Forwarded on behalf of Linda Edwards
SARAH'S STORY: SHE DIED BEFORE THE STATE WOULD ''DO THE RIGHT THING'',
WEEK OF JUNE 7-13, 2007
by CASH MICHAELS
The Wilmington Journal
Originally posted 6/8/2007
Critics say state of North Carolina hopes sterilization victims die off.
You may not have heard of her, but an important person in North Carolina history died two weeks ago. Sarah James Rogers, 73, was one of several hundred people waiting for the state of North Carolina to “apologize by doing the right thing.” Now, if it ever happens, she will never see it. It all started in 1949. Sarah Lilly James was a 15-year-old Black teenager growing up in rural Brunswick County. One of ten children of a poor farming family, young Sarah was not a happy child.For years Sarah was rebellious, got into trouble and admittedly couldn’t get along with anyone, including her parents or siblings.“It was rough,” she would say years later.Henry and Sarah James, her parents, had had enough, and two years earlier had shipped young Sarah off to a state reform school in Kinston. While there, the Jameses made the fateful decision to allow the state to “fix” their daughter so that she could never have children.“High temper, uncontrollable, unpredictable behavior” is the way Ruth Patterson, superintendent of Public Welfare for Brunswick County described young Sarah in her August 11, 1949 recommendation to the state Eugenics Board, the agency that decided for over forty years which poor women in the state, because they were deemed to be “feebleminded, mentally retarded, insane or epileptic,” would be sterilized. “Eugenics” was a widely accepted form of population control of females, and even some males, by government, of poor and undesirable groups. While mental disease was used as an excuse for sterilization, poor females who just exhibited what some considered socially unacceptable behavior, like promiscuity, usually found themselves put under the knife.The General Assembly created the five-member Eugenics Board in 1933 to review and approve sterilization cases that were “in the best interest of the individual’s mental, moral, or physical health” and “the public good.”North Carolina began the practice in 1929, pulling the plug in 1974, long after other states had already done so.From California to Virginia, with the legal permission of no less than the US Supreme Court, approximately 60,000 government sanctioned involuntary sterilizations were performed.Young Sarah James was one of them.“Emotionally, this girl is unstable and is extremely aggressive,” Supt. Patterson went on in her report to the NC Eugenic Board. A doctor who examined young Sarah described her as “mentally deficient [but] physically adequate.”Patterson noted that Sarah, after given the Stanford-Binet test – a standardized intelligence evaluation test (IQ test) that at the time was not reviewed for ethnic or class bias - failed it with a 68 the first time, and a 62 the second time, rating her with an “inferior mentality” on the intelligence scale.Both parents, at the direction of a county investigator, signed the approval forms for the operation. The report was so damming, a hearing was never held.The operation on the rebellious Black teenager, one of thousands performed on poor Black and white young females across the state, was performed at Dozier Memorial Hospital in Southport.“They told me it was to remove an appendix,” Sarah said years later.It wouldn’t be until 1954 after Sarah was married, that doctors finally told her why she couldn’t conceive.
“I felt terrible. I still feel bad,” a tearful Sarah James Rogers told The Wilmington Journal in an August 2005 interview. Three years earlier, after a scathing Winston-Salem Journal 2002 expose of the state’s long forgotten involuntary sterilization program, Gov. Mike Easley formally apologized to the survivors of the mandatory sterilization program, and promised that the state would find ways to make amends.With that, North Carolina became the first of 33 states that implemented a eugenics program, to aplogize. The governor’s special legislative task force’s recommendations outlined the need not only for compensation, but medical, educational and counseling assistance from the NC Dept. of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS).But in the four years hence, with the exception of the General Assembly officially repealing the law that originally authorized the forced sterilizations, there has been little movement towards addressing reparations for the survivors.“The practice of eugenics was a sad and regrettable chapter in the state’s history, and it must be one that is never repeated again,” Gov. Easley exclusively told The Wilmington Journal in a statement issued two years ago. “That is why I directed [NCDHHS] Secretary Carmen Hooker Odom to head a task force to closely examine the issue and make recommendations. Current state efforts are focused on identifying and locating survivors, and implementing the task force recommendations to provide health care and educational benefits to victims.”However, Secretary Odom has since left office. Bills addressing compensation and reparations have stalled in the General Assembly.“They don’t intend to start [anything],” Nial Cox Ramirez, 61, who was sterilized by the state in 1965 at age 18, and stood with Gov. Easley in 2003 as he signed the law repealing involuntary sterilizations, told The Wilmington Journal two years ago.