Janie Porter Barrett (1865 -1948): Founder of the Locust Street Social Settlement (1890) and the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls (1915)
Early Years: Janie Barrett, nee Porter was born in Athens, Georgia on August 9, 1865. Her mother Julia Porter was a former slave. Her father’s name is unknown, but because of Janie Barrett’s fair skin it is believed that he was Caucasian. Barrett’s mother worked as a live-in housekeeper and seamstress for the Skinner family. The Skinners pampered Barrett and educated her along with their own children, with an education in literature and mathematics. As such, her childhood was atypical of the African-American community of that period soon after the Civil War.
Julia Porter later married a railway worker and lived with him while still working for the Skinners; however Janie Porter Barrett continued to live with the Skinners. Mrs. Skinner wanted to become Janie’s legal guardian so that she could send her to a school in the northern USA where she could live as a white person. Julia Porter vetoed this plan and sent her daughter to the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, where she would live as a black person in a black environment.
Barrett had never lived among African-Americans before attending the Hampton Institute. She also had to do manual labor for the first time at the Institute. Hampton emphasized vocational education, and the women were trained in morality and housekeeping in preparation for careers as wives or domestics. Barrett gradually adapted to the system at the Institute. While there Barrett was especially influenced by a novel about a cultured and advantaged woman similar to herself who devoted her life to social service. While at Hampton, she began to volunteer for community projects that helped people. Barrett trained as an elementary school teacher at the Institute. The Institute taught her lessons “in love of race, love of fellow-men, and love of country,” inculcating her with altruistic and patriotic values, and a sense of duty towards her race. Barrett graduated from the Hampton Institute in 1885.
Early Career: Barrett first worked as a teacher in a rural school in Dawson, and then at Lucy Craft Laney’s Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Augusta, Georgia. She taught night school classes in the Hampton Institute from 1886 to 1889. In 1889 she married another Hampton graduate, Harris Barrett, the Institute’s cashier and bookkeeper. They had four children. Rather than settle for a comfortable life as a middle-class wife, Janie Porter Barrett devoted herself to social service work. The first major product of her early career was to create the Locust Street Social Settlement in 1890. Locus Street settlement was the first of its kind in Virginia and the first settlement house for black people in the United States. Locust Street Settlement was modeled on Hull House in Chicago founded by Jane Addams in 1889.
The work of Locust Street House was started by Mrs. Barrett inviting a few girls once a week to her home. Helping girls and women was carried on as a personal venture until her prominent husband helped Barrett build a separate club house facility in 1902. After the club house was erected the number and level of activities increased to include clubs for women, boys, lectures and much general social work. Locust Street House was also instrumental in starting a playground and library, and in encouraging athletic games. In addition to activities, Mrs. Barrett reported: “We are teaching through the efforts of the settlement house, how to have more attractive homes, cleaner back yards, more attractive front yards, cleaner sidewalks, how to have better gardens, how to raise poultry successfully, the proper food for the family, care and feeding of infants and small children. Through the efforts of the house much has been done to improve the social life of the community.”
(Editor’s Note: A more detailed description of Locust Street Settlement in Hampton, VA is included in the “Handbook of Settlements” edited by Robert A. Woods and Albert J. Kennedy and published by The Russell Sage Foundation in 1911. A copy is available via the Internet Archive)
Later Career: Barrett’s approach to social reform also included interracial cooperation. She established relations with a wide range of organizations and had contacts with white social reformers such as Jane Addams, who, in 1911, gave a Chicago tea party at Hull House in Barrett’s honor, recognized her work. In 1908 Barrett became a founder of the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, an affiliate of the influential National Association of Colored Women. During the 1910 she forged important creative alliances with members and leaders of white women’s organizations in Virginia, particularly with Mary-Cooke Branch Munford, a Richmond social leader who worked for improvements in public education for children of both races. Their assistance led to the Virginia Federation’s 1914 purchase of a farm in Hanover County to be used as a rehabilitation center for black girls in trouble with the law near Richmond, Virginia.
