it also included ones who were uneducated, abused or simply poor.
The Eugenics Board of North Carolina -- one of many similar boards across the country -- authorized sterilization of roughly 7,600 North Carolinians. Mecklenburg County did the most in the state, by far. From 1946 to 1968, when the state kept its most detailed records, 485 people in Mecklenburg were sterilized through the eugenics board. Gaston County was third, with 161.
The board sterilized people who fell into three categories: mental illness, such as schizophrenia; epilepsy; and people classified as "feebleminded," which usually meant a low score on an IQ test.
The board looked at other factors. Some people were pegged as too sexually active, or hard to control, or stuck in poverty. Most were women or girls. Some were as young as 10.
The Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation is supposed to find the survivors.
The state gave the foundation a $250,000 budget, spread over three years. That money pays for the staff -- a full-time director, plus two part-timers -- and an office in the state education building.
The foundation built a website and sent posters to social services offices throughout the state. But there's no money to advertise or send people into the field.
Charmaine Fuller Cooper, executive director of the foundation, says she's depending on news reports to get the message out. She suspects some survivors don't want to be found; they might want to forget what happened, or might never have told their families.
"This is a closet that we're opening," she says. "You never know what you can find."
Cooper and her assistants are taking about 200 calls a month now. They talk each caller through the process of seeing whether they or their loved ones are in the files. When she gets a batch of applications -- the last was about 50 -- she walks them a block over to the archives.
In an age where most everything is accessible with a click, the eugenics records show the methods of a different era.
Each patient was logged onto a piece of cardboard, like the old library card catalogs. Social Security numbers weren't used. Addresses were often route and box numbers. Eight trays are jammed full of the cards. They're kept in an underground storage space kept below 65 degrees.
State officials are emphatic about guarding the privacy of those who may have lived with decades of shame. Staffers sworn to protect the confidentiality of the records check the card catalog. If they find a match, they copy a 10- to 20-page file from the long lines of gray storage boxes, which resemble a columbarium used to store ashes of the dead.
It may be the saddest matchmaking operation in the country. Heirs are already arguing over whether to unearth files that tell of incest, sexual abuse, domestic violence, grinding poverty and degradingly obsolete attitudes toward people with mental illness or retardation.
Even when the foundation does find survivors, it's not clear what -- if anything -- the state will do for them.
North Carolina is the first state to seriously consider compensating survivors. In March, Perdue created a five-person task force to figure out possible cash payments for people sterilized under the eugenics board. The task force has met four times but hasn't settled on an amount; the number it has talked about most is $20,000 per victim. But nothing's final, and the task force won't make an official recommendation until February.
The idea of compensating survivors has support across the political spectrum; both the liberal NAACP and the conservative/libertarian John Locke Foundation have come out in favor. The problem is money.
In Canada, the Locke Foundation notes, court judgments have forced large payouts: $740,000 to one eugenics victim who sued, $142 million to about 1,000 victims in another suit.
Even the $20,000 payment being discussed in North Carolina would add up to $30 million if 1,500 survivors were compensated. And North Carolina, like most states, is trying to cut from its budget rather than add to it.
The reluctance to pay angers Womble. He learned of the state-sponsored sterilizations when an academic researcher unearthed the records in the 1990s and shared them with a reporter from the Winston-Salem Journal, who called Womble.
"I really cried when I heard about it. I said, 'What? Not in America,' " he said.
"The question now is, what do the legislators perceive as justice?" Cooper says. "If we're still casting judgment on victims from 40 or 50 years ago, are we any better? Is no decision actually a judgment?"
(c) 2011, The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.).
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