ATLANTA - Elaine Riddick Jessie can't forgive the state of North Carolina for what it did to her in an Edenton hospital in 1968. She tenses as she talks about being sterilized soon after delivering her first and only child when she was 14.
"I was just a baby," said Jessie, 48. "I (was) just a child. They did not, could not have gotten my permission because I wasn't old enough."
Her story isn't one of an isolated mistake. The Eugenics Board of North Carolina authorized sterilization for more than 2,000 girls and boys ages 18 and under between 1933 and 1974; some of them were just 10 years old.
Jessie, who lives in Atlanta now, got no explanation before or after the operation, much less follow-up counseling. She was left with a physical and emotional burden that she is still trying to come to grips with almost 35 years later.
"Why didn't they just sew me up, just sew me up, period? I felt like I didn't have a sex .... I wasn't a male and I wasn't a female. Just asexual. I didn't have a sex, because if I was a woman I could have children," she said. "I hide. I hid. I think I'm sort of still hiding, but there's nothing I can do. It made me dislike myself. And I don't ever think I can like myself. It is the most degrading thing, the most humiliating thing a person can do to a person is to take away a God-given right."
The United States would land men on the moon the year after Jessie was sterilized, but North Carolina was still clinging to a eugenics program that used long-discredited science from the 1920s as its foundation.
The decision in Jessie's case - just as in thousands of others like hers - was made by five strangers in Raleigh who reviewed a few paragraphs that reduced her complex life and the profound medical, legal and ethical issues at stake into a synopsis that seemed to always result in the same answer.
About 90 percent of sterilization petitions presented to the eugenics board were approved,and most cases were decided in less than 15 minutes.
The system was flawed from the beginning, but by the time it caught up to Jessie it had been overwhelmed by sexual and racial bias.
The biannual eugenics board report for 1966 to 1968 shows that 99 percent of the operations were performed on women; 64 percent of those were on black women. From 1929 to 1940, the ratio had been almost the opposite - an overall racial split of 79 percent white and 21 percent black.
The state categorized Jessie as "feebleminded" as part of its justification, but she wasn't an inmate at a state institution. She was just a poor young black girl, like the majority of people who were sterilized in the 1960s. Officials also justified their action by terming Jessie promiscuous.
Jessie said she was not feebleminded or promiscuous. A man in his 20s coerced her into a sexual relationship, she said, and impregnated her when she was a minor - statutory rape by law.
Poor and under pressure
At 5 feet, 2 inches tall and 115 pounds, Jessie is about the same size as she was when she was sterilized. She grew up in Winfall, a tiny town in Perquimans County near Edenton. It's a place where flat fields of cotton and peanuts fall off to the Albemarle Sound. It's a beautiful but hard place, one where many residents still live in crushing poverty.
Jessie remembers her large family sitting on their run-down porch, eating a "hoecake" and beans out of one pot. "We were like ... God, what were we like? We didn't know anything about plates and spoons," she said.
The Perquimans County Department of Public Welfare took custody of Jessie and her seven siblings. They sent five of the children to an orphanage an hour's drive away in Oxford. Jessie and another sister were sent to live with their grandmother, just down the street from their parents' home. That house, too, was dilapidated and crowded.
Shortly after moving in with her grandmother, Jessie said, an older man impregnated her. She was 13.
"All I remember is that it hurt," she said.
Jessie's grandmother, Maggie "Miss Peaches" Woodard, was on welfare, and her social worker learned during a routine visit that Jessie was pregnant. The white social worker with the county welfare department, the late Marion Payne, pressed Woodard to consent to have Jessie sterilized. Finally, Woodard, who is illiterate, signed her "X" on a consent form.
"I didn't know what I was signing," Woodard, 86, said recently. But she said Payne told her that if she didn't sign, Jessie would have to go live in an orphanage.
Jessie's family wasn't the only one to face such pressure. Records kept by the eugenics board show a long history of county officials who treated the issue of consent as more of a nuisance than a moral imperative.
In a 1950 book on the sterilization program written by researcher Moya Woodside, state officials complained about "the necessity of obtaining consent from relatives" who might be of "low mentality" themselves and the "further difficulty" of obtaining "informal consent of the client."
That attitude was still present in the 1960s.
(The) chief problem is securing consents and getting patients to have the operation once the order is issued by the Eugenics Board. One (social) worker said she wishes there was a law which would permit the use of force in getting the operation performed once the order was received.
Jessie's father also signed a consent form. He was a shell-shocked veteran of World War II and drank heavily, as did Jessie's mother. "They were drunk all the time, fighting all the time or either in prison," Jessie said.
She still can't understand why her father had any say-so in her life. "If you're not qualified to take care of your children, how are you qualified to sign papers? They knew he had... mental problems," she said.
