Righting the Wrong - Part One - WSET.com - ABC13

Righting the Wrong - Part One

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Madison Heights, VA - It was an effort to wipe out an entire class of people—to keep those considered unfit, from breeding more of the same, to purify the races.

Think we're talking about Nazi Germany? We're not. It happened right here at home in Virginia for 50 years - the forced sterilizations of some 8,000 people labeled "mental misfits."  It was based on what is now recognized as a phony science called Eugenics, and Hitler actually modeled his practices after Virginia's law.

ABC 13's Noreen Turyn did an in-depth series on the subject 12 years ago, which led to an official apology from the state. But now some feel saying "I'm sorry" is just not enough. 

The stories are countless, but now those still alive to tell them are few. From the early 1900s all the way up to the late ‘70s, Virginia took thousands of children and young adults into a hospital room and robbed them of their right to have children. Most of them happened in Madison Heights, at what was then known as the Lynchburg Colony for the Epileptics and Feeble Minded. 

"I don't remember how old I was," said Lewis Reynolds, 85.

 His father sent him to the Colony because he was having seizures after being hit in the head by a rock. 

"But I didn't know they was going to do all this other stuff. I thought he just put me over there to get well and I could come back home."  

Though the seizures were just his body's way of recovering, doctors there decided he had epilepsy, something they felt was a mental defect, and at age 13, Reynolds was sterilized. 

"I didn't know what was done. I don't know if they give a reason or not, I don't know. My daddy passed away, my momma passed away, so no way in the world you'd know except if you ask them." 

Reynolds didn't even learn he'd been sterilized until just a few years ago when his brother told him. Finally he understood why he and his wife of 47 years could never have the children they so longed for. 

"Did you try to have children?" we asked Reynolds.

"Yes me and her did," he answered. 

"And you just never could?"

"No," said Reynolds.

"And you didn't know why." 

"And I asked her about adopting a boy and girl so I would have two of them, you know," said Reynolds.

 But his wife didn't want to adopt, so they lived just the two of them until she passed away about five years ago. 

"I was 11 when I went over there, but I was 23 when I was operated on," says Sarah Wiley, who has a similar story. Her brother, sister and she were all sent to the Colony and sterilized. 

We asked her why she was at the training center.

"My father was an alcoholic and they had to take me away from my mommy and daddy," answered Wiley.

The state set up fraudulent hearings with phony advocates for the patients to authorize the operations. They told the victims they needed an operation for their health, sometimes threatening that they couldn't go home unless they had one. 

"He filled out papers and said I had to sign ‘em," Sarah recalls. She says she didn't know what was happening, they just told her she needed an operation.

"Why did they tell you you needed it?" we asked.

"I don't know they just told me I needed one before I could get away from the training center," said Wiley.

"They said you had to have one before you could get away from there?" 

"Yes,"  she responded.

Though she and many others tried to run away several times, Wiley didn't get out of there until she was 39.   

"The difference between us and Hitler? He shot ‘em in the back of the head," says Mark Bold, a third year law student and executive director of the Christian Law Institute. "What happened here was a direct harm to individuals, citizens because, based on their class. Their disability, or they're labeled promiscuous or habitual criminal behavior or alcoholics. They were targeted for elimination ultimately, that's what this was about."

He is working hard to right the wrong for the atrocious acts led by Virginia's government.

"What happened here was an evil social philosophy. It was based on an evil social philosophy.  The idea that again we wanted to eliminate people simply because of who they are. And classes of people. And I can't think of anything, um, that the state, the government has done that's more egregious than that." 

We'll have more about that in part two of Righting the Wrong. 

If you were sterilized under the state's Eugenics policies, there's a toll-free hotline for you to call: (888) 643-7497. The Christian Law Institute is trying to track down anyone affected.

Click here to watch Noreen's original series from 2000 that led to the state apology, and won the national Scripps Howard award for Excellence in Journalism and a regional Edward R. Murrow award . You can see a more in-depth look at our Eugenics history, and its repercussions.

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