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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ted Fillette, April 11, 2006. Interview U-0186. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Discrimination against African Americans in welfare programs

Fillette further explains the efforts of the Legal Aid Society of Mecklenburg County to ensure that the state would provide Medicaid and AFDC for unborn children. In describing the resistance they faced and the determination of the United States Supreme Court that the Social Security Act did not extend to the unborn, Fillette offers his belief that the state discriminated against African Americans, who were disproportionately welfare recipients. His comments are based on an investigation that he and fellow lawyer Rick Hart conducted around 1976.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ted Fillette, April 11, 2006. Interview U-0186. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

In working with welfare recipients, to what extent did you find race played a role in the distribution of benefits? Or did you find that both white and black clients, their rights were being ignored?
Well, I think that on an individual basis, we could not find in Mecklenburg County any conscious decision to discriminate on the basis of race. There was certainly a very great predominance of African-American recipients in Charlotte. We very rarely saw white AFDC recipients in Charlotte. Most of those folks that got help from Social Services that were white lived outside of Charlotte in the mobile home parks and the other parts of the county or in adjacent counties. So there was no clear way for us to see discrimination on the ground. However, in pursuing the Taylor v. Hill case, which was the one about the failure of the state to cover unborn children in their AFDC and Medicaid programs, initially we had won that. We had gotten a decision from Judge McMillan that found that the Social Security Act did cover unborn children for these programs and he ordered the state to provide AFDC and Medicaid to the women with unborn children. The state appealed that decision to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and while that was pending in front of the Fourth Circuit, the same issue reached the United States Supreme Court from a case that had started in Iowa. And despite the fact that every circuit court that had decided this issue was in favor of covering the unborn children, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that the Social Security Act did not cover unborn children. Then the fourth circuit vacated Judge McMillan's decision based upon the decision of the Supreme Court on the same statutory issue, which then left us back in the trial court level with our constitutional claim. Our constitutional claim was actually based on the Fourteenth Amendment and at that time, we decided to explore whether or not there had been a racial purpose in not opting to cover unborn children. This other lawyer named Rick Hart, who worked in our office in Charlotte, and I decided to research the history of the state welfare department records about the AFDC program. We went to Raleigh and started reading the minutes of the board meetings to see what considerations there had been regarding the state's decisions to set the benefit levels where they set them and what options to cover or not cover. Because the Congress had given enough money to the federal agency, the health and education welfare department, to reimburse states that did choose to provide money for unborn children, and I think a majority of states did choose that option. What was interesting to us is that most of the southern states did not. In North Carolina at that time, we realized we had the second highest infant mortality rate in the country. We had very poorly developed medical delivery systems in the rural parts of the state. And if there was anything that pregnant women needed to try to avoid premature births or losing children, it was medical care, but they couldn't get it without having this coverage that we were seeking through the litigation. Well, as we started reading through these archives, we found minutes that showed the board members of the state welfare department saying that the biggest problem they thought the state had was Negro births out of wedlock, is how they determined it. They did all kinds of things to try to discourage people from having children. We also saw references to how some counties in eastern North Carolina, and I particularly remember Robeson County systematically cutting off AFDC payments to qualified mothers during harvesting season to provide a source of cheap labor for the farmers to force women to go harvest crops in the field. That was known to the state welfare board and they tolerated it, because they thought that was a good way to motivate people to go work for cheap prices. It was put in the minutes of the state. With that background, we decided we wanted to interview some of the people in the department that had tried to fashion policy and we found this guy that worked at the social work school at Chapel Hill, who had been the deputy director of the department. We interviewed him and found out that when he and the director would go to the state legislature to try to get their budgets passed that they were commonly asked about the racial statistics of the participants in the program, and the AFDC program was very heavily black and the program that covered disabled people was very predominately white. The state legislature had authorized budgets to pay a much higher per capita benefit to the disabled program than the family program. He was convinced it was because the legislators didn't like the predominately-black AFDC program and favored, just out of pure racial politics, the disabled program. So we decided with that knowledge, we thought that the decision of the department to not cover unborn children was viewed by the department as unpopular because it was predominately black families that needed that help. That was the basis for our constitutional challenge to the decision of the department not to cover unborn children at the constitutional level.
Who was the person at Chapel Hill you spoke with, do you remember?
I don't remember his name.
This would have been mid-70s?
This would have been about 1976, probably.