Beneath the surface of this Southern town, with its lush evergreens and winding riverbanks, is a largely forgotten legacy of pain, secrecy and human indignity.
“My heart still bleeds, and it will forever bleed, because of what had happened to me,” local resident Elaine Riddick said.
Riddick was one of thousands of people secretly sterilized by the state between 1929 and 1974.
From the early 1900s to the 1970s, some 65,000 men and women were sterilized in this country, many without their knowledge, as part of a government eugenics program to keep so-called undesirables from reproducing.
“The procedures that were done here were done to poor folks,” said Steven Selden, professor at the University of Maryland. “They were thought to be poor because they had bad genes or bad inheritance, if you will. And so they would be the focus of the sterilization.”
North Carolina sterilized close to 8,000 women in hospitals across the state.
Even though the practice ended more than 30 years ago, some say the time has come to make amends. North Carolina was one of the first states out of 33 that once practiced sterilization to offer an apology. State Rep. Larry Womble is crafting a bill to provide financial reparations.
Some wonder where the state will get the money. “They say, ‘Well, we can’t afford it,’ ” said Womble, a Democrat. “Well, we cannot not afford it.”