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Virginia Pilot Online: Virginia owes just payment to victims of shameful act Print

BY  ROGER CHESLEY

Created: Saturday, August 11, 2012

Backers of a new effort to compensate victims of state-sponsored eugenics in Virginia are on a quest:

Can they find a survivor of forced sterilization who's willing to come forward, in the same way Elaine Riddick did to become the face of the issue in North Carolina?

Riddick has been a vocal critic of what happened to her in 1968, when she was just 14 years old. The Tar Heel State ordered her to be sterilized after she was raped and gave birth to a son.

"The pain is always there," the 58-year-old has said publicly.

A compensation bill supported by Gov. Beverly Perdue passed the North Carolina House this year, but the Senate declined to consider the legislation. That's the closest any state has come to making reparations for this shameful practice that targeted the "feeble-minded." Most of the affected families were poor and had little education.

"It's a civil rights issue, a human rights issue," Mark Bold, executive director of the Lynchburg-based Christian Law Institute, told me this week. His organization, a nonprofit legal think tank, runs the Justice for Sterilization Victims Project.

Bold's group and Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, are floating a proposal to create a task force to study Virginia's history of sterilizations and perhaps make payments to survivors in the commonwealth.

Hope told me he's followed developments in North Carolina, which had 7,600 forced sterilizations - the second-most in the country, behind California.

Virginia authorities oversaw 7,450 sterilizations between 1924 and 1979. Bold said most took place here between 1924 and 1948. About 70 percent of North Carolina's cases, however, occurred after World War II.

"I want to know the reasons people were sterilized... and let them tell their story," Hope said.

But he said he's unsure whether he'll file legislation in 2013. That suggests Hope knows how difficult it would be to pass a compensation bill.

Plus, most of the people who suffered the procedures in Virginia are probably dead now.

In 2002, then-Gov. Mark Warner formally apologized for the state's history of eugenics. But the state failed to do more.

It's noteworthy that Virginia has reacted differently to other past controversies.

In 2005, the state awarded the first of the Brown v. Board of Education scholarships. They went to students who were denied education during Massive Resistance in Virginia. Several schools, including those in Norfolk, shut down rather than integrate after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Wrongly convicted prisoners, many of them freed because of advances in DNA testing, have won damages from the General Assembly. They include Julius Earl Ruffin, who was released in 2003 after serving 21 years in prison for a rape in Norfolk he didn't commit. The Assembly approved a $1.22 million package.

Nationally, President Ronald Reagan in 1988 signed legislation that provided payouts - or reparations - to Japanese Americans forced into internment camps during World War II. The majority were U.S. citizens whose only crime was their heritage.

Those examples make the point: Righting past wrongs has its place - even decades later.

Especially in Virginia.


 



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