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Virginia Pilot: It's time for Virginia to follow N.C.'s example on eugenics compensation Print


Created:  July 26, 2014


Another hopeful milestone has been reached in North Carolina, as officials announced this week that 780 people have filed claims as victims of state-sponsored eugenics.

Individuals whose documents are verified will share equally in a $10 million fund established in the Tar Heel State. Payments would be disbursed June 30, 2015.

By contrast, Virginia has been pathetically passive in dealing with survivors of its eugenics program. Leaders have refused to enact a compensation plan, helping keep the wounds fresh for the handful of victims still alive here.

In North Carolina, the money will help compensate for the government's horrific sterilization program, which lasted from 1929 to 1974. Some 7,600 people - many of them poor, deemed mentally handicapped, promiscuous or "defective" - underwent operations. Some said they didn't learn, until many years later, they couldn't conceive children.

North Carolina's compensation program has overcome many hurdles. The effort included the creation of a foundation in 2010 to help locate victims. The program received boosts from activists, news outlets and lawmakers who refused to let the idea die. Newspapers, including the Winston-Salem Journal, published profiles and photos of the survivors, relaying in their own words the pain they experienced.

"They took away my rights to be a woman, my rights to have children, my rights to be happy," said Elaine Riddick Jessie. She was sterilized when she was 14.

Virginia's eugenics program mirrored North Carolina's in some ways. Both states performed about the same number of sterilizations. Only California had more, at about 20,000.

Virginia, though, has its own discredited place in history. The eugenics movement gained more acceptance across the country after the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1927, upheld the commonwealth's eugenics law. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., writing for the court majority, infamously declared: "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Legislators here have tried to establish a compensation program similar to North Carolina's, but those attempts have failed. Earlier this year, a House subcommittee killed a bipartisan proposal sponsored by Dels. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, and Patrick Hope, D-Arlington County, that would've authorized $50,000 payments to each victim.

The proposal had enjoyed support from of a wide array of groups, including the Family Foundation of Virginia and the American Civil Liberties Union.

It shouldn't be a financial issue: The state's eugenics program lasted from 1924 to 1979, but the numbers were much higher at the beginning and then tapered off. There were 97 sterilizations in 1960, but the numbers fell after that.

Recent news articles say only 10 people still living have come forward with definitive medical documentation of forced sterilizations in Virginia.

Even if the figures were higher, though, it shouldn't prevent the state from doing what's right.

"I haven't lost interest," Marshall told me, saying he'll sponsor the measure again in 2015. "What's going on is a death watch" to prevent payments.

Hope told me Friday he's just as determined to pass legislation: "The more we talk about this, and educate people... the more people we have coming to our side."

North Carolina has provided a template. Virginia should follow it.

"It would really be nice," Hope said, "if we closed a chapter here on this horrible incident."

Before all the survivors die.