New figures show Buncombe County’s prominent role in state sterilization program and number of sterilizations in WNC

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An excerpt from a 1950 pamphlet disseminated by the Human Betterment League of North Carolina, a private group that promoted the sterilization of people whom the state called "mental defectives." George H. Lawrence, superintendent of public welfare for Buncombe County, was the group’s founding president. Pamphlet source: N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation website, http://www.sterilizationvictims.nc.gov/taskforce.aspx.

One of North Carolina’s darkest chapters is creeping into the light, as a state task force has released data indicating that Buncombe County was a key player in a state-authorized sterilization program that ran from the late 1920s to the early 1970s.

Under the program, which was overseen by the N.C. Eugenics Board in Raleigh, an estimated 7,600 people were sterilized. Some individuals submitted to the sterilizations willingly, while others were forced or coerced into losing their ability to reproduce. The board authorized sterilizations for people with epilepsy and other disabilities, individuals characterized as “feebleminded” or compulsively criminal, along with many who were judged too reproductive for their limited economic means.

The task force, created in March of this year by Gov. Beverly Perdue, is charged with determining the best way to compensate the surviving victims, who, according to state estimates, could number as many as 3,000.

The task force is staffed by a new state government office, the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation. Newly compiled data issued by that office this week identifies the number of sterilizations in each N.C. county during the peak years of the eugenics campaign — 1946 to 1968 — when some 70 percent the total sterilizations occurred.

The data show that while sterilizations were generally less common in Western North Carolina than in other parts of the state, Buncombe County was an exception: among the state’s 100 counties, Buncombe had the fifth most sterilizations, with a total of 139.

The county with the most sterilizations, Mecklenburg, conducted 485. The county with the least, Tyrell, conducted four. Of the 17 westernmost counties, Buncombe is alone near the top of the list. The second- and third-most sterilizations in WNC were conducted in Rutherford County (with 51), and Transylvania (with 46). A full listing of each of the 17 westernmost counties’ rank and number of sterilizations performed is at the end of this story.

While the task force didn’t speculate why particular counties employed sterilization more than others, it did note that the victims during this period were predominantly from rural areas and shared some other traits. Eighty-five percent of those sterilized were female, for example, and “while sterilization often is perceived as a minority issue, data also shows that white females were more likely to be sterilized than any other group,” said Charmaine Fuller Cooper, the foundation’s executive director, in a news release about the numbers.

The high number of sterilizations in Buncombe might be due in part to the role of George H. Lawrence, a eugenics enthusiast who was the county’s superintendent of public welfare from 1947 to 1961. Lawrence served as the founding president of the Human Betterment League of North Carolina, a well-financed private organization created in 1947 that advocated for sterilizations as a means of curbing the state’s mentally disabled population.

Lawrence also encouraged the expansion of sterilizations of state prisoners, according to a 1951 Hendersonville Times-News article.

The victims’ foundation recently posted sample materials from the program on its website, including the minutes of a 1950 N.C. Eugenics Board meeting where Lawrence obtained clearance to have a Buncombe County woman sterilized. The woman, whose name and age are redacted from the document — a copy of which is below — was married and had three children. With an I.Q. of 56, she was diagnosed with “feeblemindedness.” Lawrence further informed the board that the woman’s “family has been financially dependent (on public assistance) for many years and there is a history of inter-marriage of Indian and Negro.”

These minutes of an October 1950 meeting of the N.C. Eugenics Board summarize the decision to sterilize a Buncombe County woman who was deemed "feebleminded." Source: N.C. Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation website, http://www.sterilizationvictims.nc.gov/taskforce.aspx.

Also included on the site is the case file of a 1962 sterilization in Buncombe County. The file details the approval of the procedure for a 20-year-old Asheville woman, whose name is redacted. She was sterilized, one of the document notes, because she was “illegitimately pregnant” and “found (to be) feebleminded.”

Using records like these, the victims’ foundation is striving to identify all survivors of the sterilization program. On June 22, it hosted a “Eugenics Task Force Listening Session” in Raleigh. All victims of the program are invited to speak about their experiences and share their thoughts on appropriate compensation. Call the foundation’s toll-free hotline at (877) 550-6013.

By the Numbers: Sterilizations in WNC

According to the North Carolina Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation, “from 1929 until 1974, an estimated 7,600 North Carolinians, women and men, many of whom were poor, undereducated, institutionalized, sick or disabled, were sterilized by choice, force or coercion under the authorization of the North Carolina Eugenics Board program.”

The peak years of the eugenics program in North Carolina have been identified as 1946 to 1968 when about 70 percent of the total sterilizations occurred. Data released last week ranked every county from highest to lowest in terms of the number of sterilizations performed during that time period. The 17 westernmost counties of the state ranked as follows:

  • Avery: 65th, with 29 sterilizations.
  • Buncombe: 5th, with 139 sterilizations.
  • Cherokee: 81st, with 18 sterilizations.
  • Clay: 90th, with 13 sterilizations.
  • Graham: 92nd, with 11 sterilizations.
  • Haywood: 69th, with 28 sterilizations.
  • Henderson: 67th, with 29 sterilizations.
  • Jackson: 78th, with 20 sterilizations.
  • Macon: 89th, with 14 sterilizations.
  • Madison: 52nd, with 40 sterilizations.
  • McDowell: 50th, with 43 sterilizations.
  • Mitchell: 77th, with 22 sterilizations.
  • Polk: 82nd, with 18 sterilizations.
  • Rutherford: 38th, with 51 sterilizations.
  • Swain: 85th, with 17 sterilizations.
  • Transylvania: 46th, with 46 sterilizations.
  • Yancey: 91st, with 13 sterilizations.

Related Documents

NC Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation
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About the Author

Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the Investigations and Open Government Editor at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

3 Comments on "New figures show Buncombe County’s prominent role in state sterilization program and number of sterilizations in WNC"

  1. Betty Cloer Wallace June 20, 2011 at 5:05 pm · Reply

    This information, long overdue, would be more meaningful if we knew the number of sterilizations as a percentage of county population for each of the years the data was collected.

    At any rate, though, how cruel and disheartening, although not totally surprising!

  2. Betty Cloer Wallace June 21, 2011 at 9:19 am · Reply

    Thanks, Jon, for the link to Johanna Schoen’s book, Choice and Coercion. The tragic story of Estelle in the Introduction is worth the price of the book.

    Actually, the book and your subsequent research appears to be even more than an indictment of the state’s “health care” system or an overview of women’s incredible struggles for reproductive autonomy in North Carolina.

    It shows a century of transformation of cultural, social, political and religious obstacles that—if the uber-right-wingers have their way—will continue to thwart the individual rights of women for another century.

    Young women today don’t have a clue what their mothers and grandmothers have gone through—having society at large in control of their bodies, minds, children, education…..

  3. Jon Elliston June 22, 2011 at 7:06 pm · Reply

    There was compelling testimony in Raleigh today from living victims. Here’s the Raleigh News & Observer’s coverage, “People Who Were Sterilized by the State Tell Their Stories”: http://bit.ly/j5OjpN

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