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Womble

The voice was unmistakable. Deep with the timbre and cadence of a man of a certain age who’d been raised and educated in North Carolina.

No matter how many times I heard it, after the first time I’d met the man in the early 2000s, there was never any question about who it was on the other end of the line.

He’d start the conversation the same way every time, whether he was calling from an office in Raleigh, on a cell phone or, in his later years, from his Winston-Salem home when he was hard at work recovering from a car crash that damn near killed him.

This is Larry Womble, he’d say.

As if there was ever any doubt.

Doing the right thing

Womble was a courtly man, humble, gracious and agreeable. He died at home Thursday after a period of declining health. He was 78.

The minute I heard the news, that voice was the first thing I remembered. It made me smile.

This is Larry Womble, he’d say.

He believed fervently in his causes and fought for them no matter the odds. Standing for the right thing — doing the right thing — was always the correct course. The only course.

There were many chapters to Womble’s life, same as for anyone. But the thing I’ll remember most is the battle he fought for the most vulnerable — and arguably the most egregiously wronged — of North Carolina’s citizens.

For 10 years, Womble pursued justice for nearly 7,600 people who were ordered sterilized at the hands of the state between 1929 and 1974.

The eugenic-sterilization program was an abomination rooted in junk science and promulgated by institutional racism. Thousands, many of them poor, black and female, were rendered surgically barren on the say-so of elites who’d determined they were feeble-minded, promiscuous or genetically undesirable due to epilepsy or other conditions.

More sickening is the fact that while the other 32 states with similar programs scaled theirs back in the ’50s, North Carolina ramped ours up.

The whole sordid chapter had been buried and mostly forgotten about until 2002. A handful of us here at the Journal spent months exposing its horrors, tracking down victims and documenting their stories.

“I tried so hard to bury this, but it just won’t go away,” said Nial Cox Rameriz in 2003. “It’s like a cancer that eats you and eats you and eats you.”

Womble, a Democrat who represented Winston-Salem in the state House of Representatives, heard and rose to fight on behalf of those victims

In 2005, he filed a bill to compensate living victims for their pain. It went nowhere fast. Undaunted, he filed similar new bills in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

This is Larry Womble, he’d say.

Many of his colleagues — several of whom self-righteously claimed to be “pro-life” — griped about the cost. Apparently a measly $50,000 for ripping away the most basic of human rights was a bridge too far.

“I’m so sorry it happened, but throwing money don’t change it, don’t make it go away,” said then-Sen. Don East, R-Surry County, during a 2012 debate. “It still happened.”

He later added this peach: “If they’re sterile, they’re still sterile.”

And still Womble fought.

Victory at last

In 2013 as part of an overall $20.6 billion state budget, the General Assembly approved $10 million to compensate survivors of the eugenic sterilization program.

It took 10 years, many circular debates and unlikely alliances with staunch conservative (and bonafide pro-lifers) state Reps. Thom Tillis and Paul Stam, but it got done.

Womble could have thumped his chest over such a mighty legislative achievement.

Instead, he chose to thank others for their work and focus on the victims. He stood for what was right.

Only after it was all done did he reflect on the journey, and even then he hesitated.

“There were times when I was skeptical,” Womble said that July afternoon. “I always felt the day was coming, but sometimes I had my doubts as to whether I’d live to see it.”

His legislative career was cut short following that car crash in 2011. It was a tragic and unfair end to a working life spent standing up for those without a voice.

But thankfully, a deep one belonging to a humble Winston-Salem man was clear and unmistakable.

This is Larry Womble, he’d say.

As if there was ever any doubt.


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