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NC remembering victims of sterilization program

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GARY D. ROBERTSON | June 22, 2009 07:11 PM EST | AP

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RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina recalled a regrettable side of its history on Monday by unveiling a roadside marker remembering poor people, mental patients and prisoners who were sterilized against their will by state officials.

The cast aluminum sign in downtown Raleigh provides a permanent remembrance of the program intended to keep thousands of people considered mentally disabled or otherwise genetically inferior from having children.

"This does represent one of the ugly chapters in North Carolina's history," said the Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "We have to deal with our past in order to have a better present and a stronger future."

More than 7,600 people were sterilized by "choice or coercion" under the state's so-called eugenics program between 1933 and 1973, according to the marker's text. North Carolina was one of more than two dozen states that ran such programs after social reformers began advocating for the approach a century ago.

"You did against God's will, because God's will was for us to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth in his image," sterilization victim Elaine Riddick, 55, of Dallas, Ga., said during a ceremony before the sign was revealed. "That's why he gave us such a big world."

Only about a third of the North Carolina victims still are alive, including some invited to attend the late afternoon ceremony about a block from where the state board that reviewed potential patient cases met.

North Carolina's program targeted the poor and people living in prisons and state institutions, among others. While officials obtained written consent from patients or their guardians, many didn't know what they were signing and were essentially coerced, state historians said.

Riddick, for example, was a rape victim who was sterilized soon after delivering a baby at age 14. She has said she couldn't have given consent because she was so young.

The state Eugenics Commission was abolished in 1977 after the Legislature transferred responsibility of the mentally ill to the court system.

After a series of newspaper stories about the program, then-Gov. Mike Easley apologized in late 2002 for the state's role in the sterilizations and the law allowing the sterilization was later abolished.

Efforts at giving financial compensation to victims began in 2003. Current Gov. Beverly Perdue and the Senate have set aside $250,000 in seed money in their respective budget plans to identify and develop a compensation plan.

A state House panel has recommended that the state give $20,000 to victims of the eugenics program, but the measure is unlikely to pass this year. The House bill that would begin payments now seeks $18.6 million _ a difficult amount to obtain in a year in which lawmakers are facing a $4.6 billion budget gap.

Some lawmakers also want legislation to develop curricula in the public schools about the sterilizations.

A committee of university professors approved last December the marker, which costs about $1,500 to make and erect.


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