Are NC eugenics victims any closer to a fulfillment of promises?


Nial Ramirez (right) relaxes at home with her only child, Deborah Chesson, in Atlanta. (Ted Richardson/Journal)

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Forgive Nial Cox Ramirez if she’s not viewing Monday as any sort of milestone in the long, slow, painful slog toward compensation for survivors of North Carolina’s Eugenic Sterilization Program, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

Sterilized by order of the state in 1965 when she was just 18, she’s heard it all before.

She graciously accepted an apology from then-Gov. Mike Easley, received a standing ovation from members of the N.C. House of Representatives and was praised along with another survivor as “brave and courageous ladies who stepped forward.”

She also sat and waited along with thousands of North Carolina citizens sterilized under a state program that targeted young women deemed to be “promiscuous” or” “feeble-minded,” epileptics, and men and women who had been deemed by social workers to have undesirable traits as the state inched toward some concrete measure of redress.

So she can be forgiven then for not taking too seriously Monday’s deadline to submit a completed claim form for $50,000 in compensation.

“There’s been a lot of talk for a long time,” Cox Ramirez said from her Atlanta home. “I appreciate that they’re going to go ahead and do something, but I don’t know. They really haven’t done anything yet.”

Sordid history

The thorny path to get to this historic moment — North Carolina remains the only state of the 33 that forcibly sterilized its own residents to approve financial compensation — really begins in 1929, when the legislature moved toward formal approval of the sterilization program.

It was based on the eugenics movement, junk science that made overblown claims that genetic defects, mental illness and social ills could be eliminated through sterilization. Social workers flagged kids as young as 10, and they were ordered to undergo a hysterectomy or castration under the authority of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina.

Between 1929 and 1974, more than 7,600 North Carolinians were sterilized — many of them against their will. Young girls who had gotten pregnant, some by rape or incest, were frequently the targets. Some were flagged because faulty intelligence tests labeled them “feeble-minded,” others simply because they were epileptic.

Many were young, poor and black.

Rooted in some of the same principles that Nazi scientists took to perverse extremes, the eugenics movement in the United States was pushed and promoted by Dr. Clarence Gamble, an heir to part of the Proctor & Gamble Co. fortune. It found generous and willing benefactors in Forsyth County in James G. Hanes and prominent physicians at the Bowman Gray School of Medicine who were convinced that society would ultimately be better off if it somehow could be cleansed of certain genetic defects and mental illness thought to be hereditary and such societal ills as out-of-wedlock births.

Perhaps most shameful of all is the fact that while other states backed off their sterilization programs after the world learned details of the medical experiments at the hands of the Nazis, North Carolina ramped its program up. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, the eugenics board increasingly went after such poor black girls as Cox Ramirez for no other reason than they were young, single and pregnant.

In some cases, officials coerced the girls and their families to consent to the procedures. Cox Ramirez said a social worker in her native Washington County threatened to end her family’s welfare benefits if she didn’t agree to do it.

“It makes you wonder who we are as a people when we decided to do this,” Gov. Bev Perdue said in June 2011 after hearing some of the victims and their relatives speak publicly.

North Carolina’s program ended in 1974 — not with a bang, but with a whimper — when the board ceased to operate after lawsuits were filed and the use of birth control became more widespread. The board’s records were boxed up and shipped off to the state archives.

Uncovering the past

Those records sat largely untouched until a researcher named Joanna Schoen, who was granted access to them, decided to share them with the Winston-Salem Journal.

A team of journalists at the newspaper produced a series titled “Against Their Will” that shed light on a nasty and cynical period in state history that many hoped would remain forgotten.

In fact, the day the series ended in December 2002, Easley issued a long-overdue apology.

“On behalf of the state I deeply apologize to the victims and their families for this past injustice, and for the pain and suffering they had to endure over the years,” Easley said in a prepared statement. “This is a sad and regrettable chapter in the state’s history, and it must be one that is never repeated again.”

That night, Cox Ramirez heard Easley’s words and thanked him for them. She was 56 years old and living in Riverdale, Ga.

“That is good. That is very good,” she said. “I appreciate that, I really do. That makes me real happy. What a long time. A long time coming, but it came.”

That sense of relief and satisfaction soon gave way to a feeling of guarded optimism that the state might actually go one step further and do more than issue an overdue apology. Easley established the Eugenics Study Committee in February 2003 to examine ways in which the state might formally make amends.

Cox Ramirez and Elaine Riddick Jessie, a Chowan County native sterilized at age 14 after she had gotten pregnant by a man in his 20s, were asked to meet with the committee, tell their stories and make recommendations on what they felt the state might do for them.

“I tried so hard to bury this, but it just won’t go away,” Cox Ramirez told the committee in March 2003. “It’s like a cancer that eats you and eats you and eats you.”

The legislature, too, appeared to move swiftly in response to the revelations. Later that same month, the House voted 116-1 to repeal a law allowing involuntary sterilizations of the mentally ill, the last legal link to the Eugenic Sterilization Program. The lone dissenter said later that he had accidentally pressed the wrong button on his voting panel.

After the Senate followed suit, Easley signed the bill into law in a private ceremony. Cox Ramirez and Riddick Jessie were introduced to the full House and given a standing ovation. A few months after that, the Eugenics Study Committee formally recommended that the legislature approve money to provide medical care for the victims for any problems attributable to their sterilization and educational benefits through the state’s universities and community colleges.

