Home (link to Eugenic Sterilizations in the United States)

Lutz Kaelber, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Vermont and students in HCOL195
Contact: lutz.kaelber@uvm.edu
Last updated: 10/30/2014

  Eugenics/Sexual Sterilizations in

North Carolina

(eugenics; sexual sterilization)

Number of Victims

Over 8,000 sterilizations were approved by the Eugenics Board of North Carolina. The total number of victims actually sterilized is estimated to have been over 7,600 (Winston-Salem, “Lifting the Curtain on a Shameful Era”).  Of this number, females represented approx. 85% of those sterilized (State Library, “Statistics,” p. 1).  By the late 1960s, the sterilization of men was virtually halted, as women made up 99% of those sterilized (Sinderbrand, p. 1).  African Americans represent 39% of those sterilized overall; by the later 1960s, they made up 60% of those sterilized, even though they made up only a quarter of the population (Sinderbrand, p. 1).  Of those sterilized up to 1963, 25% were considered mentally ill and 70% were considered mentally deficient.  In each of these categories, females account for over 75% of the sterilizations.  North Carolina ranked third in the United States for the total number of people sterilized.

Period During Which Sterilization Occurred

Sterilizations started in 1929 with the passage of the sterilization law and continued through 1973, when the last recorded sterilization is known to have been reported. 

Temporal Pattern of Sterilization

Graph of sterilizations in North Carolina

After the passage of the sterilization law in 1929, sterilization law began at slow rate.  It was not until about 1938 that sterilizations began to increase at a steady rate. After WWII, sterilizations accelerated and peaked in the two years between 1950 and 1952, with 704 sterilizations (State Library, “Statistics”, p. 1).  This makes North Carolina fairly unique, as its peak sterilizations occurred after WWII, at a time when most other states had ceased performing operations (for other exceptions, see also eugenic sterilizations in Iowa and Georgia).  After 1960, the rate of sterilization began to slow and continued to decrease from a rate of about 250 a year in 1963 to 6 per year in 1973.  From 1950-1963 there were an average of about 300 sterilizations per year.  In the peak years (the 1950s) there were about 7 sterilizations for every 100,000 residents of the state per year.

Passage of Laws

The very first sterilization law was passed in 1919 but it was probably never put to use. Many feared that the law was unconstitutional and therefore the state feared putting it into practice (Paul, p. 420).  In 1929, The North Carolina General Assembly passed a new sterilization law. It stated that “the governing body or responsible head of any penal or charitable institution supported wholly or in part by the State of North Carolina, or any sub-division thereof, is hereby authorized and directed to have the necessary operation for asexualization or sterilization performed upon any mentally defective or feeble-minded inmate of patient thereof” (State Library, “History”, p. 1).  After this law was declared unconstitutional by the state's Supreme Court in 1933 due to a deficient appeals process, North Carolina in the same year enacted a new sterilization law that “provided for notice, hearing, and the right to appeal” (Paul, p. 421).  The passage of this law also created the North Carolina Eugenics Board (see below).  The passage of the 1929 sterilization law made North Carolina the 17th state out of 33 to pass one.  North Carolina's 1933 law remained effective until 1973, when the last recorded sterilizations were performed (State Library, “History,” p. 1).  Finally, on April 4, 2003, the North Carolina Senate voted unanimously to overturn it (“Bill to Overturn Eugenics Law Passes State Senate,” p. 1).

Groups Identified by the Law

As stated in the original sterilization law of 1929, the groups targeted for sterilization were identified as “mentally ill, mentally retarded, and epileptic” (Paul, p. 421).  However, the law also stated that the purpose of sterilization is to protect impaired people from parenthood who would become seriously handicapped if they were to assume parental responsibilities (Paul, p. 421).

With the passage of the 1933 law, the state of North Carolina instituted a Eugenics Board made up of high-ranking public health officials. Their main purpose was to decide whether sterilization petitions should be carried out. These Board members were addresses cases of individuals diagnosed as feeble minded or mentally ill (Gardella, p. 108). Another major goal of sterilization was to keep the “handicapped” from perpetuating themselves. Sterilization was seen as a way to prevent the spending of tax dollars on the “feeble-minded” (Gardella, p. 108). It should be noted that the law had an "extramural" component; i.e., it allowed for the sterilization of individuals who were presently not placed in state institutions.

