CHARLOTTE — North Carolina native Elaine Riddick calls her family a blessing.
As she showed off photos of her son and grandson in her Atlanta home, she admitted she would have liked to have had more children, but was prevented from doing so by order of the Eugenics Board of North Carolina after she was raped at 13.
“From that rape I became pregnant,” she said. “And from that, I had my son at the age of 14. And when I went to the hospital to have my son, they sterilized me.”
Riddick was one of about 7,600 people sterilized by the state between 1929 and 1974. She said a social worker pressured her grandmother into signing a consent order by threatening to cut off financial aid for food.
Riddick said she was devastated to learn the scope of the program.
“When it really hit me what they had done to me, I just felt like I wanted the floor to open up. I didn’t want to live, you know? Because it was so shameful, so painful to think our government would allow this to happen to its citizens,” Riddick said.
Adopted in 1929 and revised in 1933 after being struck down by the North Carolina Supreme Court because of a lack of due process, the North Carolina Sterilization Statute allowed for the forced sterilization of “feebleminded, epileptic, and mentally diseased” and anyone believed to be incapable of rearing children.
A 1938 publication by the Eugenics Board states sterilization would “help reduce the burdens and increase the happiness and prosperity of the population in this and future generations.”
UNC School of Law professor Alfred Brophy, who has written extensively on race relations, described what happened as “some of the most intrusive invasions on personal autonomy that took place anywhere in the United States in the 20th Century.” He said the rise of eugenics in the U.S. was due in part to economics.
“Emerging out of the First World War, when governments didn’t have much money, there was a sense that the payments of public support for disabled and incompetent people were a burden on the public treasury,” Brophy said.
In all, 33 states passed similar laws, although not all of them practiced sterilization. Nevada, for example, never sterilized anyone, but most did. California’s program sterilized more than 20,000 people between 1909 and 1963, followed by Virginia then North Carolina.
In part two of Eugenics: The Final Chapter, anchor Rob Boisvert will take a look at the demographics behind North Carolina's forced sterilizations.