HAMPTON ROADS, Va. — Lewis Reynolds didn’t know what had been done to him until years later.
After getting married, the Lynchburg man found he couldn’t father children. The reason: He had been sterilized at age 13 under a Virginia law with the stated purpose of preventing “defective persons” from becoming “by the propagation of their kind a menace to society.”
Unable to have a family, his wife left him.
Reynolds, now 85, journeyed to Richmond this week in support of the Justice for Victims of Sterilization Act (HB1529), which would pay $50,000 each to surviving Virginians who were involuntarily sterilized between 1924 and 1979 under the Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act. Eugenics was the now-discredited movement that sought to improve the genetic composition of humankind by limiting the reproduction of those deemed its less desirable members.
The Virginia law became a model for similar legislation passed around the country and the world, including Nazi Germany. The law was upheld in the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., writing for the majority, famously declared: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
The Virginia sterilizations, more than 7,000 of them, were performed at six state institutions, including what is now known as Central Virginia Training Center in Lynchburg. When Reynolds was sterilized, it was called the Virginia Colony for the Epileptic and Feeble Minded.
Reynolds was presumed to have epilepsy. As it turned out, he was exhibiting temporary symptoms from having been hit in the head with a rock.
Reynolds married again, and this time the union lasted. His second wife, Delores, died five years ago.
“We had a good marriage for 47 years,” he said in an interview.
But he has always regretted being unable to father children.
“I felt awful about it,” he said. “Everybody else has a family. I’d like to have a family, too.”
There were times, he said, when he and Delores would cry about it. Sometimes when he is alone, he still cries.
Nevertheless, he made the best of the life he had been handed.
He joined the Marine Corps and served in two wars. He was a military policeman and a firearms instructor, at one time teaching FBI agents how to shoot. He manned a 50-caliber machine gun in Korea.
He retired from the corps after 30 years and found work as an electrician. He still takes occasional jobs wiring houses.
All that from someone once dubbed “defective” by the state.
It’s ironic, said Del. Bob Marshall of Prince William County, sponsor of the compensation bill: “He went to Korea and fought on behalf of people who thought he was unworthy to have children.”
The plight of Reynolds and others like him has united Marshall, a conservative Republican, and Del. Patrick Hope, a liberal Democrat from Arlington County and chief co-patron of the measure, in an unusual coalition.
Now is the time, they say, to write the final page in a shameful chapter of Virginia history. The victims of eugenics, they say, deserve more than simple words of regret.
The compensation measure has been referred to the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee.
Similar legislation was proposed last year in North Carolina but not adopted.
No one knows how many involuntarily sterilized Virginians are still alive. The Justice for Sterilization Victims Project, a national clearinghouse, is asking them to contact the project at www.sterilizationvictims.org or (888) 643-7497.