Faces of the Denied
For forty-five years ending in 1974, the state of North Carolina sterilized 7,600 men and women it deemed unfit to bear children. Some were labeled “feeble-minded” or “easy prey.” Others were designated as poor. Up to 2,000 are still alive. Meet 8 of them
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Mary Haynes, 78
With motherly pride, Mary Haynes says Joe Johnson stopped by her Statesville apartment one night recently and cut up her meat for dinner, the first man who ever did that for her.
“He’s my baby and I don’t care who knows it,” she says.
He’s her baby. But he’s not her son.
“He’s my sister’s son,” she says. “But I claim him.”
Haynes, seventy-eight, can recall little about the procedure, which was done when she was fourteen or fifteen. It was 1948 or 1949, after she says she was raped by her stepfather, ran away from home, and then sent off to a school for girls. “Girls who couldn’t get along at home,” she says. To most every question about the sterilization and other parts of the distant past, she answers, “Honey, I don’t remember.”
Life has had its ups and downs since then. She was married three times (“Don’t ask me how long, honey, I don’t know”) and worked in the spinning room of a textile mill. Despite everything that has happened, Johnson, fifty-four, says his aunt is a happy person. She has her friends, her Bible, her walker, and Wheel of Fortune. She clings to tender memories of her sister, Colleen, and the photograph of the two of them from long ago, the one she’s holding here.
Most of all, she has her nephew, who has been a constant presence in her life, filling the void left by what happened so long ago.
“She doesn’t like talking about it,” Johnson says. “And I don’t push.”
Willis Lynch, 78
The photograph says a lot. A man alone.
Willis Cleveland Lynch was sterilized in 1948, at age fourteen. He was at Yanceyville’s Caswell Training School at the time, put there by his late mother, Lizzie. When it opened in 1911, it was officially known as the North Carolina School for the Feebleminded.
Now seventy-eight, Lynch isn’t sure he agrees with the diagnosis. He says he reads and writes “fair.” He doesn’t recall much about the medical procedure, other than his mother agreeing to it. He also remembers being stooped over the next day.
The closest he came to having kids was being married a long time ago to a woman named Amanda, who had two children. The marriage lasted eight years. Today, Lynch lives by himself in a singlewide mobile home two miles outside Littleton, a small town on the Virginia border in eastern North Carolina. He has two brothers and a sister, but he doesn’t see them much. He did a little mechanic’s work before retiring. Now he spends his days, as he puts it, “messing around, puttering around.” He likes to watch the news and NASCAR on TV.
If you want to hear his voice light up, ask him about Hank Williams, the country music icon who sang “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
Or you can ask him about kids. “I love kids.”
Mary Allen, 79
The paperwork that some have held onto all these years recalls the starkness of what happened long ago. Mary Allen was nineteen when the clinical psychological examination on May 26, 1952, recommended that she be sterilized for her own welfare and the well being of society.
Here’s part of what they wrote about her, exactly as typed: “The girl has what is commonly considered ‘Moron’ intelligence. … The most serious fact in this case is not that Mary is intellectually inadequate, but that she is ‘morally defective,’ and this has become an observable reality.”
Allen, seventy-nine, had five children before she was sterilized on the state’s recommendation and, she thinks, her mother’s permission. She was fifteen when she had her first child, Carolyn, who has since passed away from cancer.
“When you’re young,” Allen says, trying to explain all those babies, “you’re young.”
She lives in Mount Airy. Retired from her job cooking and serving lunch in Mount Airy school cafeterias, arthritis keeps her from doing much these days. She likes to watch the news and soap operas.
Sixty years is a long time ago. And yet Allen still takes offense at the report that labeled her “mentally deficient,” ranking just above the imbecile level. “I always thought of myself as having a little common sense,” she says. She believes that what the state did to her was wrong, even if she’s cloudy on how it came to be.
If it hadn’t happened, she says, “I wouldn’t have wanted any more children.”
Charles Holt, 62
Regret’s a tricky thing.
Charles Holt, sixty-two, lives in Kernersville with his stepdaughter. A stroke left him disabled from his job working heavy equipment for the City of High Point. He spends his days now visiting friends, going downtown, watching NASCAR races on Sunday. He remembers the day his hero Dale Earnhardt died like it was yesterday. All in all, he’s a fellow who prides himself on never causing problems for anyone.
“I don’t get into no trouble. Trouble’s not in my name,” Holt says, explaining what contentment looks like: “I shave myself. I take my own medicine. Thank God I still do stuff for myself.”
But on those occasions when someone asks him about it, and he thinks back to 1964 or ’65, he wasn’t sure exactly what year it was, Holt wishes someone would have given him a say. He was around fifteen.
“I didn’t want this operation,” he says. “They didn’t ask me nothing about it. They just pushed me in the room. They fix it where you can’t have kids.”
He says his mother, Lucille, signed the papers for the procedure. That was sometime after she put him in a training school in Butner because she felt he was a slow learner. To this day, he doesn’t think of himself as a slow learner.
“I finished eighth grade,” he says.8
His parents are gone. So are his brother and sister. He was married for a time, which explains his stepdaughter, Melissa. The boys in the photograph are distant relatives.
Holt’s not an unhappy man. But …
“I wanted to have some kids that could call my mommy and daddy Grandma and Grandpa. I couldn’t. So I just went on with my life.”