January 11, 2012; Source: Charlotte Observer | It is more than a little difficult to look at the pictures published in the Charlotte Observer and other papers of some of the surviving victims of North Carolina’s forty-five years of forced sterilization. Between 1929 and 1974, North Carolina’s eugenics program sterilized 7,600 people, some by choice, but many by force or coercion. There may be as many as 1,500 to 2,000 of North Carolina’s eugenics victims still living.
Now, some of the victims may be compensated for the crime that was done to them by the power of government—but it isn’t clear that it will really happen. And slipping through the cracks may be the role of an important foundation or two in facilitating the state’s eugenics program.
According to the Observer, the range of people who were sterilized included
“people who were mentally ill and sexually aggressive, and families who wanted to stop having children . . . [but also] people who were poor, or part of large families, or whose parents worried that men might take advantage of them. Some victims were as young as 10.” It might be added that it seems that a large proportion of the victims were African American.
If North Carolina follows through with a plan to compensate its eugenics victims, it will be the first state to do so. NPR notes that more than half of the states had eugenics programs that allowed authorities to forcibly sterilize people.
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
A North Carolina task force advising governor Bev Perdue has recommended that surviving victims receive payments of $50,000 (originally it considered $20,000, but people protested that that was too low). No compensation was suggested for families of deceased eugenics victims. According to Dr. Laura Gerald, chairwoman of the task force, the message is, “We in North Carolina are people who pay for our mistakes.” So far, only 72 victims have come forward, but there is no system of compensation yet. The legislature would have to approve the payments, and that hasn’t happened so far (paying 1,500 victims would cost the state $75 million).
There is another part of this story dealing with philanthropy. William Schambra of the Hudson Institute has in many articles described the connection of the Carnegie Corporation to the North Carolina eugenics program, including this one from the Chronicle of Philanthropy. According to Schambra, Carnegie provided grant support and encouragement to the “genetics program” medical school that is now at Wake Forest and that played a cheerleading role behind the state’s eugenics program. Schambra elicited statements from Carnegie that that was all in the past, an aberration that shouldn’t undermine the good reputation of the foundation as it is now, but no real assumption of responsibility or clearly spoken apology has surfaced.
Last we saw, Carnegie had over $2.4 billion in assets. A contribution to the compensation program might be a decent apology for Carnegie’s support of North Carolina’s more than four decades of officially sanction eugenics.—Rick Cohen