Process of the Law

Under the sterilization law, the North Carolina General Assembly gave the governing body or executive head of any penal or charitable public institution the authority to order the sterilization of any patient or inmate whose operation they considered would be in the best interest of the individual and of the public good.  It also gave the county boards of commissioners authority to order sterilization at the public’s expense of any “mentally defective or feeble-minded resident upon receiving a petition from the individual’s next of kin or legal guardian” outside state institutions (State Library, “History”, p. 1) - thus applying potentially to every resident in North Carolina.  All orders for sterilization had to be reviewed and approved by the commissioner of the Board of Charities and Public Welfare, the secretary of the State Board of Health, and the chief medical officers of any two state institutions for the feeble-minded or insane.  In the reviewing process, they looked at a medical and family history of the individual being ordered for sterilizations to help decide whether the operation would be performed or not.  They also considered whether it was “likely that the individual might produce children with mental or physical problems” (State Library, “History”, p. 1).

In 1933, under the new law, the General Assembly created the Eugenics Board of North Carolina to review all orders for sterilization of “mentally diseased, feeble-minded, or epileptic patients, inmates, or non-institutionalized individuals” (State Library, “History”, p. 1). This centralized board included five members: the commissioner of the Board of Charities and Public Welfare, the secretary of the State Board of Health, the chief medical officer of a state institution for the feeble-minded or insane, the chief medical officer of the State Hospital at Raleigh, and the attorney general.  In the hearings of patients or inmates in a public institution, the head of that institution was the prosecutor in presenting the case to the Eugenics Board.  In hearings of individuals who were non-institutionalized, the county superintendent of welfare or another authorized county official acted as the prosecutor.  However, in both hearings, the prosecutor provided the board with a medical history signed by a physician familiar with the individual’s case. The petition for the hearing was sent to the individual being ordered or to their next of kin or legal guardian.  In the situation where this person could not represent or defend themselves at the hearing, the next of kin, guardian, or county solicitor stepped in to represent them.  If the board decided to order the sterilization, the order had to be signed by at least 3 members and then returned to the prosecutor.  This decision could be appealed by the individual to the county superior court and then further appealed to the state supreme court.  If the appeal was successful, any petitions for sterilization were prohibited for one year, unless the individual, or his or her guardian or next of know requested sterilization (State Library, “History”, p. 1).

Precipitating Factors and Processes

Eugenics in the 1950s was to some extent a southern phenomenon, as many states in other regions saw their number of sterilizations drop.  Few sterilizations occurred in the 1930s in North Carolina (and in the other southern states) because the Great Depression resulted in funding crises that didn’t allow for sterilization to occur in full force in the South. Sterilization picked up pace after WWII, especially during the mid-1950s (Castles, p. 1).

One factor leading to the acceleration after WWII was race. Race has always been a loaded issue in the south, as slavery was prominent there.  When slavery was legal, white slave owners encouraged the reproduction of their slaves in order to create bodies to work and sell. The legacy of considering poor Blacks as a source of cheap servant labor continued.  By the 1950s, some in the white majority were becoming anxious about supporting blacks through welfare.  The heads of the agencies of welfare departments agreed on the value of sterilization for reducing general welfare relief and ADC (Aid for Dependent Children) payments (Winston-Salem, “Wicked Silence”).  Some erroneously believed that blacks accounted for the majority of illegitimate births that were “subsidized” by ADC.  The state threatened to remove welfare benefits if the person did not submit to the operation.  The fears about the rising cost of the ADC program was a major factor in leading to the shift in racial composition of those targeted for sterilization.  As the attention shifted away from the structural causes of poverty and crime to placing the blame for urban poverty and social unrest on blacks, sterilization of blacks was facilitated (Schoen, Choice and Coercion; see also Schoen, "Reassessing," p. 149).  It was believed the control the reproduction of ADC recipients was necessary; as a result, the percentage of Blacks sterilized rose from 23% in the 1930s and 1940s to 59% between 1958-60 and finally to 64% between 1964 and 1966 (Schoen, Choice and Coercion, p. 108; "Reassessing," p. 149).

Sterilization also accelerated because it expanded to include the general population when the state gave social workers the authority to submit petitions for sterilization.  Therefore, the amount of eligible people increased drastically.  “The North Carolina Board-which initially targeted those who were deemed mentally ill, expanded its program to include the general population.  In fact, “the majority of those sterilized had never been institutionalized, and 2,000 were younger than 19” (Wiggins, p. 1).  In addition, the fight against poverty in North Carolina led to sterilizations in the general population.  As this fight intensified, a new policy was created that led to an increase in the number of non-institutionalized people who were sterilized.  Sterilizations of the non-institutionalized rose from 23% between 1937 and 1951 to 76% between 1952 and 1966 (Schoen, Choice and Coercion, p. 109, "Reassessing," p. 151).

The Human Betterment League made it their mission to spread information to the public regarding the “benefits of eugenic sterilization” (Gardella, p. 110). At the University of North Carolina State Public officials from the department of sociology searched for any possible people eligible for eugenic sterilization. Eventually through their efforts and the upholding of the state’s sterilization law North Carolina eve managed to sterilize the non-institutionalized (Gardella, p. 110)

Other Restrictions Placed on Those Identified in the Law or with Disabilities in General

There are no other known restrictions placed on those identified in the law.

