Local News

Robeson woman was victim of NC's forced sterilization program

Posted June 15, 2012 6:04 p.m. EDT
Updated June 15, 2012 7:09 p.m. EDT

— Virginia Brooks remembers it being the Great Depression when, at the age of 13, "the law" took her from her Robeson County foster home and put her in a detention center for girls in Moore County.

"I didn't know what was going on," the 83-year-old said Friday. "I didn't have anybody to take care of me, like I should. I didn't get to go to school, like I should."

Brooks spent 23 months at the detention facility, called Samarkand Manor, before she was delivered back to Robeson County to the custody of social services.

She was then put in a sanatorium, where workers there told her she needed to have her appendix removed.

Only after the fact did she learn the painful truth.

"They clipped my tubes to keep me from having children," Brooks said. "I didn't know why they did it. Nobody explained anything to me."

She was among more than 7,600 North Carolinians sterilized under the state's eugenics program, which lasted from 1929 until 1974.

Thirty-two other states had also adopted eugenics programs in the early 1900s out of a belief that humanity could evolve and society could be improved by breeding out undesirable characteristics.

Most states and other countries abandoned such efforts after World War II because of similarities with Nazi Germany's programs for racial purity. North Carolina's eugenics program expanded, however, with sterilizations peaking in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Most of the people in the program were mental health patients, prisoners, poor or people the state deemed to be promiscuous.

Roughly 85 percent were women or girls – some as young as 10 years old.

Brooks was one of the victims.

She eventually got married and adopted a child, who gave her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"I would have loved to have had children," she said. "But that was robbed (from me). My life has been miserable. That's all I can say."

North Carolina is now trying to make amends to Brooks and at least 117 verified living victims of the forced sterilization program.

Earlier this year, a special panel, the Eugenics Compensation Task Force, recommended that each verified, living survivor be compensated $50,000, partly as a way for the state to pay for its mistake.

According to a report by the task force last year, up to 2,000 victims might still be alive.

This month, the North Carolina House of Representatives set aside $11 million in reserve in its 2012-13 budget plan to pay victims. The Senate, however, has no such reserve, and leaders say its doubtful compensation will get past this year.

Brooks doesn't much follow what's going on in the Legislature but says she feels like she deserves some kind of compensation for what happened to her.

"I deserve it, because they took my privilege from me," she said.

Now, she wants "the law" to give her something back. Her dignity.