In Jessie's case and in many others throughout the history of the program, blatant warnings of ethical problems in the consent process were ignored.
Single girl, 17 years of age.... Her mother is deceased. Her father is an excessive drinker. The father was suspected of incest.... sterilization was ordered on condition that the written consent of the father be secured.
- From a 1948 sterilization petition
She comes from a home where the father is known to indulge in alcohol and has molested ____ and attempted to molest a younger daughter in the home.
Consent: ____, father.
- From a 1968 sterilization petition
A key part of the process in Jessie's case was the evaluation by psychologist Helton McAndrew, who wrote that Jessie was in "the slow section" of her class. She noted Jessie's score on an IQ test - 75.
"(Jessie's) chief problem is her poor home .... We expect this girl to perform more adequately in an improved environment, but it may be desirable to think about vocational training in the future," McAndrew wrote.
McAndrew stopped short of classifying Jessie as "retarded." But Dr. David Wright of Edenton, who hadn't evaluated Jessie, did use that classification in an affidavit included with the petition. Wright, who still lives in Edenton, declined to comment for this story.
As her pregnancy advanced, Jessie dropped out of the eighth grade. Meanwhile, the petition to have her sterilized had made its way to Raleigh, the home of the eugenics board.
A life's summary
When such petitions arrived from across the state, the executive secretary of the board would read them and boil them down to a brief summary for the board to consider.
Jessie's read, in part:
8. Delores Elaine Riddick - (N) - Perquimans County
Social information: Age 13. Single. Pregnant. Psychological
April 5, 1967. MA 9-6: IQ 75
This thirteen year old girl expects her first child in March 1968....She has never done any work and gets along so poorly with others that her school experience was poor. Because of Elaine's inability to control herself, and her promiscuity - there are community reports of her "running around" and out late at night unchaperoned, the physician has advised sterilization....This will at least prevent additional children from being born to this child who cannot care for herself, and can never function in any way as a parent.
The summary omitted the section of McAndrew's report dealing with the impact of Jessie's environment on her IQ.
And there was another glaring problem, too. Flawed as the IQ tests of that time were, the eugenics board ignored its own longtime standard that only those who scored below 70 should be sterilized.
Jessie's IQ score was the same as another girl who was spared, yet Jessie's case continued forward.
On Jan. 23, 1968, in a conference room in Raleigh, five men Jessie had never met came together to consider her future. They were Clifton Craig, the board chairman and state commissioner of public welfare; Jacob Koomen, the state health director; John McKee, representing the commissioner of public health; R.L. Rollins, the superintendent of Dorothea Dix Hospital; and R.S. Weathers, a lawyer from the attorney general's office.
Given the board's record of approving sterilization petitions, Jessie didn't have much of a chance to avoid the operation. As a minor, she had no right to be heard by the board or even to be told about the operation.
The mother had been given a time limit in which to take the necessary steps to bring about her daughter's sterilization.
The proper procedure was reviewed which included the information that the petition was to be executed by the Welfare department and should not be released to the patient.
- Eugenics board minutes, 1956.
Even if there had been someone to speak on Jessie's behalf, it probably wouldn't have helped. A distraught father tried to stop a sterilization for his 13-year-old daughter in 1938, saying that authorities wanted to "butcher her up and experiment when she is innocent." The eugenics board ignored his appeal and issued the order. Thirty years after authorizing the sterilization of that13-year-old, the board made a unanimous decision to sterilize Jessie. An order went out authorizing Dr. William Bindeman to perform the operation.
'Barren and fruitless'
Several weeks later, Jessie entered Chowan Hospital in Edenton to deliver her son.
At the time, Jessie said, she didn't realize what was about to happen.
"I'd just turned 14, so I didn't know nothing. What was a 14-year-old kid going to know about sterilization and all this crap and being pregnant, you know?"
Someone should have explained what was happening, she said. "Even though I wouldn't have understood it at that age, they could have made an effort to do something, to inform me of something. And then, on top of that, they should have gotten me therapy."
Wright delivered Jessie's baby - a boy - on March 5, 1968. Bindeman, who died a few years ago, performed the sterilization operation several hours later.
Soon after having her baby, Jessie moved to Long Island, N.Y., to live with an aunt, leaving her son to be raised by Woodard.
At 18, still in New York, she married. Her husband wanted children, but she couldn't conceive. She had also been hemorrhaging and having abdominal pains, she said.
After talking with a doctor and one of her sisters, Jessie said, she finally realized that she had been sterilized.
Jessie couldn't understand why it had happened to her.
"Out of all the people in the world," she said. "I was, I am, a good girl, you know?
"I don't think anybody knows how bad it hurts to want to have a kid and you can't," she said. "I used to have a lot of friends, every time they got pregnant, I would not want to be around them. I would just leave them alone. I couldn't stand to be around them when they were pregnant because I wanted a baby so bad."
