This month, North Carolina is inching toward making restitution for a shameful part of its history as its Eugenics Task Force began hearing testimony from some of the men and women who endured irreversible surgical sterilization as part of a state-sponsored policy, which lasted from 1929 until 1974.
During that time span, the Eugenics Board of North Carolina (EBNC) neutered about 7,600 people, some as young as 10 years old, in an effort to rid the populace of characteristics and traits determined to be detrimental for the betterment of society.
Originally set forth to improve the lot of humanity, eugenics, the enhancement of human hereditary traits, had its origins in early Grecian and Roman society (where undesirable infants were infamously drowned in the Tiber River), and gained favor in the early 20th century governmental mindset. In America, the practice manifested itself in the spread of laws prohibiting interracial marriage and other forms of miscegenation (the mixing of different racial groups through cohabitation, procreation, or sexual relations in general).
Such legislation focused on the separation of Blacks and Whites, but also addressed the pervasive influx of ethnic European immigrants in the early 1900s.
At various periods, Chinese, Italians, Irish, and Jews have been categorized as “undesirable.” To inhibit the drain on societal resources by these and other undesirables, like mental patients and the feeble minded, elaborate programs were set up throughout Europe, the Western Hemisphere and other parts of the “civilized world” to discourage people deemed “unfit” from marrying or reproducing.
In this country, coercion, legislative and other measures were implemented, and in many cases, forced sterilization was pursued to prevent passing on mental illness and other objectionable traits to “maintain” the high standards of America’s genetic pedigree. Among those embracing these ideas on this side of the Atlantic were such historical luminaries as Alexander Graham Bell, Luther Burbank, Theodore Roosevelt, and David Starr Jordan, whose name graces a high school in present-day Watts.
California’s reputation is foremost nationally as a haven for liberalism, but it is also often at the forefront in embracing policies that are at best ill advised. The Golden State jumped on the eugenics bandwagon with the 1909 adoption of eugenics laws championed by Jordan, then the president of Stanford University.
The decrees granted authorities the latitude to asexualize such miscreants as promiscuous women, and as a precursor to the present “three-strikes” law, individuals with more than three criminal convictions, as an estimated 20,000 lawbreakers may have been subjected these sentences. Latin Americans were disproportionately targeted, in part due to societal preconceptions of the day regarding birth control and sexuality in general, while African Americans, who made up 1 percent of the state’s population, accounted for 4 percent of those surgically altered.
Sex offenders were especially vulnerable to this malicious punishment and, depending on the circumstances, it was legal to castrate men or remove the ovaries from females, although records indicate officials generally resorted to tubal ligations or vasectomies, simply because these methods are faster and cheaper.
Still, court records from as recent as the early 1960s document Los Angeles County judges as periodically imposing testicle removal as a condition of parole for sex offenders.
California’s forced-sterilization law was officially repealed, circa 1979.
At it’s peak, California’s eugenics program operated a string of “sterilization mills” in Mendocino, Napa, Norwalk, Pomona, Sonoma, Stockton, and other localities, and served as a model for the policies formulated by Germany’s Nationalist Socialist Party as it came to power in the 1930s.
Although California was at the forefront of the eugenics movement, followed by Virginia, North Carolina’s eugenics program was unique in one significant way. Charmaine Fuller Cooper of the Justice for Victims of Sterilization Foundation explains:
“Most of North Carolina’s sterilizations occurred after World War II in the 1940s and ’50s.” This is in sharp contrast to other parts of the country where such ideas were extinguished by the wartime antics of Adolf Hitler and his minions. The stigma of war crimes committed by zealots intent on establishing a “master race” impacted postwar Western culture in a manner equaled perhaps only by the emerging threat of the Cold War and potential nuclear holocaust.
The discovery of Nazi death camps during the World War II invasion of Europe put a damper on notions of genetic superiority throughout the Allied countries. North Carolina, however, was put on an “accelerated track” in a manner of speaking, due to the efforts of private citizens, including Dr. Clarence Gamble, heir to the Procter & Gamble soap dynasty, and James G. Hanes, scion of the Hanes hosiery and underwear conglomerate.
Gamble was instrumental in popularizing spermicidal jellies and other contraceptive methods before the war, and used his contacts within the North Carolina State Board of Health to promote birth control within that state (he would later continue this crusade in Japan, Korea, Puerto Rico, and other parts of the globe). Today, aided by the efforts of its spokesman, basketball great Michael Jordan, Hanes enjoys annual revenues in excess of a billion dollars. In his day, Hanes was as formidable a pitchman as Jordan, and he applied the skills he’d honed selling hosiery and underwear to his new passion for sterilization by founding the Human Betterment League of North Carolina.
The efforts of these and other leading citizens are likely a reason why North Carolina allowed monumental decisions like sterilization to be made by social workers and others at local and regional levels without judicial approval. Fuller Cooper estimates the racial breakdown of the unfortunates who endured these procedures at about 40 percent non-White, which includes African American, Native Americans and others.
After current North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue assumed office in 2009, she expressed concern that no tangible retribution had been extended to the victims of these nefarious policies (although a predecessor issued a formal apology in 2002), and felt compelled to establish the Eugenics Compensation Task Force along with the Justice for Victims of Sterilization Foundation. Fuller Cooper was appointed to her current post after serving as executive director of the Carolina Justice Policy Center. She notes similarities between the two organizations, in that both seek to “give people a voice who’ve never had a voice, and also to give people a voice who never knew they needed a voice.”
After wading through the testimony, the task force is slated to present a report to the governor on Aug. 1. Tentative funding for reimbursement is set at $60 million, or $20,000 per victim.
Further information may be accessed at www.sterilizationvictims.nc.gov/, and possible victims are encouraged to call the toll-free number at (877) 550-6013.