North Carolina has named an executive director of the N. C. Justice for Victims of Sterilization Foundation, Charmaine Fuller Cooper. Upon her nomination, she said:
“I’m excited about this opportunity and see it as a turning point to bringing justice to so many families and individuals affected by this tragic moment in North Carolina history.”
Moment? From 1929 to 1977, as part of the state’s contribution to the Eugenics movement, they sterilized 7,600 people, nearly four-fifths of them after WWII, according to this state report.
About half the victims of the sterilization campaign have already died. Then-Gov. Mike Easley apologized in 2002, and now-Gov. Perdue campaigned on the pledge to compensate the victims. And yet no one has been compensated, although the state’s new foundation got $250,000 to get started. A bill to give victims $20,000 each stalled last year.
Many of the the victims, more than half of whom were Black, were institutionalized, supposedly for mental retardation, illness, or whatever — although many were simply poor, uneducated or orphaned. (Here’s a historical study of those sterilized in institutions.) Although compensation has yet to reach the victims, the state has at least owned up to the travesty, which is documented in this good digital repository at the State Library, including a pamphlet from the Human Betterment League of North Carolina:
North Carolina has an interesting profile with regard to historical travesties and crimes against humanity. The casual immigrant to the American South might be surprised that compared with, say, Germany’s official attitude toward the Holocaust, there is little in the way of official recognition that the Confederacy was wrong in Civil War. For example, the monuments to those who fought for “their country,” the Confederacy, remain on display – like this one at UNC, which honors students and alumni who contributed to that cause:
In Germany, the old Nazi Party and some of its descendants were banned, but U.S. organizations dedicated to preserving the honor of war criminals are allowed to flourish. (I’m for state-protected free speech, just not state-sponsored monuments to the Confederacy.)
On the other hand, we’ve seen some notable symbolic efforts beyond the sterilization issue. The 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission at least produced a comprehensive report on the White establishment’s coup against the local government at the end of Reconstruction. And the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission has produced a report on the attack by Klansmen on communist anti-racism activists. And legally, North Carolina is virtually alone in its official willingness to consider actual innocence claims when new evidence emerges after criminal convictions.
For historical crimes, compensating the victims matters. Symbolism matters, too.