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Richmond Times Dispatch.com: Madison Heights woman recalls forced sterilization Print


Created:  Friday, August 24, 2012  1:00AM


LYNCHBURG - Like many other residents of the institution once known as the Lynchburg Training School and Hospital, Sarah Pack Wiley apparently understood little of what "the operation" meant.

But there's one part she remembers vividly.

"They gave me ether," she said last week, after telling her story to a group that wants the state to make symbolic payments to living Virginians who were sterilized under a misguided science called eugenics.

The pseudo-science was intended to prevent reproduction among people who were deemed mentally deficient.

"I didn't know what it was about," said Wiley, 76.

Wiley's discharge documents from the training school confirm a sterilization procedure in 1959.

She was 24 years old.

Officials at the training school, now called the Central Virginia Training Center, told her after the procedure that she couldn't have children of her own.

"I felt sad," Wiley said.

A nonprofit group called the Christian Law Institute is looking for more eugenics victims like Wiley to step forward and tell their stories to lawmakers and news media.

Mark Bold, a third-year student at the Liberty University School of Law, describes the institute as an educational, research and policy group. He said it has 11 members, most of whom are lawyers, legal scholars, former judges or law students.

Bold became interested in the eugenics issue when his law class studied a case known as Buck v. Bell and realized "this happened in our backyard."

The case involved training school resident Carrie Buck, an 18-year-old unwed mother who was the first person sterilized under Virginia's 1924 eugenics law. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law in 1927.

Bold said the institute's only goal is to win "some relief" for the injustice of sterilizing people who, in most cases, didn't realize what was happening to them.

More than 7,300 sterilizations have been recorded under the law, and some estimates go as high as 8,000. The majority of them occurred at CVTC, historians have confirmed.

Bold said few of the victims remain alive, and he's hoping more of them will come forward. He has teamed up with Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, with the goal of passing legislation to authorize payments to people who were sterilized.

Wiley said she's interested in money if the state decides to award some to victims like her, but she's also hoping that by coming forward she may be connected with her sister, Shirley, whom she hasn't seen in many years.

Wiley, Shirley and their older brother, Marvin, were taken from their parents in Patrick County and admitted to the training school in March 1948, according to documents she has kept. The parents' names were James and Irene Pack.

Marvin died at age 40 of a bleeding ulcer and is buried in the cemetery at CVTC in Madison Heights, Wiley said.

The last time she heard from Shirley, Wiley said, her sister was living with a family in Gladys in Campbell County.

Diagnosed as has having a moderate mental deficiency when she was admitted to the institution at age 11, Wiley nevertheless has some vivid, if disorganized, memories of the 27 years she was a resident of the Madison Heights facility.

She recalled that one of her female friends who faced impending sterilization met a male resident at the school and ran away to be with him.

"He put a ring on her finger," Wiley said.

However, the couple's rendezvous point was at the railroad tracks near the training center. As they attempted to jump onto a boxcar to escape, the girl was struck by the train and killed.

That's the story that circulated in the training school, Wiley recalled. She also remembers the girl's open-casket funeral in the school chapel. "She was buried in that ring," Wiley said.

"Escapes" from the institution were common, she said.

"They'd run away at the dance hall," when residents gathered for social events at the training school, Wiley said.

Wiley said she tried to run away, "but I didn't get nowhere." She was found at a ball field on the grounds and returned to a dormitory.

Wiley was an early example of a struggle that's continuing today as the government seeks to downsize the institution, which in the early 1970s held 3,686 residents.

She was discharged from the training school in February 1976.

Later, at age 51, she met and married James Wiley. Their marriage lasted 11 years, until he died.

Wiley now lives with a friend in Madison Heights.

Documents, now filed in a scrapbook by her friend, confirm Wiley underwent the sterilization procedure in 1959. It is signed by five different officials from the training school.

The notation reads this way:

"MEDICAL EVENTS IN THE INSTITUTION: In 1948 she had acute tonsillitis, in 1949 pharyngitis, 1959 sterilization, and in 1974 arrhythmia."

That document is backed up by another one on file in the Amherst County Court Clerk's Office, where a Chancery Court file book indexes cases by name.

Several pages in the file book show half a dozen and sometimes more people listed for a type of action abbreviated as "ster.", for sterilization.

One record shows the court appointed a legal guardian to represent Sarah Jane Pack in a sterilization matter. Harold B. Singleton, an attorney, was named her guardian on April 7, 1959.

The court file also shows that Singleton was appointed as guardian for several other training-school residents that month, including Wiley's brother, Marvin.

The rate of sterilization procedures tapered off in the late 1960s, but it continued until 1979.

In 2002, then-Gov. Mark Warner formally apologized to people who were sterilized. Hope and the Christian Law Institute cite that apology as a precedent for seeking a form of closure for the surviving victims.