Eugenics victim, son fighting together for justice

WINFALL, N.C. (AP) - Between 1929 and 1974, North Carolina sterilized more than 7,600 individuals in the name of "improving" the state's human stock...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

WINFALL, N.C. (AP) — Elaine Riddick’s small frame heaves, her rapid, shallow breaths whistling in her throat as she forces the words out between her sobs.

“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.

“I am NOT feebleminded,” she shouts, turning to face the packed hearing room. “I’ve never BEEN feebleminded.”

“No,” says her son, standing beside her behind the podium.

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.

The sun is almost infernal as Tony Riddick steps from the air-conditioned sanctuary of his SUV and strolls down Louise Street in this rural crossroads where the Perquimans River empties into Albermarle Sound. Pearls of sweat dot his shaved head as he makes his way to a simple gray frame house beside a drainage ditch that separates the road from the farm field beyond.

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 around him. “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, was forced 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, around dusk, she was walking home alone from a party when a man jumped out of the bushes of an abandoned house 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.

At 13, Riddick knew nothing about where babies came from, let alone morning sickness. So when she became ill while picking cucumbers one day, she told her grandmother she thought someone had poisoned her.

When Woodard finally learned that her granddaughter was pregnant, Riddick was afraid to tell the truth. She 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 awaking 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 in Room 539 of the state Education Building in Raleigh 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.

Board members were given a summary of each case. The board secretary would place the complete files in the center of the table, should a member need additional information before making a decision.

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.”

She told McAndrew she wanted to go to college and become a nurse.

Although she was in the “slow section of the seventh grade,” testing revealed that Riddick had an IQ of 75 and a mental age of 9 years and 10 months. 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 of things.

While McAndrew found that Riddick was “comparatively at ease in school” and was “doing above average work,” Payne reported that the child did “poor school work” and “does not get along well with others.”

Payne noted that the family had been receiving public assistance for much of the previous decade, and that both parents were alcoholics. A doctor 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 developed an infection and had to remain in the hospital for another week. Her grandmother took Tony home.

Riddick tried to be a mother to her son. She breast-fed and bathed him. 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.

“I became a hermit,” she says. “I locked myself away. I hid within my own self.”

During a visit home shortly after learning the truth about her operation, Riddick was watching her grandmother rake the front yard and suddenly dissolved into tears. She told her what the doctor had said, and asked why she had allowed her to be sterilized.

All Woodard could remember was the social worker handing her a piece of paper and saying that if she refused to sign her mark, the family’s food supplements would be cut off.

“Lord knows I didn’t know what I was doing,” she told Riddick. “Lord knows I would never do that to you.”

Her granddaughter believed her.

After about a year of this self-imposed exile, a sister suggested Riddick do something about it. She went to see the American Civil Liberties Union.

In 1973, the group’s Women’s Rights Project — then under the direction of future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — 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.

Delores Elaine 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 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 reverse her sterilization. Doctors could only repair one side, and even then placed her chances of becoming pregnant at only 50 to 60 percent.

Riddick, who dropped out in the eighth grade, obtained her high school equivalency diploma. In June 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.”

“Do you contend that this young woman invited that she be sterilized?” asked Riddick’s attorney, George Daly.

“The invitation was issued in her behalf,” Koomen replied. “The usual response was that we were doing a favor.” Koomen noted that the board was sometimes asked to sterilize girls who had not yet reached puberty.

During the trial, Kenneth N. Flaxman, another of Riddick’s attorneys, pressed the board members on their decision to sterilize her, even though her IQ was above the limit at which someone was legally considered feebleminded at the time.

“You made a mistake back in ‘68, didn’t you, doctor?” he asked R.L. Rollins, a forensic psychiatrist and superintendent of the Dorothea Dix Hospital.

“Based on the criteria that I used and in North Carolina in 1968, our programs, our situation, I believe this was a reasonable decision at the time,” he said.

On day two, Riddick was called to testify. She told jurors of the rape, despite defense attempts to bar that testimony. She 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.”

Daly, in his closing, countered that, had Riddick 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 piece of baggage,” ‘’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. It took the jury just 45 minutes to render its verdict.

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.

Flaxman took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. On Oct. 1, 1984, the high court declined to hear it.

Following the trial, Riddick moved to suburban Atlanta to live with one of her younger sisters. Her son eventually joined her there.

Riddick had largely abandoned any 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 of the series’ most striking findings was the eugenics program’s apparent racial and sexual bias. During the program’s first decade, 79 percent of those sterilized were white; by the time Riddick’s case was decided, 64 percent of the operations were being performed on black females.

Following the revelations, then-Gov. Mike Easley issued an apology to eugenics victims and their families. Victims were also offered some special health and education benefits.

But the Riddicks and others pushed for monetary reparations.

In October of 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, she 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. Later that year, Riddick returned to Raleigh for the dedication of a historical marker a block from where the decision was made to sterilize her.

This March, Perdue created the five-member task force. When it held a public hearing on June 22, Riddick and her son were there.

Trembling with hurt and rage, Riddick posed her existential question to the panel, 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. There’s nothing that the state of North Carolina can do to justify what they did to me — what they did to these other victims.”

Taking his mother’s place at the microphone, Tony Riddick said the eugenics program was nothing short of attempted “genocide.”

“What did God ask her to do? He asked her to be prolific. Be fruitful. Go out and multiply, replenish the Earth,” he said. “And you took all of that, not just away from her, but from other men and women here in this audience. And you did it for reasons you knew were wrong.”

About halfway through the hearing, Gov. Perdue slipped silently into the chamber and took a seat at the back. After listening quietly for several minutes, her brow furrowed, she stood and addressed the victims.

“It’s hard for me to accept or to understand or to even try to figure out why these kinds of atrocious acts could have been committed in this country … and I just came here as a woman, as a mama, and as a grandmama and as governor of this state, quite frankly, to tell you it was wrong,” she said. “It makes you wonder who we were as a people during those years. The state of North Carolina is a partner with you in trying to bring awareness and to redress, in some way, however we may, these awful ills …”

Elaine Riddick listened intently to the governor, then the tears began flowing again. She turned away and bowed her head as her son draped his arm around her shoulders.

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, when he offered to share his table with her at a crowded Waffle House. She and the Air Force retiree — who is bedridden with multiple sclerosis — 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 has filled his spacious, two-story home with objects of deep personal meaning to him. Against one wall of his living room stands a wooden bust of Miss Peaches; across the way lie a pair of heavy iron slave shackles.

Tony Riddick 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. And because I’m such a firm believer in that, I wouldn’t question how he decided to bring me in, because I know it has a greater purpose.”

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 too 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.”