Sterilization victims raped again

Elaine Riddick, now age 62, told me in an exclusive interview that she had been raped twice in her life. The first rape occurred when she was 13 at the hands of a man who threatened to kill her if she told. The second rape, she said, was performed by the State of North Carolina, which sterilized her because the pregnancy which resulted from her attack, labeled Elaine a promiscuous drain on society. When I asked which rape was worse, she said, “The one by the State.”

As it turns out, Elaine was only one of nearly 8,000 young girls who were systematically sterilized against their will under the auspices of the State Eugenics Board during a shameful era of racial cleansing that took place over a period of five decades. Respected physicians, elected officials, and captains of industry, sat on state and local boards that approved and funded the forced sterilizations that were overseen and implemented by local social service agencies.

In 2002, a series of investigative reports by the Winston-Salem Journal brought to light these racist-motivated procedures, and the lives they destroyed. Activists like former Rep. Larry Womble, began a crusade to have the State compensate surviving victims of forced sterilization, but he was met with arguments and obstacles from lawmakers who wanted the Eugenics saga to stay buried in the past. In order to placate fellow Democrat Womble, then Governor Mike Easley issued an email apology to the newspaper. But the apology was as hollow as it was impersonal because no action was taken to allocate reparation funds. Easley’s successor, Governor Bev Perdue eventually established an Office for Justice of Sterilization Victims to serve as a clearinghouse for surviving victims to come forward and be identified. The OJSV estimated that some 1,800 sterilization victims were still alive, but less than half of them, about 780, actually registered with the Office.

It had now been nearly 10 years since the Easley apology, and still no reparations in sight. At one point Womble told me he thought some of his fellow legislators were dragging their feet, just hoping for sterilization victims to die off, so that the State wouldn’t have to pay so many survivors. Elaine was beginning to feel like she had been raped for a third time. Finally in 2013, State lawmakers voted to allocate $10 million dollars in reparations to be divided among all of the surviving victims whose sterilization had been authenticated by the State Industrial Commission. By 2014, approximately 220 claims had been approved, and checks began to be processed and mailed to surviving victims. I spoke with Elaine last week, and as of January, she had received compensation totaling $35,000, with another $15,000 promised. Seems like a paltry and insulting sum of money to pay someone for having taken away their ability to reproduce, yet, in some small way, the State payouts represented closure for hundreds of women who had been sterilized against their will. Not so for hundreds more.

Last week the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that anyone who was sterilized by certain county social services agencies was not eligible for compensation because there is no proof that some of those local agencies were working under direct orders from the State Eugenics Board. That means nearly 600 surviving victims who filed claims with the State will receive no reparations. According to the Associated Press, the Appeals Court cited the 2013 State law that requires claimants to show they were “sterilized under state authority.” With all due respect to the Appeals Court, those justices are a bit too blind when it comes to blind justice. Any idiot knows that a local social worker is not going to wake up one morning, go to work, and start sterilizing girls against their will without knowing that their actions were in accordance with and supported by the State Eugenics Board, and by the influential leaders in their own community who helped to fund that Board, and advance the mission of racial cleansing. This insulting, knit-picking decision by the Appeals Court constitutes yet another violation of the women whose bodies had already been violated by agents of the State. Once again these women have become victims. The rape continues.

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).