Rock Center   |  November 07, 2011

State of Shame: N.C. sterilization survivors fight for justice

Rock Center's Dr. Nancy Snyderman investigates how thousands of North Carolinians were sterilized under the state's now defunct eugenics program. Survivors such as Elaine Riddick are demanding answers and compensation from the government.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Most Americans would agree, the government has a lot to learn from that physician's oath to do no harm. But it's tougher to explain this: Doctors and government officials conspiring on a project so horrible, it is hard to believe it happened in our country and not that long ago. We have a story here tonight about cruelty in the name of science and about the government, in effect, trying to play God . But it's also about the strength and resilience of the human spirit and about a remarkable woman named Elaine Riddick . Dr. Nancy Snyderman takes us tonight to North Carolina to investigate a state of shame.

Dr. NANCY SNYDERMAN reporting: The serene charm of Winfall , North Carolina , a sleepy town where the Perquimans River empties into the Albemarle Sound . But buried in the stillness of this place it seems time has forgotten, a secret shame.

Representative LARRY WOMBLE: It was sort of a hush-hush type of thing, and the records and files were all hidden away down in a basement, locked under key.

SNYDERMAN: Until this past summer when the ugly truth about what happened here and in towns all across North Carolina could be hidden no more.

Unidentified Woman #1: If there's anyone in this room that's too embarrassed to tell your story, don't be. Tell it. It needs to be told. And you need to tell it all.

SNYDERMAN: There were a lot of stories that shocked those in the room that day. Stories of shame, confusion, grief. But one story, one single story, seemed to rise above the rest.

Ms. ELAINE RIDDICK: I didn't want nobody looking at me because everybody knew what happened to me. That's how I felt inside my heart. I believed that every single day. I'm crushed. They cut me open like I was a hog.

SNYDERMAN: Elaine Riddick 's story began in Winfall , among the cotton fields that rose up to meet the tiny two bedroom house she shared with her grandmother, affectionately known as Miss Peaches . When you come back here, is it nostalgic, is it bittersweet, does it bring up moments of anger?

Ms. RIDDICK: All of the above . Sometime I can come here and I am in, you know, I can look around me and I can take -- find beauty in the ugliness, the ugly things that happened to me.

SNYDERMAN: It was 1967 . Elaine 's mother was in prison, her father had abandoned her, and five of her siblings were in an orphanage. Every adult she knew had betrayed her, with the exception of one, her grandmother.

Ms. RIDDICK: She just paid special attention to me. And she loved me. And she just gave me something that I needed. Sorry.

SNYDERMAN: But life was about to get worse for the poor hungry little girl Miss Peaches tried to protect.

Ms. RIDDICK: As I was walking home, I took the long road, and the next thing I know I was drugged and I was attacked.

SNYDERMAN: And you were raped?

Ms. RIDDICK: And I was raped. And my life was threatened that if I ever told anyone that he was going to kill me.

SNYDERMAN: And you were 13?

Ms. RIDDICK: I was 13.

SNYDERMAN: That brutal rape resulted in a pregnancy. Nearly nine months to the day of the assault, she went into labor.

Ms. RIDDICK: Went and got to the hospital, and they put me in a room and that's all I remember. That's all I remember. When I woke up, I woke up with bandages on my stomach.

SNYDERMAN: Meaning what?

Ms. RIDDICK: At that time, I didn't know what it meant.

SNYDERMAN: What she didn't know was that the baby boy she gave birth to that day would be her last.

Ms. RIDDICK: No one told me. I never even knew.

SNYDERMAN: She had been sterilized , targeted by a state board that ordered that this kind of surgery be performed on thousands of North Carolinians from 1929 all the way to 1974 . Seven-thousand six-hundred men, women and children determined by social workers to be feeble-minded or promiscuous were sterilized , usually without their consent, and it was perfectly legal.

Rep. WOMBLE: Little boys , they would castrate them. Little girls, they would go inside them and take out their organs.

SNYDERMAN: State Representative Larry Womble .

Rep. WOMBLE: Why would they want to do that to a young girl ?

SNYDERMAN: Why did they?

Rep. WOMBLE: Well, they had several reasons they thought were valid at that time.

SNYDERMAN: Their reasons were based on a scientific theory called eugenics which became popular in the 1920s . Eugenicists believed that poverty, promiscuity, and alcoholism were inherited traits. It was a simple theory

with a radical solution: Sterilize those the state would have to take care of, and improve society's gene pool. Some of America 's wealthiest citizens of the time were eugenicists. Dr. Clarence Gamble of the Procter Gamble fortune, and James Hanes of the hosiery company founded the Human Betterment League which produced brochures like these, stoking fears of, quote, "morons" mixing with the general population. Representative, when you look back, was this a well-intentioned idea with the best science at the time that then just went awry?

Rep. WOMBLE: I don't know if that was the best intention to weed out negative things in our society. You're playing God over a whole group of people's lives. And I don't think we're supposed to play God like that.

SNYDERMAN: Thirty-one states had legal eugenics programs. And by the late 1960s , tens of thousands of Americans had been sterilized . It began as a way to control welfare spending on poor white women and men. But over time North Carolina shifted focus, targeting more women and more blacks than whites.

