In March of 2010 we published a guest post from Johanna Schoen about North Carolina’s history of state-ordered sterilizations. At that time we blogged about it, the eugenics story was entering a new chapter as Governor Bev Perdue initiated a working group to determine how victims of the program that continued until the early 1970s should be compensated. For background on the situation, here’s some of what we wrote last year in our introduction to her piece:
Public awareness of this sinister chapter in North Carolina’s history is due partly to the research of Johanna Schoen, who, as a graduate student at UNC, was granted access to the previously sealed records of the NC Board of Eugenics. Schoen’s research led to further investigation and a series of articles by the Winston-Salem Journal. Her research also led to her own book, Choice and Coercion: Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare.
Between 1929 and 1975, the state ordered the sterilization of more than 7,600 people. More than 7,000 were actually sterilized. Eighty-four percent of these were women. One-third of those sterilized were minors at the time of their sterilization, most of them victims of rape or incest.
As abhorrent as the policy sounds to us now, North Carolina was not unique in the practice. Thirty-one states had similar sterilization programs during the same period. Schoen wrote:
Fortunately, however, the state does stand out for its willingness to confront this past. While other states have issued apologies for their state sterilization programs and some have put up historical markers, few have discussed the integration of this story into its educational curriculum and none have considered the payment of restitution to sterilization victims. We should commend North Carolina for its courage to confront this past and willingness to address the wrongs done. And we should challenge the state to follow through on its promise of restitution before it is too late.
You can read Schoen’s comments in full, including what we must learn from this moment in our history, at the post “The legacy of North Carolina’s eugenics program.”
Jump ahead now to the summer of 2011. The governor’s task force charged with recommending appropriate restitution for the victims held a series of hearings at which they asked victims and their families to testify about the effects the violation by the state had—and continues to have—on them. Their stories are excruciating to hear, but they are essential to the story of justice that must follow.
Last night MSNBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams aired an extensive feature story on North Carolina’s sterilization program and the experiences of one particular victim, Elaine Riddick. Johanna Schoen was interviewed for the piece and shared some recordings the uncovered in her research in the late 1990s—recordings of social workers who referred patients to and administrated the sterilization program (around the 6 minute mark in the video below). Here is the full story that aired last night (running time: 16:50).
You can read the accompanying story on the show’s website, where there is another video of a four-minute interview with NC Governor Perdue about the sterilization program and plans for compensation.
We’ll be following this story closely as North Carolina works through its history in pursuit of justice for those harmed at the hand of the state. If you want to know more about the history of eugenics in the south (and North Carolina, particularly), Shoen’s Choice and Coercion is a good place to start.