Groups Targeted and Victimized

Women, Especially African Americans and Those with Developmental Disabilities

77% of all those sterilized in North Carolina were women. North Carolina carried out 50 percent of these between 1929 and 1947 on females under the age of twenty (Cahn, p.162). There was a strong historical mentality in the South that supported the idea of trying to control the reproduction of women, and African Americans which helped the idea of eugenics to spread from the North to the South with little opposition from the elitist White male population. Because of the strong belief in moral purity of the South, however it was easy to explain why White women were just as endangered as African American women.
Physicians in North Carolina didn’t leave any margin for error either. Many women were brought in under the pretext that they might have been exhibiting behaviors that were sexual in nature and thus increasing the possibility of sexual promiscuity and warranting eugenic sterilization (Cahn, p. 165).
Women that were deemed “subnormal” intellectually were also likely to be forcibly sterilized. About sixty percent of the inmates at a North Carolina Farm Colony in the 1930’s were considered feebleminded and candidates for sterilization (Cahn, p.165). The greatest fear with women was that they are deceiving to others as they are still attractive to men and yet are below the standards for reproduction. North Carolinian journalists reported on these issues stated that these morons would breed rapidly “like mink” and “contaminate” the whole “healthy human stock,” (Cahn, p.166). And most of the women that they felt needed to be sterilized most were those women that exhibited no outward sign of incompetence but simply didn’t do well on IQ tests because these women’s “charm of personality and conversation l ability…posed a greater social threat than more obviously disabled persons since their very attractiveness would lead to more opportunities for illicit sex or marriage and , thus a, the likelihood of starting a “family of future liabilities to the State” (Cahn, p. 168).

Women were not safe even if they somehow managed to flee the State of North Carolina either. Such sexually deviant women could be chased all the way to Florida, as was the case for Emma Suggs. She was a candidate for sterilization because of her mental state due to her past and her “out of wedlock pregnancy” (Cahn, p. 169).

Soon North Carolina set its sights on women of color who were seen as likely to be on welfare and to have illegitimate children. Chapel Hill Weekly stated that there was a “higher proportion of Negroes than whites:  and noted that “the feebleminded Negro woman, often with illegitimate children, is a familiar and recurrent problem to health and welfare agencies” (Cahn, p. 177).

Women, including wives, daughters, sisters and unwed mothers, were overrepresented.  They were labeled as either “promiscuous, lazy, or unfit” (Wiggins, p. 1), or more commonly as “sexually uncontrollable” (Schoen, Choice and Coercion, p. 110).  Overall, women made up 84.8% of sterilizations (State Library, “Statistics”, p. 1).  However, more interesting is that the sterilization of men virtually halted in the 1960s, with only 2 sterilizations in 1964, and 254 sterilizations of women (State Library, “Sterilizations”, p. 1).  Therefore, after 1960, women accounted for 99% of sterilizations (Sinderbrand, p. 1). While many white women were sterilized, the state began to focus on sterilizing black women as they became the majority of the welfare population.  Black women were seen as highly uneducated, poor, and as having higher fertility rates than their white female counterparts.  Schoen noted that as the amount of black women on welfare increased “the public association between ADC and black female recipients was particularly close” (Schoen, Choice and Coercion, p. 109; see also "Reassessing," p. 153).  Black women were presumed to have uncontrollable sexual behavior, and as these racial stereotypes were reinforced, black women became an even larger target for controlled reproduction through sterilization. 

Social class also played a role in who was targeted after WWII, as women on welfare, usually living in socially isolated places, were overrepresented.  The reason for this was to prevent “poor” and “unfit” women from reproducing children with mental or social ills (Wiggins, p. 1).  They were generally ordered for sterilization by social workers and lived outside of institutions.  The poor were not only targeted for their “social ills” but also because they were easier to sterilize.  They would often not be released until they or a family member agreed to have them sterilized (Wiggins, p. 1).

Women that were social workers were strong supporters for the eugenics movement. Johanna Schoen (2011) has argued that some social workers provided sterilization out of empathy. However, Krome-Lukens maintains that women were often coerced and that many social workers provided sterilizations as an opportunity to save money from future drains on society (Krome-Lukens, p. 49). Interestingly enough—according to Krome-Lukens—eugenics was a key element of progressive reform and was indicative of the new mentality surrounding sexuality and the standard gender roles of the time (Krome-Lukens, p. 9).

