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Woman becomes face of eugenics case

August 14, 2011
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Source: Associated Press

“So what am I worth?” she asks the five people seated at the long table before her. “The kids that I did not have, COULD not have. What are THEY worth?”

“Priceless,” Tony Riddick whispers as he gently rubs his mother’s back.

Elaine Riddick has been asking these same questions, in one forum or another, for the past 40 years. This most recent appearance in late June was before the Governor’s Task Force to Determine the Method of Compensation for Victims of North Carolina’s Eugenics Board.

As far as Riddick is concerned, she tells the panel, she was raped twice.

Once by the man who fathered her son, and again by the Eugenics Board of the State of North Carolina, which deemed her, at age 14, unfit to procreate.

Tears streaming down her face, she says, “They cut me open like I was a HOG.”

Between 1929 and 1974, North Carolina sterilized more than 7,600 individuals in the name of “improving” the state’s human stock. By the time the program was halted, the majority of those neutered were young, black, poor women — like Riddick.

In many ways, Riddick’s has become the face of the movement to compensate victims of what most now acknowledge as a dark, misguided era in the state’s — and nation’s — past. From her decision to sue the state in federal court nearly four decades ago to this most recent baring of her soul, she has refused to simply fade from view.

Instead, the 57-year-old Riddick has become an inspiration to other survivors of the state’s eugenics program.

One of them is Australia Clay, whose mother was sterilized, and who, following Riddick to the podium, tells her how lucky she was to have had Tony — no matter how violently he was conceived.

“You’re blessed,” Clay says through her own tears. “Cause he can help fight for you now. I see God’s hand in your life.”

Riddick says she never felt otherwise.

———

Tony Riddick steps from his SUV and strolls down Louise Street in this rural crossroads. When he was growing up, folks used to call this section of town “Little Korea” — because the violence and poverty reminded them of a Third World country.

“This right here is a good example of what God is capable of doing,” Riddick says, gesturing toward a humble gray frame house. “My mother’s life and my life, by ANY measure, would have been, should have been, COULD have been totally written off.”

The house belonged to Elaine Riddick’s maternal grandmother, Maggie Woodard — “Miss Peaches,” as she was known. The two-bedroom home was a refuge of sorts, with 10, sometimes 15 people spilling onto pallets on the floors.

By age 13, Delores Elaine Riddick had taken refuge here.

World War II had left her father, Army veteran Thomas Cleveland Riddick, an abusive, alcoholic, “shell-shocked” husk of a man; her mother, Pearline Warren Riddick, was in the women’s prison for assaulting her husband. The Director of Public Welfare for Perquimans County had taken custody of Elaine, and Woodard was receiving government surplus food for the girl.

Riddick, third-oldest in a family of seven girls and one boy, had to wear the same clothes several days in a row. Picked on by bullies, she often skipped school.

With so many children in the house, there was little supervision. Riddick would go to friends’ houses for dances and stay out late.

One Sunday evening, she was walking home alone from a party when a man jumped out of the bushes about two blocks from her grandmother’s.

Clapping one hand over her mouth and twisting her arm behind her back with the other, he led her to a nearby car and raped her.

She knew the man from the neighborhood. He was 10 years her senior.

He said if she ever told anyone, he would kill her.

When Woodard learned that her granddaughter was pregnant, Riddick said the father was an older boy from nearby Edenton whom she’d met at a party. It was a lie that would come back to haunt her.

After Thomas Anthony Riddick was delivered on March 5, 1968, Riddick remembers waking to find her abdomen swathed in bandages.

What she didn’t know was that a month and a half earlier, five men sitting around a table across the state in the capital had decided that Riddick’s first child should be her last.

———

The word “eugenics” comes from the Greek for “well-born.”

By the early 20th century, most U.S. states had eugenics programs, and more than 30 enacted laws mandating surgical sterilization for certain individuals. It is estimated that as many as 100,000 people were sterilized in the country before the practice was discredited.

On Jan. 23, 1968, members of the North Carolina Eugenics Board met to consider the latest petitions for “operation of sterilization or asexualization.” Among them was Case No. 8: “Delores Elaine Riddick — (N) — Perquimans County.” The “N” stood for Negro.

Riddick’s file contained an evaluation from Dr. Helton McAndrew, a clinical psychologist.

A year earlier, social services had ordered Riddick examined for possible placement in an orphanage. On April 5, 1967, not long before the rape, McAndrew met with the troubled 13-year-old. Despite reports that she was irritable and anti-social, McAndrew found Riddick “well behaved, pleasant and cooperative.”

“She attends school regularly and is neat in spite of not having sufficient clothes,” he wrote. “She is generally hungry, which is probably an important factor in her being easily irritated and having difficulty getting along with others.”

Although she was in the “slow section of the seventh grade,” testing revealed that Riddick had an IQ of 75. McAndrew felt that her “tremendous feelings of insecurity stemming from the disturbed home conditions” were causing her irritability and “also repressed her level of intellectual functioning.”

“Delores Riddick’s chief problem is her poor home,” he concluded. “We expect this girl to perform more adequately in an improved environment ...”

Social worker Marion Payne took a dimmer view, reporting that the child did “poor school work” and “does not get along well with others.” A doctor, she noted, had assessed Riddick as “feebleminded.”

“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,” the final recommendation read. “This will at least prevent additional children from being born to this girl who cannot care for herself, and can never function in any way as a parent.”

Three weeks before the board meeting, Thomas Riddick had signed a form consenting to the procedure — even though he no longer had custody of his daughter. Payne also reported that the situation had been explained to Woodard, and that she agreed that it would be best if her granddaughter had no more children.

