Forced Sterilizations Still Haunt Victims of North Carolina Eugenics Program

Charlotte, N.C. – Janice Black's crooked signature crawls across the consent form. She didn't know what kind of paper she was signing. Her name was the only thing she knew how to write.

It was 1971. She was 18. Janice's IQ had tested out at 44. Her estimated mental age was 7. Her family decided she wasn't fit to raise children.

Her stepmother took her to Charlotte Memorial Hospital. Janice didn't know why. She didn't feel sick.

She woke in a hospital bed. She tried to get up, and it hurt. She looked and saw an incision from her belly button on down.

The state of North Carolina had sterilized her.

Between 1929 and 1974, the state – through the N.C. Eugenics Board – authorized the sterilizations of some 7,600 North Carolinians who were classified as mentally ill, epileptic or “feebleminded.”

Now, key state officials are leading an effort to compensate people who were sterilized, under the idea that many of the operations were medically unnecessary and morally wrong. But after more than a year of searching, the state has matched just 41 survivors to its records.

Deep in the archives, they found Janice Black's name.

She is 59 now. She lives in a house off The Plaza with the family of Sadie Gilmore Long, her longtime friend and legal guardian. Janice works three days a week and sings in her church choir and laughs at “Meet the Browns” on TV.

She tries not to think about the past. It left a scar.

“Sometimes I wish I hadn't been born, you know what I'm saying?” she says. “Sometimes I – what I feel like – that I wasn't treated fairly. Like I was a human being. I was treated like I'm not no human being.”

One of the last sterilized

Janice grew up with three older brothers in the J.H. Gunn neighborhood off Harrisburg Road. It was out in the country back then. Her father was a truck driver. Her mother died when Janice was 9, and her father remarried, to a woman with a daughter. That's when, Janice says, the hard times began.

Janice says her stepmother treated her more like a maid than a child. Janice cleaned the house and washed the clothes for the whole family. She holds her hands out; her fingers are bent like tree roots. That's where, she says, her stepmother beat her with a belt buckle.

Janice went to Albemarle Road Junior High with one of Sadie Long's brothers. Sadie and her family had moved down the street from Janice in 1967, when Janice was 15. Sadie would stop in to visit, pretending to make friends with Janice's stepmother and stepsister, but really checking on Janice. She found out that Janice slept sitting up in a chair. She found out that Janice wasn't allowed more than a block from the house.

“We were walking one day and I said, 'They think you're going to walk off,' ” Sadie says. “Now, remember, where we lived was way out in the woods. Janice looked at me and said, 'Hell, where am I going to walk off to?' And that's when I knew that she was slow, but she wasn't crazy.”

It's not clear how Janice came to the attention of the Mecklenburg County Welfare Department. But Wallace Kuralt, head of the Welfare Department from 1945 to 1972, was known nationwide as a leader in eugenic sterilization. His department sought out clients among the (as he put it) “low mentality-low income families which tend to produce the largest number of children.”

Kuralt saw sterilization as part of a progressive vision of family planning. Some women, especially in the days before the birth control pill, came to the county begging to be sterilized. But the county also promoted the operations for people who were poor, disabled, or in trouble.

Most of that happened in the '50s and early '60s. After 1971, only 48 people in North Carolina were sterilized through the Eugenics Board. So, of the 7,600 people who were sterilized in North Carolina, Janice Black was one of the last.

When the state confirmed that Janice matched their records, they sent her case file to Sadie. She read it to Janice. It was hard for them to get through it.

The case history, written up by a social worker, summarizes what family members said about Janice. They said they couldn't keep watch over her all the time. They said she had gone off in a truck with a man, and possibly had sex.

Janice says today that she doesn't know where those stories came from. She says she never went off in a truck with anyone. She says she's never been with a man.

The psychological report notes that Janice had a “rather sophisticated use of language skill.” But the report concluded that she was “an exploitable individual.”

State law listed three types of people that the state could sterilize. People with a mental illness, such as schizophrenia. People with epilepsy. And people who were classified as “feebleminded” – which generally meant they had an IQ of less than 70. Janice, with her IQ score of 44, was labeled as feebleminded.

These days, in North Carolina, parents can petition a judge to have a child sterilized. But it's the last resort. Ellen Russell, director of advocacy for The Arc of North Carolina – a nonprofit that works with the developmentally and intellectually disabled – says IQ isn't a reliable measure of the ability to raise children. Raising kids, she says, involves subtler skills, as well as support from the community.