Finally, race also played a role in those targeted for sterilization.  During the Civil Rights Movement, petitions were sent to the state’s eugenics board for black women (Winston-Salem, “Wicked Silence”).  Overall, by the later 1960s, 60% of those sterilized were young, black women (Wiggins, p. 1).  Overall, blacks represent 38.9% of sterilizations.  This is because sterilizations of blacks were concentrated in a shorter period of time and because minorities only made up quarter of North Carolina’s population (State Library, “Statistics”, p. 1).  From the years 1960 to 1962, of the 467 sterilization ordered by the board, 284 (61%) were black (Winston-Salem, “Wicked Silence”).  In addition, blacks were targeted because the amount of welfare recipients who were black grew from 31% in 1950 to 48% in 1961 (Schoen, Choice and Coercion, p. 109; see "Reassessing," p. 151).  It was seen as necessary to sterilize those recipients of welfare to decrease the growing financial burden on the state.

In an interview for MSNBC's "Rock Center" in 2011, NC Governor Perdue was asked about the increase in eugenics sterilizations in the 1950s and 1960s. The Governor's response was evasive and provided no acknowledgement of the fact that there were disproportionate numbers of African American females among the victims as a response of deliberate state policies that were based on disability, race, gender, and class. See here.

There are two stories that were made public by two black women who were sterilized against their will at a young age in North Carolina.  The first is Elaine Riddick, who had been sterilized at the age of 14 by a state order in North Carolina in 1968 after giving birth to a baby after being raped.  When she was operated on she was not informed that she was being sterilized.  She only discovered this years later when she was trying to get pregnant with her husband.  She was considered part of a lower class and the consent form had been signed by her illiterate grandmother, who was threatened to lose her public benefits, and her parents, who were both alcohol dependent at the time.  She blames the sterilization for ending her marriage and is still affected by the surgery, saying, “I felt like I was nothing.  It’s like, the people that did this; they took my spirit away from me” (Sinderbrand, p. 1).

The second story is of Nial Cox Ramirez, who was sterilized at the age of 17 after several instances of pressure from social workers to get sterilized after becoming pregnant.  She eventually complied because they threatened to take her family off of welfare, but she was never informed of the consequences of the surgery.  She was assured she would be able to become pregnant again, but learned otherwise when she attempted to conceive years later.  Like Riddick, her marriage fell apart.  When she sued the state of North Carolina in 1967, the lawsuit was dismissed on a technicality (Wiggins, p. 1).  These women were only two among those who fell under the categories of the groups targeted, and suffered as a result.

Some were quick to believe that Black Americans practiced reckless breeding (Larson, p. 156). However, North Carolina took an ever more grand approach to solving its reproductive woes, instituting a birth control program geared towards giving poor women a more acceptable and less costly way to prevent unwanted pregnancies claiming that it would “be taught when the economic status precludes adequate care” (Larson, p.157).

Young children were also targeted by these eugenic practices. A teenage girl from North Carolina was the object of her father’s affections. She was given a physical and the doctors realized that she’d had sexual intercourse. As a result he parents gave consent to have their daughter sterilized instead of reprimanding the father for sexually assaulting his daughter (Ariyo, p. 59).

Blacks and Mentally and Physically Disabled: The Story of Junius Wilson

Picture of Junius Wilson (Source: http://www.racialicious.com/2009/05/26/when-systems-of-oppression-intersect-mental-health-and-the-immigration-system/)

Junius Wilson was born in 1908 to Sidney and Mary Wilson (Burch, p. 1). He was born deaf in and so his literacy level was extremely low. At the age of eight he was sent away to a residential North Carolina School for the deaf and blind in Raleigh. This was America’s first school created to care for the special needs black children (Burch, p. 20). He was never taught proper sign language and so his family members often would misunderstand him or misinterpret gestures that he made, and he also did not understand the things that his family members were telling him, as his mother could not teach him how to read and write (Burch, p. 18). Because of the confusing communication, some of his family members suspected that he had assaulted one of his own family members sexually. In this community he was somewhat safer from his family however he was sent here not for deafness per se but for his perceived mental deficiencies and sexual deviations. Here in this institution Wilson became a member of a community that was equally misunderstood and equally ostracized by the greater community. They were all people of color and they were all unable to communicate by normal conventions. They were never officially taught ASL (American Sign Language) as they were all people of color and at the time no one saw fit to use their teaching resources on Blacks. They instead developed their own gestures and signs to communicate with one another and to the staff members in the institution. This form of sign language was entirely unique to these people. As a result, the deaf Blacks from Raleigh could not communicate with other signing deaf people, and far less could they be understood by their hearing peers (Burch, p. 22).

