Bad Girls at Samarcand

By: D.G. Martin - Contributing Columnist

If you asked almost anybody in the world to tell you about Samarcand and you got any answer at all, it would be about an ancient city still existing in modern day Uzbekistan.

But if you asked a North Carolinian and got an answer, it might be about a reform school for girls, in Moore County, where some inmates in 1931 set fires that destroyed two residential buildings. The girls were charged with arson, then a death penalty crime, and put on trial for their lives.

That story was recounted three years ago in “The Wayward Girls of Samarcand” by Melton McLaurin and Anne Russell.

On Nov. 18, at the annual meeting of the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association in Raleigh, a new book about Samarcand won this year’s Ragan Old North State Award Cup for Nonfiction.

Karin L. Zipf, an associate professor of history at East Carolina University, is the author of “Bad Girls at Samarcand: Sexuality and Sterilization in a Southern Juvenile Reformatory.”

Zipf uses the 1931 fire only as a starting point to tell more disturbing stories. She explains, “The Samarcand arson case and investigation served as a turning point in North Carolina’s public policy history. This public policy shift, from reform and redemption to classification and parole, represented a new construction of white supremacy, a racism that defined whiteness more narrowly and stripped its privileges from light-skinned girls on the lowest economic rung. The state investigation at Samarcand engaged many North Carolinians in a conversation about whiteness and a discussion about who enjoyed its privileges.”

It is also a complicated and moving story of the struggle of hard-working, well-meaning people, mostly women, to provide for the betterment of young women in troubled circumstances — and how their efforts, and the mixed results they achieved, challenge those who set public policy today. Zipf gives readers a poignant and disturbing look into the racism, sexism, and misguided religious and scientific ideas of former times. Although we have rejected those ideas today, they governed progressive activists in the early part of the last century.

In 1917 the North Carolina General Assembly, in response to a promotional blitz by the North Carolina Federation of Women’s Clubs and other women’s groups, established the State Home and Industrial School for Girls and Women to be governed by a board with extraordinary powers to discipline inmates and determine when they were ready to be released.

The institution was for whites only. Nothing similar was provided for black women. The leading advocate for the new institution, Hope Summerell Chamberlain from Salisbury, believed that white women were naturally virtuous. Those in trouble, she thought, were primarily victims who could be returned to virtue by proper training.

Other proponents of the institution, primarily those with experience in social work, characterized such women as “feeble-minded” and “sex delinquent.” In their view the new institution would measure and evaluate inmates and separate those who showed no potential to participate in society.

Ultimately, after the establishment of the institution called Samarcand Manor, these testing and measuring ideas prevailed. By the 1930s girls were being given IQ tests. Those with an IQ of less than 65 were recommended for sterilization.

In 1933, the state created the Eugenics Board to oversee and efficiently approve proposed sterilizations. Between 1933 and 1947, 293 women were sterilized at Samarcand. As described in John Railey’s “Rage to Redemption in the Sterilization Age,” there is more to this bleak period in our state’s history of sterilization.

In 2011 Samarcand’s efforts to reform, separate and treat troubled girls and women came to an end with the closing of the Samarcand Youth Development Center.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.

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D.G. Martin

Contributing Columnist