Like more than 600 children sent to the state’s Caswell Training School, 17-year-old Dorothy Mae Campbell was sterilized in 1957 (she had been sent to Caswell as an 8-year-old).
“You didn’t fuss about it,” Dorothy, a retired waitress, said later of the surgery. She figured her mother went along with the recommendation she be sterilized “to protect me from having a whole bunch of children like she did, you know, without being married.”
Dorothy died in 2014, just weeks after receiving a compensation check from the state of North Carolina.
Willis Lynch was just 14, a resident of the state’s Caswell Training School in Kinston, when he was sterilized. He recalls a nurse telling him to sing a song after she’d slipped an anesthesia mask over his face.
He didn’t know a vasectomy had been performed until years later. The state had declared him “feeble-minded” and unfit to have children. His single mother was told that her consent was needed before her son could return home.
Lynch went on to serve in the US Army and make a living as a handyman and mechanic, He eventually received compensation checks from the state, though he says they don’t come close to making up for the lost opportunity to become a father and grandfather, because “I really care something about kids.”
In 1965, three months after giving birth to a baby girl, 18-year-old Nial Cox was sterilized by a state order that declared her “mentally deficient.” Nial’s family was threatened with the loss of welfare benefits if she didn’t agree to a “temporary tubal ligation.”
Five years later, Nial discovered the operation was irreversible and sued the state of North Carolina. Her lawsuit, brought by the ACLU, was dismissed after the courts ruled the statute of limitations had run out, but Nial’s case dismantled the North Carolina Eugenics Board and became a cause célèbre for feminist activists, including Gloria Steinem.
Nial was present in 2003 when Gov. Mike Easley signed the law repealing the state eugenic statute, and she was given a standing ovation at the signing ceremony.