Southern states had a strong history of segregation. This mentality of separation and White superiority bled the special education programs of even the most progressive places south of the Mason Dixon, like North Carolina. Gustavus Ernest Lineberry became the superintendent for the North Carolina School for the Colored Blind and Deaf in 1918, after this the quality of education changed dramatically. Lineberry was a firm believer in the teaching of the blind and deaf, even Blacks, but he was not so kind as to consider the needs of his White and Black students to be the same (Burch, p. 22). He completely redistributed the resources of the school so that the best teachers and alumni were teaching at the White schools. He then made sure to provide a far less academic curriculum for the Blacks, as he felt there was a dire need to keep Blacks “in their place” (Burch, p. 22). The Black students with physical disabilities were given an education that would prepare them for rudimentary, vocational labor so that they could prove their worth to society ‘boys were taught shoe repairing, carpentry and cabinetmaking along with dairy work” (Burch, p. 22). It was also clear that this vocational form of training, towards fields that required little interaction, lowered the cost that their programs would incur and made the need for sufficient literacy nearly unimportant.

This, however, created a great deal of socialized problems for the students participating in the programs. Everyone sent to the school for the Colored Deaf and Blind was sent there to become better functioning and well prepared to rejoin society. But the students were not exposed to role models that were not fluent in sign and who did not know how to supply the needs of the deaf and blind. And because of the segregation that was taking place students could not even be taught by their White peers secretly, because they were transferred to Morganton (Burch, p.23).

Goldsboro Asylum during the Great Depression

Junius Wilson was becoming too much of a burden for his family as he became older, and his communication with them had not really improved either which was greatly to his detriment. His family decided that the best thing they could do in their situation was to have Wilson committed to a mental asylum. He was given up to the police by his family under the charge of attempted rape. However, it is clear that not everyone was on board with this idea. Although, his mother allowed them to take him away it was said that she didn’t approve of the decision and would not speak with André, his father, because he was the one that supported removing his son permanently (Burch, p. 129).

Wilson was moved to Goldsboro Asylum in a farming colony. North Carolina was experiencing the debilitation of the Great Depression just like everyone else at the time and so holding whole mental institutions was more of a juggling act than those that ran the institutions could bear alone. Goldsboro opened up farming colonies in order to defer some of the costs involved in feeding inmates by having the inmates work for the food that they ate. The institution even went so far as to send inmates to other farms so that they could make money for the asylum. One could look at this as a sad combination of economic desperation seasoned with racism in the South and a disregard for the mentally and physically disabled (Burch, p. 76).

Freedom for Wilson

After a great deal of mistreatment however, Junius Wilson’s case was taken up by John Wasson, who noted that Wilson was being held in the Asylum for “phase of life adjustment disorder” something he felt didn’t warrant a seventy year stay in a mental institution (Burch, p. 128). In a major State court case Junius Wilson v. the State of North Carolina Wilson was finally granted his freedom and a cottage to call his own on the outskirts of the Hospital property at Goldsboro.

The Years after Junius Wilson

Wilson’s story continued to have a significant impact after his death. His case which he brought through the North Carolina judiciary as a result of his poor treatment and wrongful sterilization was a model that others used in order to seek compensation for the trauma caused (Burch, p. 214). The state of North Carolina has made great efforts to own up to its involvement in the eugenics movement. In 2003 North Carolina was one of the first states to repeal the eugenic sterilization laws. Unfortunately it has taken until very recently for any party afflicted by the eugenics laws to be officially recognized and  monetarily compensated. Until the 2009-2010 session of the State Legislature of North Carolina, there had been one promise after another with only symbolic acknowledgement being offered (Burch, p. 215). (See also below on compensation for victims.)

Major Proponents

Dr. William Allan was North Carolina’s initial promoter of negative eugenics.  He wrote his first study on eugenics in 1916 and by the end of his life he had written 93 papers.  He had his own private practice until 1941, when he started the medical genetics department at Bowman Gray.  He thought that hereditary diseases could be halted by prevention and based much of his work on field studies and surveys.  He pushed for a statewide bank of genetic information that would catalog peoples’ genetic backgrounds to see if they were prospective parents.  He continued to push for this until his death in 1943 (Winston-Salem, “Forsyth in the Forefront”).


Picture of Dr. C. Nash Herndon. (Photo origin: Winston Salem Journal,  Against Their Will,  available at  http://media.gatewaync.com/wsj/photos/specialreports/againsttheirwill/graphics/parttwo_herndonsmall.jpg)

Dr. C. Nash Herndon followed in the footsteps of Allan when he took over the department at Bowman Gray after his death.  He conducted surveys of those with disabilities in an effort to find links of hereditary diseases.  He was president of the American Eugenics Society from 1953-1955 and president of the Human Betterment League of North Carolina.  He was the greatest contributor in pushing the eugenics movement forward in North Carolina after WWII (Winston-Salem, “Forsyth in the Forefront”).


