Bad Girls at Samarcand

A review of Karen L. Zipf, Bad Girls at Samarcand: Sexuality and Sterilization in a Southern Juvenile Reformatory (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2016).

By David Cecelski

Karin Zipf’s Bad Girls at Samarcand is an enlightening book, but also a frightening one. It gives a terrifying look at the history of how the state of North Carolina has treated some of its most vulnerable children over the last century: those girls denied love at home, traumatized by incest and rape, living on the streets or scorned for being somehow “different.”

Zipf is a history professor at ECU, and she focuses her story on a state reform school called Samarcand Manor in Eagles Springs, N.C., not far from Pinehurst in Moore County.

Her story begins in 1917. Appalled by 19th century policies that consigned “fallen girls” to the streets or adult prisons, social reformers convinced the N.C. General Assembly to support a statewide reform school for white girls, age 9 to 16.

“Our training is to wipe out the past and make the girl feel that her future is hers to make of it what she will,” Agnes McNaughton, Samarcand’s first superintendent, stated.

The need was great. To mention just one example, Zipf describes a Samarcand girl who had gone to work at a cotton mill when she was 10 years old. She had her first child, to a married man, at age 12. Shunned by family and neighbors, the girl took refuge in a drifters’ camp and “made her living in the only way she saw open to her.”

Many of the girls had been charged with prostitution, theft or vagrancy, but some had done nothing at all.

Consider the case of Margaret Abernethy. She was at Samarcand for 2 and ½ years because her father had sexually abused her and the state had nowhere else to put her.

Or consider “Mildred” from Parkton, N.C. A stranger came into her bedroom at night and abducted and raped her. Her parents sent her to Samarcand for not protecting her chastity better, while her rapist went free.

Others were sent to Samarcand simply for sexual promiscuity, or what we would just call “premarital sex.” Such cases revealed the dizzying double standard behind Samarcand’s existence. No male would have been punished for that kind of sexual activity, much less deprived his liberty.

Zipf is far less prone to speculate than I am. But reading between the lines, I suspected that some of the girls were sent to Samarcand for having sex with the “wrong” kind of person, perhaps another girl or, even more taboo at the time, an African American boy.

Throughout its history, the institution was dogged by sex scandals and reports of child abuse. A deep bitterness smoldered among many of the girls, and in 1931 literally burst into flames: a riot broke out and the girls burned two of the school’s buildings to the ground.

Things grew grimmer yet. In 1933, state leaders embraced a eugenics policy that sanctioned sterilization as a way to maintain racial purity. Over four decades, the state forcibly sterilized over 8,000 young women and girls, including hundreds at Samarcand.

As Zipf points out, the state’s sterilization law of 1933 praised and closely resembled Nazi Germany’s.

Samarcand finally closed in 2011 and our lawmakers in Raleigh have been dismantling the state’s reform school system. But in this poignant and moving book’s final pages, Zipf strikes a crucial cautionary note.

She warns us that if the state fails to provide adequate funding for community-based alternatives for juvenile offenders and prevention programs for high-risk youth, we’ll be right back where we started a century ago, when many of our children grew up in adult prisons or walked the streets.

This review originally appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on 25 June 2016.

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