“There are certainly people with developmental disabilities who can raise children well,” Russell says. “As there are people without developmental disabilities who can't.”

The Eugenics Board doesn't appear to have dealt with the subtleties. They approved the vast majority of cases brought to them. Janice Black signed the consent form, and so did her father, and Wallace Kuralt sent the file to Raleigh. He recommended that Janice be sterilized. The board agreed.

That's how she ended up at Charlotte Memorial, in the hospital bed, with the scar.

'Digging up bones'

“You're digging up bones here,” says David Black, Janice's brother. “I just want you to know that.”

David has agreed to talk about his sister, but he's worried. He doesn't want family business out in the open. He doesn't want anyone to take advantage of Janice. He's not sure how her connection to the long-ago eugenics program makes a difference. He's not sure this story will do her any good.

He loves his sister. He was the one who taught her to write her name. He says she exaggerates sometimes. He says she'll give you the answer she thinks you want to hear.

So we go over the stories Janice has told. Some of them, he knows are true. Others, he wasn't around to see. But she hasn't said anything that he knows to be wrong.

He and his brothers were out of the house by the time Janice was sterilized. He's not sure why his family did some of the things they did. It was 40 years ago, he says. People didn't see things the way they do now. That's why it hurts to dig up the bones.

“If I could turn back those 40 years,” he says. “If I could make a change in everything…”

Applied to be guardian

Sadie left home, got married, had kids, divorced. Years passed. She didn't visit the old neighborhood as much. But she had not forgotten Janice.

“When I get grown and leave, what did I tell you I would do?” she says to Janice now.

“That you would take care of me,” Janice says.

“I'd come back and get you and take you with me, didn't I?”


In the early '80s, Sadie moved back in with her mother in the house down the street from Janice. Sadie would sit in the yard sometimes and watch Janice – a tiny woman, less than 5 feet tall – tote a mound of laundry out to the clothesline to hang. Nobody else seemed to help.

Sadie would make a plate for Janice for Sunday dinner. She'd take Janice on trips around town. Eventually Sadie moved back out and remarried, but for years Janice would visit on weekends. By the mid-'90s, Janice was in her mid-40s. Her stepmother had died, and she was living with other family members. They were still treating her like a maid, she says. On one of those visits with Sadie, Janice started talking about leaving her family.

Sadie contacted a social worker who told Janice she could leave voluntarily. The social worker came to Janice's house to get her, but with everybody watching, Janice changed her mind. Three months later, though, she went to visit Sadie. At the end of the weekend, they were sitting on the porch, and Sadie said it was time to go home. Janice swiveled in her chair and said: I ain't going back.

Sadie applied to be her guardian, and the application was approved in 1996.

Many people involved in Janice's story are dead now – her father, her stepmother, the social worker, the surgeon who did the tubal ligation. Janice's stepsister didn't return repeated requests for comment.

Sadie didn't know for years that Janice had been sterilized. She accidentally walked in on her one day as Janice was changing clothes. She saw the scar.

“She has been stripped of her womanhood, as well as being a mother,” Sadie says. “She was done wrong for so much of her life. But I've told her, we'll be together 'til we're graveyard dead.”

There's often a houseful – Janice, Sadie, her current husband, their son, sometimes grandkids and great-grands. Janice has her own room with a TV on the wall and a bed to sleep in.

Janice can't use a knife, but she can turn the fried chicken in the skillet. She can't run the washing machine, but she can fold clothes. She can't drive, but she can ride two buses to get to her job.

Sadie helped her find the job through Nevins Center, which helps developmentally disabled people learn work skills. Janice is part of a supervised group that cleans medical equipment at Carolinas Medical Center.

CMC is bigger now than it was in 1971, when it was called Charlotte Memorial, but it's the same hospital where Janice's stepmother brought her to be sterilized 40 years ago.

No, Janice says, she really doesn't think about that.

There is one piece of the past she does think about. Her stepsister had five children. Most of the time, Janice says, she ended up being the one to change their diapers and warm their bottles. Sadie remembers coming over and seeing Janice sitting there with two kids on one knee and two kids on the other and the fifth one in between.

When those kids started having children of their own, Janice helped mother them, too.

Her family said she wasn't fit to have kids. The state of North Carolina made sure she couldn't. But the way Janice Black sees it, she raised children anyway. And when she talks about it, that's the only time she cries.

© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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