Picture of James G. Hanes (Source: http://www.ci.winston-salem.nc.us/Home/DiscoverWinston-Salem/History/Articles/Winston-SalemMayorsBiographies)

James G. Hanes was the founder of the Human Betterment League of North Carolina in 1947.  The league changed the face of eugenics in North Carolina by giving the board new legitimacy.  In 1957, the league had sent out more than 575,000 pieces of mail promoting the sterilization program and helped lead to the increasing number of sterilizations on blacks and women outside of institutions in the following years (Winston-Salem, “Selling a Solution”).

Ira M. hardy was the Superintendent at the North Carolina School for the Feeble-Minded. She appealed to the Southern Medical Association that took place in Florida expressing her deep desire to make the mentally ill completely separate from the rest of the population (Larson, p. 46).

Kate Burr Johnson was female social worker during the era of eugenic sterilization. She was a major proponent of the movement of compulsory sterilization. Johnson claimed that she wanted women to be liberated and be provided with reproductive freedom; however, she was actually strongly supporting the eugenic sterilization of people that would become social liabilities and produce unfit or economically unstable offspring (Krome-Lukens, p. 3).

“Feeder Institutions” and institutions where sterilizations were performed

Picture of the Bowman Gray School of Medicine (Photo origin:  Winston Salem Journal,  Against Their Will,  available at http://media.gatewaync.com/wsj/photos/specialreports/againsttheirwill/graphics/parttwo_bowman.jpg)


The Bowman Gray School of Medicine housed a program for eugenic sterilizations starting in 1948.  It was aimed at the eugenic improvement of the population of Forsyth County.  It consisted of a systematic approach that would eliminate certain “genetically unfit strains from the local population” (Winston-Salem, “Forsyth in the Forefront”).   It expanded the program throughout North Carolina.  The school received much philanthropic support for research of genetic ideas.  Today, school officials condemn eugenic research, as the dean of the school, Dr. William B. Applegate, states “I think that the concepts and the practice of eugenics is wrong and unethical and would in no way be approved or condoned in modern medical times” (Winston-Salem, “Forsyth in the Forefront”).  The school is now part of the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center-one of the most respected academic medical centers in the country.  Although officials of the school condemn eugenics there is no mention of the program for eugenic sterilizations on the medical center’s website.

Pictrue of Caswell Training Center Buliding  (Photo origin: North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, available at http://www.dhhs.state.nc.us/mhfacilities/images/Caswell-Center.jpg)

The Caswell Training School was founded in 1911 and was North Carolina’s only school for the mentally retarded until 1958.   It was built in Kinston, North Carolina after the people of Kinston offered free electricity and gas for the school if it located itself there (Noll, “Public Face,” p. 9).  Many local areas fought to have an institution built in their areas because the prospect of new jobs outweighed the negatives associated with the institutions. In 1912, superintendent Dr. Ira Hardy said the facility was not only designed to house the feeble-minded and decrease their threat, but also to train them for a productive life outside the institution (Noll, “Public Face,” p. 5).  However, he did not remain superintendent for long, as in 1914 Dr. C. Bank Nairy became the new superintendent.  He also spoke of control and helping patients, but in addition he focused the institution on “protecting” the patients.  Similar to other institutions, the sterilization of women became a focus and McNairy stated that the protection, care, and training of these “poor, unfortunate, fiends, yet irresponsible enemies of themselves, society, and the state” were the duty of Caswell Center (Noll, Feeble-Minded, p. 131).  The protection the institution offered came also in the form of segregation and sterilization. Caswell Center put many of its residents to work in the later years.  The center claimed a three-fold purpose to this work: first to train the child, second to keep him out of mischief, and third to conserve the amount of money that would be paid for help to carry on the work (Noll, Feeble-Minded, p. 132).  These “high-level” patients were utilized by the center as farm and maintenance workers to decrease the facility costs. By 1935, 300 patients worked in the dining room and sewing rooms (females) and on the farm (males).  However, male residents were often released much earlier after sterilization than were their female counterparts.  From 1914-1919, 52% of men were discharged within three 3 years while only 31% of females were (Noll, Feeble-Minded, p. 132).  These numbers reflect the attitudes in the South towards sex roles and mental disabilities. Living conditions at the training school were subpar, as well as the amount of staff on hand.  In 1955 there were only 11 teachers and one psychologist for a resident population of 1800.  In the mid-1950s, the Caswell Training School sterilized about 50 people per year.  It drew its residents from the most impoverished and socially isolated sections of the white North Carolina population.  Admission to the institution was heavily class based, as low economic status went hand-in-hand with institutionalization (Noll, Feeble-Minded, p. 112).  The school is still open today and is now called the Caswell Developmental Center (Castles, pp. 1-3).  It offers residential services, care arrangements, and medical treatments to patients (Noll, “Public Face,” p. 5).  The center embraces its heritage with a museum and accessible archives, which is not common as many institutions remain ambivalent of their past (Noll, “Public Face,” p. 14).  The museum serves to show the facility’s role in mental health policy and the archives are there to help researchers and show how progress has been made in the treatment of mentally retarded persons.  However, the fact that the Caswell training school played a central role in North Carolina’s sterilization program receives limited recognition (Noll, “Public Face,” p.16).  The Caswell Training School’s website does not mention the sterilizations that occurred there in the past.