Perhaps more important, the victims found a tireless advocate in state Rep. Larry Womble, a Democrat from Winston-Salem who would press to right the wrongs of history that were visited upon the state’s weakest and most vulnerable citizens.

It was a heady time filled with promise and hope. It was also doomed to be short-lived.

Slow going

Officials did take a few easy —and relatively inexpensive — steps at easing the pain.

A $35,000 interactive exhibit on the Eugenic Sterilization Program opened at the N.C. Museum of History in June 2007. And the State Highway Commission unveiled a historic marker in Raleigh that noted the state’s role in the program.

But precious little else came to fruition.

A promise to include lessons about the eugenics program in school curriculum never really came to pass. And the legislature never really did much, either.

In 2005, Wimble filed the first of several bills that he would sponsor to place a specific dollar amount on compensation for sterilization victims. An initial draft set the figure at $20,000 for each; subsequent versions filed in 2007, 2008 and 2009 eventually increased the amount to $50,000.

Predictably, though, those bills were ignored or shuttled off to committees to die. Even Perdue, a Democrat who made campaign promises in 2008 to push for compensation, didn’t do much more than pay lip service to the issue, even though her party controlled both houses of the General Assembly.

Nearly all of the foot-dragging was tied to money; who in their right mind would say “tough luck” to a person who had a God-given right taken by the state?

“I feel sorry for those people who (were sterilized) without their consent,” said Sen. Jim Forester, R-Gaston, in 2005. “But as to whether we have the money to pay them, I’m not sure we do.”

The delays and stalling frustrated victims (and their families).

“It’s like they’re waiting for everybody to die so they don’t have to do anything,” said Denise Solomon, the granddaughter of a sterilization victim after yet another committee meeting.

Despite his persistence, Womble occasionally allowed signs of frustration to peek through his generally optimistic demeanor.

“I’ll do like (U.S. Rep.) John Conyers did when he kept filing bills to make Martin Luther King Day a national holiday,” Womble said in 2007. “It took 20 years before we got King Day, and I’ll do the same here.”

Still, there were baby steps.

In August 2009, the General Assembly approved $250,000 for the creation of another committee, this one called the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation.

That money was spent over the next few years to hire an executive director and begin the painstaking task of putting together a plan to compensate victims, devise a system to reach out to them, and file claims and verify them.

Unlikely allies

By October 2010, the foundation had set up a network to provide information to those who believe they had been ordered sterilized by the state.

And by the next summer, a well-publicized public meeting of the panel was held at the N.C. Department of Agriculture to hear from victims and their families. Reporters from media outlets across the United States — and a handful of foreign publications, as well — crowded into the room to record the moment.

Riddick Jessie tearfully described “being cut open like a hog.”

Karen Beck, a Forsyth County resident, talked about her grandmother and great-aunt, who were ordered to have hysterectomies in the 1930s after the death of their mother.

“What vile and terrible acts did they commit?” she said. “They were vagrants — we call them homeless today. They were hungry. They were motherless, grief-stricken girls trying to survive the Great Depression.”

A final report was released in the fall of 2011. Among other items, it called for $50,000 for each victim whose claim could be verified through medical and state records.

Perdue proposed a budget in spring 2012 that included $10.3 million to compensate the survivors, whose numbers were then estimated to be between 1,350 and 1,800.

Womble, who was forced to retire following a severe automobile crash in December 2011, could no longer champion the cause. But he had managed to find some unlikely — and powerful — allies in Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, and state Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, social conservatives who were aghast at the scope of the program and the taking of a basic human right.

“These people are getting really old and it’s not going to be much good to them if they’re deceased,” said Stam, an evangelical Christian and staunch right-to-life advocate.

Even still, victims who had heard it all before weren’t buying in.

“I wouldn’t dare get my hopes up,” said Ernestine Moore, who was sterilized at age 14 in Pitt County in 1965.

The House, under Tillis’ direction, passed a bill in June 2012 to set aside $10 million to provide $50,000 for each verified victim. However, a companion measure failed in the Senate and threw the issue back into limbo.

Again, the issue was money. Some senators wondered about setting a precedent, too.

“I’m so sorry it happened, but throwing money don’t change it, don’t make it go away,” said Sen. Don East, R-Surry. “It still happened.”

And later, East added this: “If they’re sterile, they’re still sterile.”

The Senate’s decision was tough but ultimately not a crippling blow. Other, more enlightened legislators brought the issue back up the following year in the budget.

When Senate and House leaders reached agreement on a $20.6 billion budget early on Sunday, July 21, 2013, they included $10 million for one-time payments of $50,000 to surviving victims of the Eugenic Sterilization Program.

“The day has finally come,” Womble said as the news spread.

As joyous as that news was for such survivors as Cox Ramirez, though, it came tempered with caution.

They had been promised many things for many years and their numbers had steadily dwindled over that time.

And considering that the promise of some form of tangible financial compensation came from the very government that had ordered them sterilized, is it any wonder that skepticism still lingers for some of those victims?

“In my case, I’m not going to worry about what the state is going to do or not going to do,” she said last week. “I leave it in the hands of Jesus. I’m not going to worry anymore about it.

“I’m not going to get any more grayer than I am already. I gave everything to the Lord a long time ago. I can’t have my blood pressure go up for something I can’t control.”

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