Rep. WOMBLE: It was a monetary, economic thing. Get them off of welfare so the state would not have to pay for their children. That's fine, but you don't do that by doing this kind of thing. Some people have even expressed to me that it borders on genocide.

SNYDERMAN: A third of sterilizations were ordered on girls under the age of 18, some as young as nine years old.

Unidentified Woman #2: What in the world will this do with another child?

Unidentified Woman #3: Yeah. Yeah.

Unidentified Man #1: I think he sterilized his entire case load.

SNYDERMAN: The voices of social workers involved with eugenic sterilization . You're hearing them broadcast for the first time , some of them explaining the decision to sterilize, in these recordings made in 1997 by Rutgers professor Johanna Schoen .

Unidentified Woman #4: What chance does another child have in this family?

Unidentified Woman #5: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Woman #4: And I think a lot of motivation for workers probably came from that.

Unidentified Man #2: Over a period of a year or two years, he got all of the women sterilized .

Woman #5: Mm-hmm.

Man #2: I think that was perhaps a little excessive.

SNYDERMAN: In 1968 , Americans were rebelling, protesting the Vietnam War , marching for civil rights. And while most states had abandoned their eugenics programs by then, the sterilization of poor Americans was still happening in North Carolina , and no one seemed to notice. So it was for Elaine Riddick that a signature on a dotted line sealed her fate. During the Cesarean birth of her only son, her fallopian tubes were cut and tied off. There is a document in your file that says, regarding the sterilization...

Ms. RIDDICK: Mm-hmm.

SNYDERMAN: ...grandmother consents and the procedure has been explained to Elaine .

Ms. RIDDICK: Well, how can you take a 13-year-old kid and tell them this is what you're going to do to them? The terminology did not register. How can you explain to a 13-year-old kid that you're going to sterilize them? They took something so dearly from me, something that was god-given.

WILLIAMS: Trauma like this would cripple most of us, but in a moment when we continue this story after the break, we see her climb back and what she did for her only son. Again, our story continues right after this.

WILLIAMS: Welcome back. As we now get back to our story, for decades, North Carolina sterilized people it deemed unfit, and it did so largely in secret. And now victims like Elaine Riddick are demanding answers from the government. Dr. Nancy Snyderman continues with Elaine 's flight -- fight to rebuild her life and the state of shame that existed back then in North Carolina .

SNYDERMAN: On the fourth floor of a government building in downtown Raleigh , North Carolina , thousands upon thousands of records few have ever seen. These are the eugenics files?

Mr. DICK LANGFORD: Yes, and they're confidential. They're records that are not open to the general public.

SNYDERMAN: State archivist Dick Langford is the keeper of the files that hold the secrets of one of the most controversial practices of modern history, the mass sterilization of Americans against their will. When you've looked at them, what was your initial response?

Mr. LANGFORD: I look at them with a heavy heart because I realize that these records , as patient records , have impact on people's lives.

SNYDERMAN: When you look at these records , you realize they're from not that long ago -- 1950s , 1960s -- and they represent all kinds of people. Take this one, for instance, a teenager who was sterilized because she was deemed promiscuous at the age of eight. And here's one, a 16-year-old incest victim. Social workers got consent for her sterilization from the father who raped her. And then there are the records of Elaine Riddick , sterilized after being raped at age 13 . Social workers had declared her promiscuous, mentally retarded, unfit to procreate. But Elaine had something to prove.

Ms. RIDDICK: I ended up going to college. I took the entrance exam. I passed. I got in.

SNYDERMAN: And she graduated with an associates degree from a technical college in 1982 . Is some of this you saying to them, by your actions, 'You guys were so wrong'?

Ms. RIDDICK: Yes, definitely. Definitely. You know, I'm worthy. I'm not that little nappy head, dirty clothes, hungry little girl anymore. I don't know where I would be if I listened to the state of North Carolina .

SNYDERMAN: Her proudest achievement has been her son. Born 43 years ago and under unimaginable circumstances.

Mr. TONY RIDDICK: Hi, mom.

Ms. RIDDICK: Hi, Tony.

Mr. RIDDICK: Good to see you.

SNYDERMAN: Hi, I'm Nancy .

Ms. RIDDICK: This is Nancy .

Mr. RIDDICK: How are you, Nancy ? Nice to meet you.

SNYDERMAN: You're Tony?

Mr. RIDDICK: Thank you. Yes, Tony.

SNYDERMAN: You're a strapping guy.

Mr. RIDDICK: Thank you.

SNYDERMAN: Today, Tony Riddick is a successful entrepreneur. You must be unbelievably proud of your mother.

Mr. RIDDICK: Oh, absolutely. I am. This is my buddy, my friend, my mother, everything, my sister. I'm proud of her because she never stopped fighting. You know, she continues to fight, and I think that's very important.

SNYDERMAN: What do you want ?

Ms. RIDDICK: What do I want? Well, what do I want? I would like for the state of North Carolina to right what they wronged with me. At one point I sued the state of North Carolina for a million dollars , and that's been over 30 some years ago.

