I’d gotten in touch with Lynch after reading some of his frank public comments on North Carolina’s sterilization program, recounting, in just a few sentences, a life that turned out differently from the one he once imagined.
Pennsylvania, her home state, never passed a eugenics law, but managed to sterilize 270 people anyway, and also to perform the first known eugenics-motivated castration, in 1889.
The first state to enact a eugenics-based sterilization law was Indiana, in 1907; it was followed 2 years later by Washington and California. Internationally, the list of countries with a history of forced sterilization includes Canada, Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, Denmark, Japan, Iceland, India, Finland, Estonia, China, Peru, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and Uzbekistan.
I thought I understood something that the politicians who had been fighting over compensation for victims like Lynch did not: it is not possible to forget. Sitting in his small kitchen, I tell him that I don’t have children either, that I know a little of what it’s like to miss people who don’t exist. Most of his contemporaries are enjoying grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but every day he wonders: What would my kids be like? “Some people think they have to wear boots, belt buckles, and britches like they’re in Nashville,” says Lynch, who prefers the same work pants and button-downs he wears any day of the week.
“I go as I am.” At the VFW, he’s friendly with the other musicians, the couples who come to dance, but he stands slightly apart from them, drinking bottled water alone in the kitchen and stepping outside during breaks.
Though North Carolina did not sterilize the greatest number of people (that distinction belongs to California, where 20,000 were sterilized), the state’s Eugenics Board was notorious for its aggressiveness.
While many states confined their sterilization programs to institutions, North Carolina allowed social workers to make recommendations based on observations of “unwholesome” home environments or poor school performance.
In 1948, when he was 14 years old, Lynch was sterilized on the recommendation of North Carolina’s Eugenics Board, a state-run organization that targeted thousands of men and women for vasectomies, hysterectomies, salpingectomies (removal of the fallopian tubes), ovariectomies (removal of the ovaries), and even castrations.
He has lived most of his life with the knowledge that he would never have biological children.
When I told them about all he had been through, they were outraged.
They had never heard of forced sterilizations taking place in the United States, but blamed their ignorance on where they grew up.
We’re proud to present, for the first time online, “For the Public Good,” Belle Boggs‘s story for The New New South about the shocking history of forced sterilizations that occurred in the United States, and the story of victims in North Carolina, with original video by Olympia Stone.“Last summer I met Willis Lynch, a man who was sterilized by the state of North Carolina more than 65 years earlier, when he was only 14 years old and living in an institution for delinquent children.