[Rep. Larry Womble, speaking with media during a break in 2011 from testimonies by survivors of North Carolina's forced sterilization program. / Photo by Dr. Shantella Y. Sherman]
Larry Womble, long-time educator and North Carolina politician, who championed compensation for survivors of the state’s eugenic sterilization program, died Thursday of natural causes, at age 78. Born June 6, 1941 in Winston-Salem, Womble graduated from Atkins High School, and later Winston-Salem State University, in 1963. He returned to the Winston-Salem public school system as a teacher and remained in education throughout his political career.
Womble gained a reputation as a staunch supporter and advocate for the poor and disenfranchised throughout the city and worked tirelessly to legislate inclusive policies to ensure equity. In 1987 Womble argued that the state fair -- the Dixie Classic Fair -- should be changed to omit the term ‘dixie’ which was largely associated with terrorism against Blacks, including white mob violence.
“It’s just like the Confederate flag…The flag does not do anything to harm me or my psyche, but what does it represent?” Womble said.
The name was officially changed last year to Carolina Classic Fair.
Additionally, Womble introduced and fought for the passage of the "Racial Justice Act" – a bill that allowed criminal defendants facing the death penalty to introduce statistics as evidence of impermissible racial discrimination in their capital sentencing proceedings. North Carolina was among several states under public scrutiny for advancing death penalty sentences against Black men who were later exonerated due to falsified physical evidence and perjury.
Passage of the Racial Justice Act, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), constituted an enormous victory for civil rights activists, concerned religious leaders, and other advocates. The victory took years of organizing and hard work, against a determined opposition. A study conducted at University of North Carolina -Chapel Hill several years ago found that a defendant's odds of getting the death penalty in North Carolina increased by 3.5 times if the victim is white.
Womble may be most remembered, however, for his unparalleled push for reparations for victims of North Carolina’s sterilization program. In 2002, North Carolina’s eugenics program came to the attention of state Rep. Larry Womble, who has actively searched for victims of the governments mandates in order to publicly apologize and offer monetary reparations. In 1974, the Eugenics Board was disbanded, and the state formally apologized in 2002.
“These men and women had their God-given rights taken from them and in many instances their bodies butchered. The sheer helplessness of these survivors in getting their stories heard by those with the power to do something about it, is what we want to fix. North Carolina is the only state in the nation to address this ugly chapter in history. We owe them,” Womble said.
“Rep. Womble was an amazing leader who stuck to his guns and was in the battle for the long haul,” Durham-resident, Sharlayne McCissack told Acumen. “A lot of his legislation required him to fight for years – even decades – to see things done, but he always got things done. It wasn’t a popularity contest with him, it was about doing the right thing and impressing upon other leaders that they had a responsibility to serve all of the people, not just the ones who looked like them.”
In a statement, Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines offered his deepest sympathies.
"Rep. Womble had been a strong voice for the rights of the underprivileged while he served on the board of aldermen and later as a state representative. We remember his work as an alderman in pushing for downtown development of residential housing many, many years ago before it became an accepted concept.”
Womble joined the state House in 1995 and served nine terms.