SNYDERMAN: And what did you expect when you filed that suit for a million dollars ?

Ms. RIDDICK: I expected for them to give me a million dollars .

SNYDERMAN: She got nothing. She lost her case against the state because a jury decided no laws were broken. She appealed it all the way to the US Supreme Court , which declined to hear her argument.

Ms. RIDDICK: I was embarrassed, and I was surprised.

SNYDERMAN: All she and the other 7,600 victims have is an apology emailed to the Winston-Salem Journal from then Governor Mike Easley in 2002 . But after mounting pressure from reporters, the state decided to do more and convened a task force in 2003 . Nothing resulted. Then another task force came and went.

Unidentified Woman #6: We're the United States , for god's sakes. This was so wrong.

SNYDERMAN: Which brings us back to that day last summer when victims and their families had their say in front of another government task force assigned to determine how they should be compensated.

Ms. RIDDICK: What do you think I'm worth? What do you think I'm worth? It doesn't matter what you think I'm worth. It's what I think I'm worth.

Mr. RIDDICK: Priceless. Yes, ma'am.

Ms. RIDDICK: There's nothing that the state of North Carolina can do to justify what they did to me, what they did to these other victims.

Unidentified Woman #7: They told me to sign papers. I didn't sign no papers. I ain't never signed the papers. That was not my signature on these papers.

SNYDERMAN: North Carolina is the only state to consider compensation in the range of $20,000 to $50,000. But Tony Riddick , standing up for his mother and the other victims, said that's too little, too late.

Mr. RIDDICK: And my mother's been sitting here suffering for 43 years and nothing has been done. This is sinister.

Rep. WOMBLE: I'm so afraid they're going to try to wait till all these people die, and that's a shame, that's a mar. It's a ugly chapter in North Carolina 's book. We must step up to the plate and we must realize, take responsibility.

Governor BEV PERDUE: There is nobody in North Carolina who is waiting for anybody to die.

SNYDERMAN: Bev Perdue is North Carolina 's governor.

Gov. PERDUE: ...the courage to stand up and say, 'I want this solved on my watch. I want there to be completion.'

SNYDERMAN: Is there a plan to help these people?

Gov. PERDUE: Our plan is very thoughtful, I believe. We have gone through the process of having the hearings. You have to have people who self report. I can't...

SNYDERMAN: Why? I mean, you have the records , why not proactively go out and find these people?

Gov. PERDUE: Because even if you go out and proactively find them, there are lots of people, just like in other medical cases, who don't want their data shared. They want to...

SNYDERMAN: Even if it's money?

Gov. PERDUE: Nancy , from my perspective as a woman and as the governor of this state , this is not about the money. There isn't enough money in the world to pay these people for what has been done to them.

SNYDERMAN: As the Riddicks await the state 's decision, they focus on the part of the family legacy that really matters. There's something to be said about young men who are raised by strong women.

Mr. RIDDICK: Yes, ma'am. I got it. My cup overfloweth.

Ms. RIDDICK: Go!

SNYDERMAN: Every day they appreciate life's simple gifts, finding joy in Tony Jr ., who has yet to understand his grandmother's place in a terrible chapter of American history .

Ms. RIDDICK: He gives me the love. So, with that, I can do anything in the world that I want to do, and I can be anybody I want to be.

WILLIAMS: I'm sitting here thinking, these aren't records you unearthed in a parchment book...

SNYDERMAN: Right.

WILLIAMS: ...with sketchy details from the past. We just heard audio recordings of something saying -- someone saying they sterilized his entire patient load. And, you know, to paraphrase the piece, I'm sitting here thinking this is the United States , for God 's sake.

SNYDERMAN: Not only that, these procedures were going on in the '60s and '70s, but it was on the books legally until Representative Womble pushed, and it was taken off in 2003 . That always raises the question, how after World War II does something like this even happen in this country? It's dark.

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

SNYDERMAN: I mean, it started really as an anti-economic, poverty issue towards poor white women, and then shifted just that much towards what I think a lot of people are seeing as a racial issue.

WILLIAMS: The word reparations, people roll their eyes sometimes, it's become red hot.

SNYDERMAN: Right.

WILLIAMS: So let's use your word compensation.

SNYDERMAN: Right.

WILLIAMS: Because this is so recent, because, yeah, I was in high school this was still going on. Where does it stand now since you were down there?

SNYDERMAN: So Governor Perdue told me, with her third commission now, she would like mental health to be free for these people, perhaps regular health care for the rest of one's life. But how much money do you give someone? Let's say $20,000 to $50,000 seems to be the number that everyone's floating around. Right now she is a Democratic governor, has a Republican legislature, North Carolina 's facing a budget deficit. This is going to come down to, I believe, in 2012 , an issue of how do we find the money? Is it money well spent? And, frankly, for a lot of the victims, is an apology enough? I think, frankly, this may not come out satisfying people on both sides of the fence. A reminder for us.

WILLIAMS: A powerful piece of work. You'll tell us -- you'll tell us what happens down the...

SNYDERMAN: You bet I will.

WILLIAMS: Thank you. Thanks, doc.

SNYDERMAN: You bet, Brian .