A new book explores the 12-year fight to get compensation for victims of North Carolina's forced sterilization program. Rage to Redemption in the Sterilization Age: A Confrontation with American Genocide was written by John Railey.

Railey is the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal and was one of three reporters who chronicled the eugenics program for a series of articles in 2002, along with Kevin Begos and Danielle Deaver. Railey spoke with WFDD's Paul Garber on writing about this dark chapter of North Carolina history and how that changed his views on religion and politics.

Thousands of men, women and juveniles were sterilized by the state under a program that ran from the 1920s into the 1970s. Many were from poor means, and often either didn't understand the implications of what was being done to them, or were forced to undergo treatments whether they wanted it or not.

In the years after reporting on the legacy of the program, he became an editorial writer and then the editorial page editor at the Journal.

He says he used that platform to push for compensation for the victims of the program.

It was an up-and-down battle, he says. There were supporters of compensation, but little actual action to get victims paid. The first checks were finally delivered last fall.

Railey, a Quaker, writes often about the role of faith in shaping his understanding of the victim's plight and in the fight to push for compensation. He says he still worries that medical science is increasing at a faster rate than our ability to deal with its moral implications.

"Bioethics can't keep up with advances in biotech," he says.

He says that although there were Democrats who pushed for compensation, it was the Republican majority led by now U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis that ultimately was able to get the legislation passed. It didn't matter that the push began with Democrats, Railey says.

“There were still right-thinking people who said ‘It doesn't matter who started it, it still needs to get right,'” he says.

Below is the prologue of Rage to Redemption in the Sterilization Age. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. www.wipfandstock.com

Legality and morality are not, of course, in any way related. What Hitler did to the Jews was strictly legal according to the German laws he created . . .

—Hal Crowther

Raleigh, North Carolina, March 14, 2003

She is part of a story as old as the Crucifixion. Innocents on the cross.

She's come all this way and prayed all this way. She has to speak. Nial Cox Ramirez slowly rises to a podium in the bland conference room. Committee members in plush suits and plush seats lean forward, waiting. Female photographers not much older than Nial was when this started tiptoe around the room, trying to find the best angle, the best light. The conference room is silent save for the soft clicking of their cameras. Everyone watches and waits, wondering what this woman will say in her debut appearance before the committee.

She's a large and graceful black woman in a dark blue pantsuit, a retired nurse's aide with gray hair cropped short. Her hard, dark eyes aren't without a trace of innocence, a reminder that she was just eighteen when this started. She looks around the room at the strange faces staring at her.

The words won't come, even though she agonized about what to say as she flew in from Atlanta the night before, her stomach doing flips as the plane roared to her home state of North Carolina, a place she hates. Flying back in time.

On another cold afternoon thirty-eight years ago, in another state chamber of bureaucracy just a few miles away, a few strangers walked into a room, closed the doors and voted to have her sterilized. She'd wondered who these people were who could make this decision about her life.

The North Carolina Eugenics Board hadn't known anything about her. It acted on the basis of a form petition, several pages typed out by a social worker. The “consent” she gave came after she and her mother had been repeatedly threatened.

At eighteen, she was a minor under the law at the time. She and her mother signed a consent form, but officials noted in their paperwork that “neither appears to be capable of understanding the sterilization procedure.” The members of the board probably didn't read those words, Nial's life having been reduced to a one-paragraph summary by the board's executive secretary, a few lines trailing off to a diagnosis of “feeble-minded.” 

Nial (pronounced just like the soap, as she sometimes tells folks) didn't get a chance to say she wasn't feeble-minded or crazy or any other label they wanted to pin on her.

A clerk of the board had folded up the document, put it in an envelope, licked it shut and mailed it to a social worker at the welfare department in Nial's hometown, Plymouth, an all but forgotten spot on the Roanoke River that was a three-hour drive down a two-lane highway from bustling Raleigh. The letter and several other orders of sterilization were sent out to the far reaches of the state. Nial's order eventually made it to her social worker, who gave it to her boss, who in turn notified the proper medical authorities, who in turn made their plans without Nial.

And so it was that in the winter of 1965, shortly after the birth of her only child, Nial went to the Plymouth hospital, just a couple of miles from her home, and underwent “that thing.” She didn't get any counseling.

In the fullness of time, she learned that the procedure was irreversible, that her doctor had lied to her. She learned that the state and its façade of legality had been behind it, that it was part of a nationwide movement, an international movement. Back in the 1970s, she'd stood up against the system, despite the whites back home who'd called her stupid. While living just outside New York City, she made national headlines by becoming the plaintiff in the ACLU's first lawsuit against a state sterilization program. Gloria Steinem, with her long brown hair and chic style, stood with her at a packed press conference announcing the suit. Other speakers at the conference sought to tie the fight against forced sterilization to the one for abortion rights, a cause Nial wanted no part of.

She sought $1 million in damages but lost, ending up with just a few thousand dollars from one of the parties, who didn't want Nial's lawyers to appeal. Nial withdrew into her broken self. When I'd tracked her down a few months before, she'd been reluctant to reenter the fray.

But now she was again becoming a major player in the battle for compensation.

She'd learned that hers was not an isolated incident, that she was one of more than 7,600 men, women, and children of modest means often bullied into sterilizations by the state of North Carolina from the dawn of the Great Depression through the fall of Nixon, one of at least 65,000 people sterilized nationwide, including some who died during the operations, and many more sterilized in Hitler's Germany and other countries throughout the world.

North Carolina had one of America's most aggressive programs. The Carolina victims had been coerced into having operations in bustling cities like Winston-Salem and in rural hamlets like Nial's Plymouth. The victims included prison inmates, patients in mental hospitals, troubled teenagers in reform schools, runaways. They were whites, Indians, and blacks, adults and children, including boys who were castrated—poor folks like Nial.

