By John Railey
Fayetteville Observer, December 9, 2012
Lela Mae Moore Dunston of Raleigh was a courageous advocate, passionately arguing that she and the other victims of the state's forced sterilization program should be compensated. She died July 9, shortly after hearing that the state Senate had let the strong push to compensate fizzle.
Dunston was just 63 when she died from longstanding health problems. Other victims, such as 79-year-old Willis Lynch of Warren County, have repeatedly told me that the state is waiting for them to die so it won't have to compensate them.
Dunston's death should stand for something. It should be a clarion call for Gov. Bev Perdue to spend her last weeks in office pushing the state legislature to finally help these hurting and dying victims, if not before she leaves office, at least in January as the legislature reconvenes.
Charmaine Fuller Cooper, the former head of Perdue's foundation on compensation, told me that Dunston was very important in the compensation fight. She'd called Dunston in the hospital to let her know about the bad news from the Senate. "She was not happy at all," Cooper said.
I feel fortunate that I met Dunston, a nurse's aide disabled by a back injury, at some of the meetings of Perdue's task force on compensation. She eloquently spoke out at those meetings. I talked with Dunston several times, and she let me tell her story in my column in the hope that it might help others. She was friendly and tough.
The story of Dunston's sterilization is tragic. But as Cooper noted, her story is not that different from many other victims of the state's program.
Dunston was 13. She lived with her mother in Wilmington. She was pregnant with her first child. It would be the only baby the state would let her have. She raised that son.
Like most victims, Dunston had no idea that what happened to her was part of a nationwide movement. Finally, a few years ago, she read about the state sterilization program in a newspaper. She tracked down state records that confirmed she was one of the more than 7,600 victims of the program that, by zeroing in on black women and girls like her in its last years, was genocide.
"I didn't understand it," Dunston told me. "They just went on and did what they wanted to do. Chopped on us like we were animals."
For 10 years, ever since the Journal series "Against Their Will" exposed the brutal inner workings of the program, one of the hardest-driving in America, politicians have made lame promises of help, despite passionate pushing by Rep. Larry Womble of Winston-Salem. Yet the process of sterilizing people, from the first paperwork to the operation, usually took no more than a year.
The program, supported by prominent families and doctors here and in other parts of the state, was as much about thinning the welfare rolls as it was about "bettering society." Dunston was termed "mildly retarded" as the justification for sterilization. She emphasized to me that she wasn't mentally handicapped.
The mental evaluations were often based on flawed intelligence testing. Other victims were sterilized for reasons including epilepsy, blindness or rumors of promiscuity.
Petitions to sterilize often contained more racism and class prejudice than hard facts. The petition to sterilize Dunston said that she and her mother "live in an area that has a low socio-economic level." Dunston was described as "a rather alert little Negro girl" who "wore a very ragged sweater and her hair literally stood on end all over her head."
That was "a bunch of baloney," Dunston told me.
In the early 1960s, as Gov. Terry Sanford was leading North Carolina through integration that was for the most part peaceful, the sterilization program began targeting black women and girls of modest means. The petitions occasionally contained outright lies, as in this line from Dunston's:
Dunston said she didn't know what the operation was about.
The members of the eugenics board, despite rarely meeting their targets, usually rubber-stamped petitions for sterilization.
Dunston never consented to her operation. When she got the paperwork, Dunston realized that her mother gave the consent. The petition notes that the family was on welfare. Social workers pushing sterilization would often tell families that their payments would end if they didn't consent.
Cooper said that Dunston
Dunston once told me this: "I just want them to compensate me, that's all. They did this to us."
How many more victims have to die waiting for the state to do the right thing?