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Righting the Wrong - Part Two - abc27 WHTM

Righting the Wrong - Part Two

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Madison Heights, VA - It was a program designed to save taxpayers money. For 50 years, the state of Virginia sanctioned the sterilizations of some 8,000 people they considered mental misfits.

The phony science of Eugenics had them believing that they would give birth to more of the same and become a financial burden to society, so they ought to wipe them out.

Many of those sterilized were simply poor or uneducated.The state has since apologized, but now there's a movement to take it a step further.  

"I don't let people see me cry but I have cried why I can't have children when everybody else got children. It's so sad," saidLewis Reynolds. 

Reynolds didn't learn until recent years that he'd been sterilized as a child. He and his wife had tried to have children, and never knew why they couldn't.

"I wanted a family and couldn't have one." 

The state sanctioned his operation because they thought he had epilepsy, something they considered a mental defect. Reynolds went on to serve his country in the Marines for 30 years. He fought in both Korea and Vietnam. 

Another victim, Sarah Wiley was asked, "When you learned you couldn't have children and you learned you had had the operation, how did you feel about it?"

"I felt sad," she responded.

 "Did you want children?"

"Yes ma'am," said Wiley.

Wiley had a terrible time at the Lynchburg Colony. Not only was she sterilized against her will, like many of the children there, she was treated like an inmate. Punishment included straightjackets, and what's known as the blind room, where Wiley was held for days at a time. 

"It's basically a closet with a mattress and um with bars on the windows. It was a prison cell, said Mark Bold with the Christian Law Institute in Lynchburg.  

Wiley was also forced into labor. She couldn't have her own children, but the training center sent her to affluent homes to care for other people's children.

She says she was raped and beaten on several occasions. 

"Yeah she stomped me in the chest with her feet. Put me on the floor, pulled my hair, put me on the floor and stomped me." 

"These were people - citizens minding their own business if you will, uprooted from their families, interned without any due process whatsoever, and not only interned against their will, they were sterilized against their will, and so if anybody gets compensation, we think those people should be compensated,"  said Mark Bold.

Bold is hoping the General Assembly will go beyond the apology issued some 10 years ago. He says society has decided compensation is a fair way to right a wrong. He says it's Virginia's responsibility to do so now.

"Virginia is not above the law. We have a law in place that says when you do a wrong, the duty is to compensate, and that's why we think it's a fiscally conservative policy if you will." 

Delegate Patrick Hope from Arlington will champion the cause. 

"There are people still alive that are still living with this and by God, if we can let them come forward and tell their story, we ought to do something. They deserve at least that much," said Hope.  

Hope would like the state to form a task force as they've just done in North Carolina to track down what could be several hundred victims still living, out of the thousands recorded in the record books. From there, they can determine the right thing to do, even if that means paying reparations. 

"I hope my colleagues in the General Assembly will recognize this as something we ought to do not just for the individuals that were victimized, but for the state as a whole the government needs to step up and take responsibility and just let these people come forward and tell their story," he said.                                                      

Lynchburg Delegate Scott Garrett agrees the state's actions were reprehensible, but worries this could lead Virginia down a slippery slope.

"If we're going to decide one action of the state decades ago was so unjust that we need to today compensate the victims of that unjust act I should think there are other acts that folks could reasonably interpret as being unjust, and I'm not sure we want to open that door," said Garrett. 

Bold responds, "Some are concerned about a slippery slope but what we did, where we're standing right here is ground zero for our American Holocaust!" 

Sarah Wiley is in a much happier place today, living with a caretaker. Still, she would like to see the state pay for what they did to her. Lewis Reynolds feels the same.

"I think they should pay for the wrongdoing. I would like to get a little bit out of it to keep me going," said Reynolds.

The Virginia ACLU stood up for the victims in the early 1980s, but the case ended only with the state offering the victims counseling. Bold has been working with the victims in North Carolina where advocates are asking the state to pay $50,000 per victim. They've found 168 living victims so far.  Lawmakers there haven't yet agreed to pay, but Bold thinks Virginia needs to take the lead and do it first. Bold is also suggesting a fitting tribute could be a museum similar to the Holocaust Museum, in the old hospital building at the Central Virginia Training Center in Madison Heights, where most of the sterilizations occurred.

If you believe you were sterilized under Virginia's Eugenics law, you can call this the hotline: (888) 643-7497.  The Christian Law Institute is trying to track down all of those still living.

You can see a more in-depth look at Virginia's Eugenics history in Noreen's series from May of 2000 called "

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