North Carolina had ramped up its program even as other states downsized theirs in the post-World War II era. North Carolina had roared on until it was number three in the country in annual sterilizations, behind only California and neighboring Virginia.

North Carolinians didn't seem to care, despite the state's large number of abortion-hating Christians, who talked of the sanctity of life. The program, once publicly embraced by progressive leaders and the powerful and rich and carried out by doctors both black and white, retreated into the shadows toward the end, carrying out its business with cool, cruel precision even as its foundation, the junk science of eugenics, caved under academic challenges. The program's unofficial policy became racism and reducing the welfare rolls.

The Eugenics Board released little information about its work other than cheery press releases. It sterilized its story. “Most of the people involved want to be sterilized,” one of the board's executive secretaries, Sue Casebolt, claimed in a newspaper interview in 1966. She once advocated not reporting to the public the race of those sterilized to avoid questions. Gullible reporters turned the board's press releases into their own stories. “Hundreds of unhappy lives were averted and tremendous costs to the state were saved as the result of the application of the state's eugenic sterilization law during the last biennium,” a reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal wrote in a 1949 story that also said those sterilized were “protected from parenthood.”

The program was a betrayal of the picture North Carolina was presenting to the world, that of a Southern state forward-thinking on business, transportation and race relations, more progressive than its neighbors Virginia and South Carolina, more enlightened than Mississippi or Alabama. North Carolina was “the good-roads state,” not some sweaty, dirt-road place.

Many of the victims of the North Carolina program, including bewildered children, were quietly driven to their operations on some of the best roads in the South.

Nobody had cared about Nial and the others—mostly black women and girls at the end.

Until now. Maybe. At least that's what they were saying. North Carolina, one of the last states to end its program, could become the first in the country to compensate victims.

Nial looks around the room.

There's Elaine Riddick, sterilized in 1968 in a county that neighbors Nial's home county. There is Carmen Hooker Odom, a friend of Governor Mike Easley and the head of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. She's an attractive blonde about Nial's age who'd greeted her warmly.

I'm there as a reporter from the team started by Kevin Begos at the Winston-Salem Journal that had revealed the brutal inner workings of the sterilization program in the investigative series “Against Their Will” a few months before, a package that led to this Raleigh meeting. My job was the victims. I'd spent months tracking them down, interviewing them and writing their stories. Nial was one of the first I'd found.

We're slowly getting to know each other. The governor when Nial's sterilization petition was processed, the late James Terry Sanford, had been a friend of my family, a man who, my father says, was one of the pioneer liberal leaders of the South. “Terry,” as he was known throughout the state, has loomed large throughout my life. He was the one Southern governor who pioneered peaceful integration. He ran for the Democratic nomination for the presidency and went on to serve with distinction in the U.S. Senate.

Had he known about the program? Those close to him were telling me he didn't. I want to believe them.

Why had my once mighty newspaper supported the program?

As Nial stands to speak, I hear myself whispering, “Go Nial!” And I'm thinking, “Goddamn North Carolina”—my state, which I had loved—for what it had done to her and the others.

Also in the room is Larry Womble, a state House representative and retired educator from Winston-Salem, a bedrock of the program. Soon after our newspaper series ended, Larry took the compensation cause and ran with it. We're becoming allies in the fight. Larry is spending almost as much time talking to the victims as I am. He's a tall man who sports a neatly clipped mustache. As usual, he is nattily dressed in a tailored suit. He identifies with the victims as an underdog who had his own share of troubles. When he was a city alderman back in the 1990s, he was one of several charged in a corruption scandal. He was wrongly accused, but was rightly acquitted. In several terms in the House, Womble, a Democrat, has fought for social justice but has a hard time getting his bills to the floor. The white power structure in his party gives him lip service.

But Governor Easley, who apologized for the program the day our investigative series ended, appointed a committee to study compensation. It is that committee, which has made national headlines as the first of its kind in America, that Nial is facing.

The Democratic governor is a bantam, handsome man who raised himself up from prosecuting cases in rural courtrooms to the attorney general's office along the way to leading the state. The governor, who speaks with a soft drawl, is a paradox, a silver-haired, natural politician liked by everyone from blue-collars to bluebloods. But he doesn't like politicking, preferring instead to work on carpentry projects in a backroom of the governor's mansion—his bunker. He relied heavily on the black vote to win office just a few years ago, and he comes from the same region of North Carolina as Nial—the poor but beautiful coastal plain. Appearing at the hearing would have been a headline-grabbing moment for the governor, who faces reelection next year.

Nial doesn't care that he's not there. The most important person in the room to her is Deborah Chesson, the daughter she gave birth to just a few months before the state got to her.

The program was based on eugenics, which sought to create a master race by sterilizing “undesirables.” Eugenics had said that Nial wasn't fit to reproduce, that she'd only give birth to, in the words of some of the sterilization supporters, “morons.”

But the one child the state allowed her to have is a college graduate who works in the computer industry. And that grown child often says she owes whatever she's accomplished to her mom's nurturing.

Nial looks at her daughter. Deborah smiles at her, nudging her on.

Nial glances out a window, focusing on some point far beyond the late winter day. She is back in the dark place, feeling the old emptiness, once again missing the children she never got to have, wondering what they might have done with their lives and what comfort they might have brought her. She worries about what will happen when she gets old, with Deborah having to look after her by herself, no help from brothers or sisters.

She wipes at another tear. From somewhere, the words come. Her tenor voice has lost most of its Southern inflection and sounds almost Northern. It's direct and strong.

“I tried so hard to bury this, but it just won't go away. It's like a cancer that eats you and eats you and eats you.”

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