Picture of Stonewall Jackson Training School (Source: http://www.ncgenweb.us/cabarrus/Photos/HistMarkers/StonewallJacksonTrainingSchool.jpg)

The Stonewall Jackson Training School was founded in 1907 and was North Carolina’s first juvenile detention facility.  This was mostly a school for boys, but a few girls were sterilized there over its history, all of whom were labeled as “mentally retarded”.  The boys who were sent there had only “minor scrapes” with authorities, not for mental illness.  In 1948, seven boys out of 300 were targeted for sterilization because they were ready for discharge.  These boys were deemed “feebleminded” as a justification for the operation.  These were the only boys sterilized at this school (Winston-Salem, DETOUR: In ’48 State Singled out Delinquent Boys).  The building still exists but does not remain in operation today.  There is no commemoration at the site or mention of the past.


Picture of O'Berry Center Source: http://www.oberrycenterfoundation.org/wisobc.htm

The Goldsboro Training School, now known as the O’Berry Center, opened in 1957 as the first institution for black intellectually disabled citizens.  It had 150 clients were transferred to it from Cherry Hospital, at which point the treatment of the patients was limited to academics and vocational training.  It is still operating today with approximately 430 clients, but it is no longer limited to African Americans (Castles, pp. 12-14).  The center’s website refers to the institution's history of dealing with Black citizens with intellectual disabilities.

The Morrison Training School Source: (Source: http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/dgkeysearchdetail.cfm?trg=1&strucID=607397&imageID=1253742&total=17&num=0&word=21273&s=1&notword=&d=&c=&f=13&k=0&lWord=&lField=&sScope=Name&sLevel=&sLabel=North%20Carolina%20State%20Board%20of%20Charities%20and%20Public%20Welfare&imgs=20&pos=14&e=w)

The Morrison Training School was established in 1923, according to the North Carolina Department of Corrections website. Morrison Training School was originally a boys’ training school for Blacks. The facility opened in 1924, in 1925 housing eight youth. In 1939, its name was changed to Morrison Training School for Governor Cameron Morrison. The name was changed again in 1969 to Cameron Morrison School (Huggins, p.1). The facility closed and then reopened as a prison in 1977. Morrison and Sandhills Youth Center were organized as the Sandhills Youth Complex (Huggins, p.1). In 1978, three of Morrison’s dormitories were converted to house 100 women inmates. In 1988, Cameron Morrison Youth Center’s name was changed to Morrison Youth Institution (Huggins, p.1). From 1988 to 2002, Morrison Youth Institution served as a medium security prison for young male felons, 18 to 21 years of age. In January 2002, Morrison was converted to a medium security for adult males, and renamed Morrison Correctional Institution, to help meet the state’s growing need for adult male prison bed space. The youth inmates transferred to other youth prison facilities. In July 2002, Impact East was closed and was reopened in June 2003 to house minimum security youthful offenders.

The North Carolina Farm Colony (State Industrial Farm Colony for Women), as analyzed by Cahn (2007, pp. 168-72), was also "feeder institution" that held deviant female teenagers and others before having them transferred to an institution for the "feebleminded" and sterilized.

Blacks were opposed to sterilizations one two levels: those who knew about its racial bias and those who didn’t.  The sterilization program was only whispered about in the black communities, and any evidence that race played a part in those who were sterilized wasn’t made public or scrutinized.  Therefore, the eugenics board was allowed to proceed with few hurdles (Winston-Salem).  Those blacks knew about the racial bias involved with sterilization tried to push for their rights.  In 1959, State Senator Jolly introduced a bill that would authorize the sterilization of an unmarried woman who gave birth for the third time.  This bill was contested by group of blacks.  However, the senator's response was "You should be concerned about this bill. One out of four of your race is illegitimate."  Blacks that demanded to be heard were ruled out of order by the white-controlled legislature (Winston-Salem, "Wicked Silence"). 

Some college students were in opposition to the sterilizations. In 1960, students from North Carolina A&T State University began sit-in movement against states progressive attitude or race relations.  However, this gained little speed or recognition by the state to make any changes.  Also, at Shaw University in Raleigh from 1968 to 1972, student activists tried to educate blacks about the issues and threats of sterilization.  However, they lacked detailed information, and therefore this gained little momentum as well (Winston-Salem, “Wicked Silence”).

