Former N.C. Rep. Womble, champion for sterilization victims, dies

Published 6:31 pm Sunday, May 17, 2020

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By GARY D. ROBERTSON, Associated Press

Former state Rep. Larry Womble, an educator who championed the cause of compensating North Carolina’s sterilization victims from the 20th century, has died at age 78.

Womble died at his home in Winston-Salem on Thursday of natural causes, according to Carmen Russell Bonham, director at Russell Funeral Home in Winston-Salem.

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A former Winston-Salem alderman, Womble joined the state House in 1995 and served nine terms. The Democrat decided not to seek reelection in 2012 after he nearly died in a head-on vehicle collision the year before in which the other driver was killed.

Womble spent his last years in the General Assembly seeking financial payments and other assistance for victims of the state-sponsored eugenics program that ended in the 1970s.

North Carolina sterilized about 7,600 people whom the state deemed feeble-minded or otherwise undesirable between 1929 and 1974. While most of the people were either forced or coerced into having the procedure, a small number of them chose to be sterilized.

It wasn’t until 2013 that lawmakers agreed to set aside $10 million for payments to victims — making North Carolina the first state to pay compensation to the victims of a government-run sterilization program.

Womble’s chief ally for the cause was a Republican — then-House Speaker Thom Tillis, now a U.S. senator.

“Larry was relentless in shining a light on one of the darkest moments of our state’s history, and he never backed down and never gave up in the pursuit of justice,” Tillis said in a news release, calling supporting Womble’s efforts “one of the greatest honors of my life.”

In 2012, a still-recovering Womble returned to the legislative complex in a wheelchair to push for financial compensation. Lawmakers left town that year with no agreement on funding.

“I hope all of you support this history-making event that no one else in this nation has ever done,” Womble told colleagues at the time. “You’ll be on the right side of history.”

Womble was a strong advocate on issues of race, pressing for passage of the 2009 Racial Justice Act, which gave death row prisoners a way to seek a reduced sentence because of racial bias. The law was ultimately repealed by the Republican-controlled legislature. He was known for his colorful suits and soliloquies on black history on the House floor.

“He never backed down from a fight and was always honest about his beliefs, even when they weren’t always popular,” said state Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin, who served with Womble in the House. “He made a point of giving a voice to the voiceless and, in his own words, to ‘make government personal.'”

A Winston-Salem native, Womble became a teacher and school administrator. He was elected to the alderman board in 1981 and for years served as the board’s only black alderman from a majority-white ward, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

Associated Press writer Tom Foreman Jr. in Winston-Salem contributed to this report.



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