Debra Blackmon was 13 years old when two social workers visited her home in North Carolina, assessed her to be “severely retarded,” and put in motion the process for her sterilization. The year was 1972. Though the state passed a law in 2013 to compensate victims of involuntary sterilization under the North Carolina Eugenics Board, Blackmon was denied because her paperwork stated that she was sterilized under county authority – not state authority, a technicality written into the law.
In March, a bill was introduced to broaden the qualifications of the eugenics compensation program and close the loophole that excluded Blackmon from receiving a portion of the $10 million set aside for victims. The number of people the extension might affect is difficult to estimate; however, by the June 2014 deadline to apply for compensation, there were 786 applications and only 220 were approved.
Senate Bill 532 is sponsored by Senator Jeff Jackson (D-37) from Mecklenburg County, the county that carried out at least 485 eugenic sterilizations – by far, the county with the most eugenic sterilizations in the state. Sen. Jackson said of the county-ordered sterilization victims, “A lot of these people have already applied and were rejected….We’re trying to close a loophole that was allowed to exist in the original bill.”
In October of last year, the state mailed its first payments of $20,000 to the verified eugenics victims. The remaining money of the $10 million eugenics compensation fund will be apportioned equally depending on the appeals process currently underway. Sen. Jackson’s bill does not create a new fund or call for more money to be added to the fund; it simply amends existing language to include sterilizations carried out under county authority.
Bob Bollinger, a lawyer who represents Blackmon and others claiming to be in her situation, said he is doubtful legislators foresaw the implications of the narrow wording. “I don’t think the individual legislator understood there were a whole bunch of sterilization cases, of involuntary sterilizations, for whom paperwork would not be found in the Eugenics Board files,” he said.
“You have some old dusty filing cabinet in Raleigh that’s full of Eugenics Board paperwork from decades ago, but yet you’ve got all these people sterilized involuntarily at the local level and their paperwork didn’t wind up being preserved in the eugenics files in Raleigh, if it was ever there to begin with,” Bollinger continued.
As for Blackmon, her niece Latoya Adams did track down plenty of paperwork, and sent it in with her application. She found the court order, documents detailing the sterilization procedure, a document with the doctor’s label stating it was a “eugenics sterilization,” and yet Blackmon’s application resulted in a denial letter.
Adams said, “The denial, the only thing it states was there were no records found and that her case was not approved by the N.C. Eugenics Board.”
According to Adams, “They were telling my grandparents the surgery was going to be minimally invasive…They told them it would be a tubal ligation. And they wound up doing a full abdominal hysterectomy … on a 14 year old.”
Bollinger says it’s impossible to be certain about how many people fall into Blackmon’s category, but as of October, he’d come across about half a dozen, and suspects there could be dozens or hundreds more.
From 1929 to 1974, North Carolina sterilized about 7,600 men, women, and children deemed to be “unfit.” Though only 220 individuals were approved to receive the funds, North Carolina officials estimate that about 1,500 to 2,000 of its eugenics victims are still alive today.
On his bill’s projected path, Sen. Jackson states, “I’ve had some good conversation with senators about this, but there is a reluctance to open up this can of worms because it was so contentious the first time it came through the Senate.”
The eugenics movement to create genetic purity by sterilizing people supposedly found to be “feeble-minded” or otherwise “unfit” was alive in America during the early 20th century, with 30 states legalizing eugenic sterilizations by 1931. African Americans, the intellectually disabled, unmarried women with children, and the poor were most often targeted. By the 1940s, however, eugenics officially fell out of favor after the world witnessed the horrors of Nazi Germany.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes infamously wrote the following statement in his court opinion on a Supreme Court case originating in Virginia:
“It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
Virginia became the second state to compensate eugenics victims this February; North Carolina was the first.
Though financial compensation cannot undo the wrongs suffered by the men and women devalued and involuntarily sterilized, North Carolina’s compensation fund goes a long way toward recognizing the wrong committed. Let the state continue to send the message decrying eugenics and affirming the worth of every life by passing Senate Bill 532.
Genevieve Plaster is a research assistant for the Charlotte Lozier Institute.