PERQUIMANS COUNTY, N.C. — For more than 40 years, a state-sponsored program was designed to reduce social problems like poverty and mental illness. By the time it ended in 1974, the North Carolina Eugenics Board had ordered the forced sterilization of 7,600 people. Now, state lawmakers are considering a bill to provide compensation to victims.
As documented in the book "Choice and Coercion," North Carolina took reproduction rights from people deemed "mentally ill, feeble minded, or epileptic...all for the public good."
"What they did was hateful. It was inhuman," said 51-year-old Elaine Riddick.
Born into a poor broken home in Perquimans County, Riddick was impregnated by rape at age 13. A welfare worker considered her feebleminded and sexually promiscuous.
When she delivered her son at Chowan Hospital in Edenton at age 14, a doctor performed a state-ordered tubal ligation. Riddick's illiterate grandmother signed an X on a state consent form.
"They robbed me of my dignity," Riddick said.
Riddick went on to pursue a college degree. It was not until she married at 19 did she learn what was taken from her.
"If one of my friends got pregnant, I would make it my business to separate myself from that person and the person had not done anything to me. I buried myself. I hid myself," she said.
For decades, officials on the North Carolina Eugenics Board made those life-changing decisions. In some cases, they spent just minutes passing judgments on cases.
Records obtained by WRAL show board sterilizations ordered on girls aged 12, 16, and 21 considered feebleminded and sexually promiscuous. In one 1944 case, board members made the call on an 11-year-old boy.
State Rep. Larry Womble, D-Forsyth, points out after the horrors of Nazi Germany's attempts to form a master race, most states cut back their eugenics programs. Instead, North Carolina's increased its programs, targeting mostly poor black women.
"The horrific thing to me is that they did this to children," he said. "In my estimation, this borders on genocide when you go and exterminate a whole group of people."
Earlier in May, Womble filed House Bill 1607 which calls for $69 million in compensation for sterilization victims, which breaks down to about $20,000 each for victims.
"That is a slap in the face," Riddick said.
"I don't believe any dollar figure in my mind, whether it's $1 million, $2 million or $10 million, no dollar figure can compensate these people," Womble said.
For Riddick, some compensation comes in the success of her only son. Born to a mother the state called "feebleminded," Tony Riddick is now president of a computer technology company. Still, one son's love cannot erase the anger over what Riddick lost in 1968.
"What they did was wrong and I want them to pay," Riddick said.
In 2003, Gov. Mike Easley publicly apologized for the state's sterilization program. One challenge now is verifying the identities of the living victims. Critics contend the Department of Health and Human Services is moving too slowly to facilitate restitution efforts.