“It’s just a show. They don’t want to do anything. I don’t think they want to do anything, because this is a long time, and nobody’s doing [anything].”“They’re just putting up a front, a screen.”Other eugenics victims – mostly black and white women in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s who, in the words of their legislative advocate Rep. Larry Womble [D-Forsyth], “Were born poor and female” – are also frustrated with the length of time it’s taking for state government to deal tangibly with their situations.Some of the victims, and their supporters, have said that the real reason the state is dragging its feet is because “they waiting for us all to die so that they won’t have to do anything.”“They really messed up my life,” Ernestine Moore, 54, told The Winston-Salem Journal in September 2002 from her home in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In 1965, Moore was involuntarily sterilized at the age of 14, one day after having her only child.“They owe me,” Sarah Rogers told The Wilmington Journal in 2005, admitting that while the state could never fully compensate her for the many years of hurt and pain she suffered, it needed to do something. Her right to bear children had been taken from her while still a child herself, without her consent, not because she was mentally diseased, which she wasn’t, but because her behavior troubled her family and the government.What Ms. Rogers did get from the state, with the help of The Wilmington Journal, were her medical records from 1949 detailing what happened to her, and why.From the notes and recommendations made by county officials, and approved by her parents, young Sarah was determined to be an undesirable.“They did it to a whole lot of girls in my neighborhood,” Arthur Rogers, Sarah’s husband, told The Wilmington Journal in August 2005. “They called it “getting it fixed” so they wouldn’t have a whole bunch of babies.”Since that interview, Sarah James Rogers had waited in vain for the state of North Carolina to “do the right thing.”Two weeks ago, she died of pneumonia. Her husband buried her on May 26.Ironically, had she lived another month, Sarah would have finally seen the state take another baby step towards resolution.On June 19, the NC Museum of History is scheduled unveil an exhibit chronicling the state-sponsored program that denied Sarah Rogers, and at least 7,600 other poor Black and white women, their right to bear children.“The purpose of the exhibit is to educate the public about North Carolina’s forced sterilization program, “ Barbara Pullen-Smith, director of the state’s Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities wrote in an email to colleagues, obtained by The Wilmington Journal last week. Pullen-Smith was not available for an interview at press time.“The exhibit documents the “ugly” history of the program and its impact throughout our state and the nation. The exhibit includes recorded messages from a few of the victims. Their compelling stories highlight their lifelong pain and shame. An interview with a former Eugenics Board member is recorded, case studies are summarized and responses from public officials are captured.”In the state Legislature, Rep. Larry Womble, the lawmaker who has championed the cause of mandated sterilized victims and supports the exhibit, is cautiously optimistic about his longheld bill to provide compensation to the survivors.After four years of not even a prayer under former House Speaker Jim Black, House Bill 296, in the House Appropriations Committee since February, is promised to get at least a hearing from House Speaker Joe Hackney, and committee co-chair H. M. “Mickey” Michaux.“This is the most that has happened with the bill in some time,” Womble, a Forsyth County Democrat, told The Wilmington Journal this week. “It wasn’t going anywhere under Speaker Black.”If ratified in it’s current form, HB296 (and its companion bill in the state Senate) would award all eligible claimants $50,000, in addition to providing “…appropriate health care coverage, counseling, and educational assistance to persons who receive compensation.”The bill also calls for $172,750,000 for the 2007-2008 fiscal year to fund the Eugenic Sterilization Compensation Fund, once the number of eugenics survivors are determined and located.But that’s the catch. What has the state done to both identify victims per their medical records, and then locate them? Because the program began in 1929, and continued on until well into the late 1970’s, many of the victims have since passed.Those who remain are in their 60’s, 70’s. 80’s and 90’s.Womble says several survivors have told him even though the state could never compensate them for the pain and suffering they’ve experienced through the years after finding out what was done to them, what little compensation they could get would at least be something.But the way the state has been dragging it’s feet on the issue since Gov. Mike Easley first apology, many of those survivors believe they might not live to see the day when the state financially owns up, even in part, for what it did. The survivors believe that state lawmakers are deliberately dragging their feet in hopes that as many of them die off as possible. Sarah Rogers certainly believed that before she died.