Social Workers Played Major Role in NC's Eugenics Past

More than 7,000 people were sterilized -- many against their will.

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Teen rape victim Elaine Riddick was sterilized after giving birth. (Google)

Julie Rose of NPR's All Things Considered is delving into North Carolina's brutal past with eugenics. As reported by Sheryl Salomon in November, "Eugenicists believed that sterilization was a way to address poverty and the spread of lifestyles they considered to be dysfunctional, a way of thinking rooted in racism and class prejudice."

North Carolina sterilized more than 7,000 people -- many against their will. While state eugenics programs were winding down after World War II, North Carolina kept its program in place in order to curb reproduction by the poor, blacks, Latinos, the disabled and mentally challenged. You may recall the case of Elaine Riddick, who was sterilized as a teenager. She had been raped by a neighbor, and after giving birth, she was sterilized by the state without her consent or knowledge.

Beginning before World War II and ending in 1977, a total of 7,600 men, women and children as young as 10 were sterilized under North Carolina's eugenics laws, the Associated Press reported. The population was officially referred to as "morons" in glossy brochures that were circulated. Statements like, "The job of parenthood is too much to expect of feebleminded men and women" were included in the brochures.

Included in the eugenics effort were social workers, one of whom Rose interviewed. Former social worker Marlene Wall, 80, says, "It was an interesting time. We stayed busy, we really did."

Read an excerpt from Rose's interview with Wall below:

Mecklenburg County was booming then. The typical welfare recipient was a single woman with four or five kids. Politicians and public officials worried that these unwed mothers and their children would overwhelm the system.

The North Carolina Eugenics Board offered them a solution. Since the 1930s, it had sterilized people in mental hospitals and schools for troubled youth. In the '50s, the focus shifted to women on welfare, and on social workers like Wall.

"I keep thinking back about one case, and there were retarded daughters and my gosh ... what a time and what a mess," she says. "And how do you, how do you protect the children that these two females had?"

Wall brings up this one story over and over; I get the impression it was one of the few sterilization cases she was personally involved with. Through the fog of failing memory, it still haunts her.

"But I don't drive myself crazy with it anymore, because I drove myself crazy when I was working [on it]," she says. "It was -- it was a hard thing to do. I don't know what the answer is. What do you do? You do what you can, and you do the best that you can. And it's not just protecting the children, you got to protect that mother, too."

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