And so, after delivering Riddick’s son, Dr. William Bindeman clipped, resected and cauterized her fallopian tubes.

———

Riddick tried to be a mother to her son. But her grandmother, concerned about bad influences in the local environment, decided to send her to live with an aunt on Long Island, N.Y.

At 18, Riddick married a man she met in New York. When the new couple’s efforts to conceive failed, Riddick went to a specialist. It was then, she says, that she learned what the surgeon had done four years earlier.

Riddick says her inability to bear children drove a wedge between her and her husband, contributing to their eventual breakup. She says she went into a kind of “hibernation.” When friends became pregnant, she withdrew from them, unable to bear the pain of witnessing their joy.

In 1973, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project had filed a federal suit against the state of North Carolina on behalf of another victim of the sterilization program. They were looking for more plaintiffs to join a class action.

Riddick stepped forward. On Jan. 18, 1974, ACLU attorneys filed suit in U.S. District Court against the members of the state Eugenics Commission, as it was by then known, local social workers and the hospital where the operation was performed. She was seeking $1 million.

It would be nine years before the suit would go to trial. As the case wound its way through the process, and defendants were dismissed and added, Riddick tried to repair the physical and emotional damage she had suffered.

During summer vacations, Tony would come to New York for visits. She divorced and rediscovered love. In October 1981, Riddick underwent an operation to try to reverse her sterilization, though doctors could only repair one side.

Riddick obtained her high school equivalency diploma, and in 1982, she graduated from the New York City Technical College with an associate’s degree in applied science.

Although the Eugenics Commission was formally abolished in 1977, the ACLU pressed on. At last, in January 1983, testimony began in U.S. District Court at New Bern.

Attorneys for the board members argued that they had acted in good faith as public officials. Member Jacob Koomen, state health director at the time, testified that sterilization in North Carolina was “an invited phenomenon.”

“The usual response was that we were doing a favor,” Koomen said.

On day two, Riddick was called to testify. She told jurors of the rape and explained her decision to lie. She denied that doctors had explained the procedure to her, and that she had consented. She talked of her recent surgery, and how her continued failure to conceive made her feel “less than a woman.”

In his closing arguments, Deputy Attorney General William F. O’Connell argued that the board had been presented with a body of evidence “virtually mandating the conclusion ... that sterilization would be in the best interest of this young lady.”

Riddick attorney George Daly countered that, had his client been granted the hearing to which she was entitled, she might have told the board that she had been raped. But the doctor and board saw her as “a nonperson,” he said.

“She was put in a prison of pain that stayed with her for a long, long time after that operation.”

The trial ended on Jan. 19, 1983. When asked whether Riddick had been “unlawfully or wrongfully deprived of her right to bear children as a proximate result of the actions of any of the defendants,” the jury replied, “No.”

On Oct. 1, 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Riddick’s appeal.

———

Following the trial, Riddick moved to suburban Atlanta. Her son eventually joined her there.

She had largely abandoned hope of justice until about a decade ago, when a team of Winston-Salem Journal reporters investigating the state’s eugenics program learned of the lawsuit and tracked her down. When the series “Against Their Will” ran in late 2002, Riddick’s story was a centerpiece.

One finding: By the time Riddick’s case was decided, 64 percent of the operations were being performed on black females.

Then-Gov. Mike Easley issued an apology to eugenics victims and their families. But the Riddicks and others pushed for monetary reparations.

In October 2008, Riddick traveled from Georgia to testify before a legislative committee, which recommended giving each victim $20,000. Running for governor, Beverly Perdue vowed to get the funding but, once elected, ran headlong into a $4.6 billion budget gap.

In 2009, Perdue and the Senate set aside $250,000 for the newly created Justice for Sterilization Victims Foundation to identify victims and develop a plan to compensate them. This March, Perdue created the five-member task force.

When the panel held a public hearing on June 22, Riddick and her son were there. Trembling with hurt and rage, Riddick posed her existential question, then answered it herself.

“It doesn’t matter what you think I’m worth,” she said, almost spitting the words. “It’s what I think I’m worth.”

Taking his mother’s place at the microphone, Tony Riddick termed the eugenics program attempted “genocide.”

The task force delivered a preliminary report to Perdue Aug. 1. Among its recommendations were unspecified “lump sum financial damages” and mental health services for living victims.

“For many citizens, it may be hard to justify spending millions when the state is cutting back on other essential services,” the panel wrote in a letter to the governor. “But the fact is, there never will be a good time to redress these wrongs and the victims have already waited too long.”

A final report is due Feb. 1, 2012.

———

Despite her reconstructive surgery, Riddick was never able to have more children.

But she knows she has much for which to be thankful.

She has love in her life. Riddick met Paul Adams about 15 years ago, and they were married this past January.

She has a 6-year-old grandson, Tony Riddick Jr.

And she has Tony.

“I thank God today that I have my son,” she says. “To me, he’s a blessing and he’s a gift.”

After graduating from college, Tony Riddick moved to Hertford, just a few miles from where he and his mother grew up. He is president of his own computer-electronics company.

He says he was about 13 when he learned that his mother had been sterilized. He didn’t learn about the circumstances of his conception until much later.

About that, he says, “You know, the spirit of God is the authority. And he deemed it necessary that I come in the way that I came in.”

His mother, too, speaks of a divine hand in events. “I’m on a mission,” she says. “And God is using me as an instrument to do his will.”

She feels compelled to speak out, not just for herself, but for those who might be afraid or ashamed to speak for themselves. The task force estimates that as many as 2,000 victims of the state’s eugenics program may still be alive.

The apology was a step in the right direction. But Riddick thinks someone should be made to pay for what was done to her and the others.

Her son is confident they will prevail — “because she’ll never stop fighting.”

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