Charles Kuralt anchored CBS Sunday Morning for just about forever. He brought a kind of aw-shucks demeanor to the show, which tended to be a quiet meditation on the news of the week. Still is, I guess — I haven’t seen the show in years. But I used to catch Kuralt on the air when I could. He seemed to be the opposite of overbearing and ideological, a persona that concealed a lot.
Charles Kuralt, CBS’s folksy “On the Road” correspondent, spent years exploring America’s out-of-the-way places in search of oddball stories. But the best story may have been the one he never told.
For 29 years, until his death in 1997, he apparently kept a mistress and maintained a second family. The celebrated journalist was, in effect, husband and father to them, as well as breadwinner, friend and hero.
While his wife remained at their home in the concrete canyons of New York City, he nurtured his secret life along a rushing trout stream in Montana.
None of this would come out, however, until after his death, when his mistress, Patricia Elizabeth Shannon, sued to get a Montana retreat he promised her. Montana’s Supreme Court ruled last month that the woman is entitled to a trial on her claim.
Double lives seem to run in the Kuralt family. His dad, Wallace Kuralt, was a Progressive monster.
Compassionate. Visionary. A champion of women and the poor.
That’s the reputation that Wallace Kuralt built as Mecklenburg County’s welfare director from 1945 to 1972. Today, the building where Charlotte’s poor come for help bears his name – a name made even more prominent when his newscaster son, Charles Kuralt, rose to fame.
But as architect of Mecklenburg’s program of eugenic sterilization – state-ordered surgery to stop the poor and disabled from bearing children – Kuralt helped write one of the most shameful chapters of North Carolina history.
The Charlotte Observer has obtained records sealed by the state that tell the stories of 403 Mecklenburg residents ordered sterilized by the N.C. Eugenics Board at the behest of Kuralt’s welfare department.
It’s a number that dwarfs the total from any other county, in a state that ran one of the nation’s most active efforts to sterilize the mentally ill, mentally retarded and epileptic.
Race played a major role. Of course. Kuralt was a strong Progressive eugenicist.
In 1960, just under 25 percent of Mecklenburg residents were African-American.
But blacks made up more than 80 percent of the people ordered sterilized at the request of the Welfare Department between 1955 and 1966. In 1957, the peak year for Mecklenburg, the state approved sterilizations of 52 blacks and five whites.
Dozens of black women were sent to surgeons at Good Samaritan Hospital, Charlotte’s segregated black facility.
Thereasea Elder, a retired public health nurse who is African-American, recalls a stream of hysterectomies and tubal ligations when she worked there in surgery.
“I never knew the reason why they did so many hysterectomies,” said Elder, 84. “We thought they were diseased. We were never told the reason for the sterilizations.”
The Eugenics Board records reflect the racial attitudes of the times. A 17-year-old white boy with an IQ of 47 was ordered sterilized in 1963. The report notes that he lived in a low-income, racially mixed neighborhood, and “his interest in Negro girls” is one reason cited to stop him from having children.
More about the role of race in Kuralt’s career, here. Eugenics eventually fell out of favor with the public, but not with the senior Kuralt, who died in 1994.
Writer Mary Snead Boger interviewed him for her 1972 book “Charlotte 23,” a collection of profiles of the city’s most important residents. He told her planned parenthood for the poor was his most significant accomplishment.
“I suppose,” he said, “no comparable population in the world has ever received more eugenic sterilizations.”
Frankly, I’m shocked that the Observer worked the phrase “planned parenthood” into this piece, but good on them for that. It’s an entirely appropriate turn of phrase.
(h/t Jonah Goldberg)