JOHN RAILEY: Late Rep. Womble and I shared the good fight

Posted May 25, 2020 5:00 a.m. EDT
Updated May 25, 2020 6:24 a.m. EDT

EDITOR’S NOTE: John Railey, the former editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, is the writer-in-residence at Winston-Salem State University’s Center for the Study of Economic Mobility and the author of ‘Rage to Redemption in the Sterilization Age.’ This column originally appeared in The Winston-Salem Journal.

On a sun-splashed March afternoon in 2003, state Rep. Larry Womble and I stood in a Raleigh parking lot, sharing cigarettes and rehashing the hours past. “It was a pretty good day, wasn’t it?” Larry asked me, flashing his trademark grin.

“Yes it was,” I told him.

We had just finished a committee hearing at which victims of North Carolina’s forced sterilization program had testified, a baby step in our fight of more than a decade to win those victims compensation, making our state the first in the nation to do so. Just as important, the legislature’s 2013 approval of compensation for those victims was one of the last major bipartisan victories in North Carolina, and, for that matter, our country as well, a point worth pondering in these divided days, like some vintage sepia photo in a family scrapbook — even though it wasn’t even a decade ago in this river of hard change.

Larry and I became friends during the compensation fight.

He was fun, with his stories and suits tailored to his towering stature of well over six feet. The retired educator taught me that waging social justice fights was crucial, and personality was part of it. He gave charming speeches at community events, often calling the events “auspicious occasions.” For Larry, always optimistic about the House district he served, every event, from the opening of a recreation center to a new business, really was “an auspicious occasion,” part of the road to success and prosperity for the constituents for whom he lived for right up until the day he died, May 14.

He was a loving father to his son, Jamaal., and husband to his wife, Violet Sabatia. He also counted as family his close friends in his inner circle.

In the fall of 2002, as a Journal investigative team of which I was part prepared to publish our findings about the brutal inner workings of North Carolina’s forced sterilization program, I met with Larry to give him an advance on what we had. Our findings shook him and angered him — more than 7,600 men, women and children sterilized from the dawn of the Great Depression through the fall of Nixon, a program that targeted African American women and girls before it finally fell to modernity in 1974, one of the most notorious sterilization programs in the country.

As always with Larry, action followed his outrage. Soon after our series ran in December 2002, he began pushing for reparations for the victims. He befriended them, set up committee meetings for them to testify before his fellow legislators, and paid out of his own pocket for the victims and their families to fly in, including the March meeting at the top of this column.

“He was such a great and good man,” one of those victims, my friend Nial Ramirez, told me last week.

Ramirez and Elaine Riddick, as well as the one child the state allowed each one to have before they were targeted, testified at the March 2003 meeting. More victims would testify in the months ahead, but compensation efforts fizzled.

As the Republicans won the legislature and the governor’s mansion in years ahead, I decided, with Larry’s approval, to persuade them to do what his fellow Democrats had not, approve compensation. I pushed for that in Winston-Salem Journal editorials sprinkled with quotes from Larry. Then he was almost killed in a car accident, his car hit head-on by a drunken driver.

In the months ahead, I sat by Larry’s hospital bed, listening closely to his lessons about how to win the compensation fight.

At one point, Larry, who retired from the House due to his injuries, made a triumphant return to his beloved chamber in his wheelchair, an image he knew would bolster the battle.

In the summer of 2013, the legislature approved a budget with a compensation pool that ultimately gave each of the more than 200 victims who qualified $45,000 each. The last payments finally went out in early 2018.

Larry and I rejoiced. But by then, he wasn’t his usual optimistic self, the accident having robbed him of that. He struggled for years with therapy to recover, but that was not to be, even for a spirit as fierce as his. From his bed, he rained friends with calls and cards of encouragement.

And now he is gone, walking tall into the region where justice really does roll on like a river — and every day is “an auspicious occasion.”

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