Today, North Carolina is trying to amend for its past, making it one of the only states to do so thus far.  In April 2003, the sterilization law was unanimously voted to be overturned by the North Carolina Senate.  A few weeks later, a law was then signed by Governor Easley to officially put an end to forced sterilizations in North Carolina.  Soon after, on April 17, 2003, Easley issued a public apology, stating, “To the victims and families of this regrettable episode in North Carolina's past, I extend my sincere apologies and want to assure them that we will not forget what they have endured" ("Easley Signs Law Ending State’s Eugenics Era," p. 1).  Then, in December 2005, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators passed resolution calling for federal and state programs to identify victims nationwide and get them health care and counseling (Sinderbrand, p. 1).  However, these current efforts to find sterilized victims are difficult due to budget constraints and high costs of a publicity campaign.  Therefore, efforts to find victims through "free media" were employed, such as posting info on bulletins, offices, health departments, libraries, schools, billboards, and city buses etc. (Sinderbrand, p. 1).

Source: http://news.ncdcr.gov/2009/06/18/historical-highway-marker-remembers-eugenics/

In 2009, a marker was dedicated in Raleigh, where the state eugenics board had met

Recently Gov. Bev Perdue created the N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation. The North Carolina General Assembly made funding available for the Foundation to plan and take on their mission to provide long awaited compensation to the victims who were sterilized compulsory by the State of North Carolina. The Foundation will function as a resource to help the survivors of the N.C. Eugenics Board program. The N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation is a group whose purpose is to provide information and assistance to all those affected.

A task force created by the governor has considered providing compensation for victims (NC Justice for Victims Foundation). (
http://www.sterilizationvictims.nc.gov/). A recent NY Times report described developments up to Dec. 2011.

Anderson Cooper on CNN ran a story on compensation for victims of sterilizations on 12/27/2011 (see
this link).

While a task force recommended to set compensation for surviving and verified victims at the amount of $50,000, the state senate rejected such a proposal in the summer of 2012, and the foundation was faced with the prospect of shutting down due to a lack of money. As of October 2012, only about 170 victims who are still alive have been verified, out of an estimated total of approx. 1,500-2,000. The low number of victims who have revealed themselves in this way reflects the continuing stigma of being sterilized and parallels the situation in Germany, where for many decades victims were reluctant to come forward in part due to the stigma attached to sterilizations and the still-existing belief that a sterilization constitutes a black mark on a family lineage.

The situation might be reflective of the difficulty of citizens in North Carolina to allow for "negative memory," i.e., a willingness to concede that the state representing the will of its citizens was capable of committing atrocious (though legal) deeds. In contrast to sterilization victims in British Columbia and Alberta, not a single victim of a state eugenic sterilization law is known to have been compensated by a state in the United States so far.

After extensive efforts by organizations such as the Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims, the state’s NAACP, and legal clinics by the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights to spread the word about compensation to victims of eugenic sterilization, the number of claimants reached a number close to 800 until the cutoff date of June 30, 2014. In the larger context of compensation for social injustice stemming from illiberal and injurious state programs a firm deadline seems highly problematic, as the date seems arbitrary and informed not by considerations of justice but by political expediency, and it remains unclear why such a deadline would be necessary in the first place.

The number of verified cases remains very low at less than 220 (see here). It appears that a victim is only verified for compensation if a record of an order by the state's Eugenics board exists. If this is the case, it leaves out those whose records might no longer be extant, or whose sterilization was due not to a sterilization order under the state's eugenics law but what is known as "Mississippi appendectomies" (this is noted and explained here). As is the case with the deadline, this very narrow definition of victimhood is not calibrated to the historical record or experience of victimhood.


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Burch, Susan. 2007. Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Cahn, Susan. 2007. Sexual Reckonings. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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Caswell Developmental Center. Available at

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------.  1995.  Feeble-Minded in Our Midst: Institutions for the Mentally Retarded in the South, 1900-1940.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
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Reynolds, Dave. 2003a. "Bill To Overturn Eugenics Law Passes State Senate." Inclusion Daily Express: International Disability Rights News Services (April 4).
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Schoen, Johanna. 2011. “Reassessing Eugenic Sterilization: The Case of North Carolina.” Pp.  141-60 in A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era, ed. Paul Lombardo. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
------. 2005. Choice and Coercion: Birth Control, Sterilization, and Abortion in Public Health and Welfare. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Severson, Kim. "Thousands Sterilized, a State Weighs Restitution." NYTimes.com Dec. 9, 2011. Available at <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/10/us/redress-weighed-for-forced-sterilizations-in-north-carolina.html>.

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