Her marriage disintegrated. Maggie Skinner, one of Jessie's sisters, said that Jessie's husband was "very cruel about the whole thing.... I remember her (Jessie) crying, telling me that he said she was barren and fruitless," said Skinner, who now lives in North Brunswick, N.J.
Through it all, Jessie was trying to better herself. Even though she had dropped out of school, she earned an associate's degree in human services from New York City Technical College in the early 1970s.
A sister suggested that she talk to the American Civil Liberties Union about what happened to her, and Jessie decided to do so. She eventually filed a lawsuit against the members of the eugenics board, asking for $1 million in damages on the grounds that her constitutional rights had been violated.
Day in court
Her timing seemed right at first. Shortly before Jessie approached the ACLU, the union had in 1973 filed a class-action suit on behalf of another North Carolina woman who had been sterilized, and that case had attracted widespread publicity in a time when issues of women's rights were gaining attention.
The legislature disbanded the eugenics board in1974, but neither the board nor the state issued any apologies, or even explanations, about its thousands of sterilization cases. The state would continue to release few details about the eugenics program.
When Jessie finally got her day in U.S. District Court in New Bern nine years later, the jurors didn't hear details about the long history of problems at the eugenics board. A wider focus on large-scale abuses at the board might have bolstered her claim, but that evidence wasn't available, even if Judge W. Earl Britt had allowed it.
So Jessie's attorneys focused on the events leading up to her sterilization. "(I)t was not reasonable for the board to rule on that petition without having Elaine come to talk to them, without having any kind of a hearing except looking at those papers and saying, 'Yes, we're going to approve the petition to sterilize,'" said her attorney, Ken Flaxman of Chicago, in his opening statement.
Under questioning from Flaxman and George Daly of Charlotte, former members of the eugenics board and its executive secretary testified they couldn't remember Jessie's case. But after reviewing the records of it, all said they were satisfied that they had made the right decision.
Koomen testified that the sterilizations were a favor of sorts. "The usual response was that we were doing a favor; indeed, we were often asked - not often - we were sometimes asked to sterilize those who had not yet menstruated."
But in 1990 when Koomen talked about his time on the eugenics board, he expressed doubt about the whole program, saying that members of the board "were uncomfortable" in the role.
"Was this the function of the state? Was this a right thing to do? Did we really have all the data at hand? When we were evaluating ... we began to develop a sense, you know, what does an intelligence test mean in this setting?" he told Johanna Schoen, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa, in a previously unpublished interview.
Speaking of Jessie's case and her IQ score of 75, Koomen said "if this had occurred now, we would have let it go."
"And we did it because the law obligated us to. It isn't something we would have volunteered to do - or even suggested," Koomen said.
But Jessie never got to hear even the faintest public statement of regret from Koomen or any other state official.
The jury took just a short time to find that Jessie "was not unlawfully or wrongfully deprived of her right to bear children as the proximate result of any one of the defendants," and her attorneys lost on appeal. They petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision but the high court declined.
Jessie was devastated by the failure of the court case, and remained so for years.
"And I didn't know how to escape. So I just crawled into myself. I didn't want to be around people. I didn't want to do anything," she said.
Picking up the pieces
She married again. She got divorced again and said that the inability to have children played a role. She said she went through a period of marijuana abuse and beat it. Now, she lives in a modest apartment and makes it through life as best she can with help from her boyfriend, Calvin Hale, friends, family and her psychiatrist. Her son and sisters take her on cruises and beach weekends.
"I'm spoiled to a point," Jessie said. "I guess they're trying to make up for things that happened to me."
Her son, Tony Riddick, 34, said that the work of the eugenics board was "not far from the thinking of Hitler, when you really think about it. What was happening in Nazi Germany in the '30s and early '40s, you know, that same concept when Hitler tried to make this pure race."
The shoddy science of eugenics made bold predictions that the children of "feebleminded" people would be doomed to failure in life.
Riddick, who still lives in Winfall, earned an associate's degree in the applied science of electronics from DeVry Institute in Atlanta and is the president of his own computer-electronics company.
He wonders whether a sibling of his might have found the cure for cancer or become president. "And this is just my mother, right? But this thing happened to countless people, from what I'm learning," he said. "So did we really do ourselves a disservice by allowing this to happen?"
With the full story of the workings of the eugenics board emerging, Jessie and Riddick want an apology from the state.
Jessie dreams of putting the sterilization behind her, of running a school for abused children.
She also helps a wide circle of friends, visiting shut-ins and ferrying others on errands in her old pickup truck. But occasionally, thoughts about the operation weigh her down, and she stays in her apartment.
"Sometimes, I just don't want to be bothered," she said. "That's when I get depressed."