(Editor’s Note: Mary-Cooke Branch Munford (1865-1938) was an advocate of woman suffrage, interracial cooperation, education, health, and labor reforms. Armed with a family pedigree that connected her to some of the wealthiest families of Virginia, she threw herself into at the time “unfeminine” pursuits such as education reform and civil rights. Maggie Lena Walker (1864- 1934) was an African-American teacher and businesswoman. Walker was the first female bank president of any race to charter a bank in the United States. As a leader, she achieved successes with the vision to make tangible improvements in the way of life for African-Americans and women. Disabled by paralysis and limited to a wheelchair later in life, Walker also became an example for people with disabilities.)
Before officially opening the facility, Barrett used consultation from Dr. Hastings Hart of the Russell Sage Foundation. She established a standard of care for dependent black children who had heretofore been treated poorly. At her home school, as it was called, Barrett created a growth promoting atmosphere for young black girls. The child welfare and educational principles used to foster the growth and development of the dependent girls in her care were adapted from the Child Welfare Department of the Russell Sage Foundation, now the Child Welfare League of America. Barrett’s expressed philosophy was akin to contemporary social work values. This program became a model for treatment services in which social work was used to provide safe housing, medical care, and job training for unmarried young black women and their children. Barrett later became the superintendent of the innovative and successful Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls from 1915 until her retirement in 1940, by which time it had become part of the Virginia state system of schools for poor and needy girls.
The aim of the new institution was to help girls develop Christian character. Using rewards instead of punishments in its programs, Barrett emphasized the facility’s role as a home rather than a prison. Many activities were aimed at building agricultural and household skills, and cleanliness. Students were expected to work on farms or as domestics until they were able to establish their own homes. The models that had been prototyped at Hampton and at Tuskegee Institute were frequently replicated during Barrett’s tenure as institutional superintendent, and the student activities were regulated by the honor system. Her personality was really the glue that held the various program elements together. The residents of the Industrial School were, for the most part, delinquent or dependent colored girls sentenced to prison by local judges and then paroled to the school. There were no foster homes for colored girls who needed care and jail or prison was the only alternative. It is reported that several of the girls were “feeble minded” and a few arrived with contagious diseases. Regardless of the circumstances, the goal of the school was to teach self-direction and character building with the expectation that, when ready, a girl could be “paroled” to a private family in the Richmond area and work for normal wages.
As noted in the school’s “SECOND ANNUAL REPORT of The Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls — 1917,” the girls learned about and became engaged in routines of work, play, and religious activities. Among the work activities were the ordinary tasks of living in a rural setting: truck gardening, raising pigs, chickens and other animals. Housework skills such as laundry, ironing and dressmaking were also taught. Play activities focused on games, folk dancing, baseball and the celebration of holidays. Religious services in the early days rotated between an Episcopal and a Baptist service conducted by volunteer ministers. The “SECOND ANNUAL REPORT…” is a detailed history of the way the girls lived during its early years. The report describes the limited types of food they had to eat, and its sources. The report also details the games the girls were taught and played, their competitions, trials, difficulties, and occasional successes. The report concludes with details on the active involvement of the Board of Directors, volunteers and friends of the school, including who contributed what, how much, and for what reasons.
Before 1920, the Virginia State legislature provided funds to establish similar institutions for Caucasian girls and boys, but it did not extend this service to African American girls and boys. Barrett was constantly looking for outside support to supply the necessities of daily life at the school. Her annual reports contained thanks for the many items that had been donated and pleas for items such as blackboards, paint for the buildings, laundry equipment, library books, farm animals and equipment. Barrett was able to transcend traditional racial constraints and enlist the supportof many community members, both African American and white, to provide these much needed services to young AfricanAmerican women.
The “TWENTY-FOURTH ANNUAL REPORT” was submitted to the Board of Directors and the Commissioner of Public Welfare on June 30, 1939, by Superintendent, Janie Barrett Porter. It is a study in contrast with the Second Annual Report, highlighting the very positive development of the school property, roads and buildings, its curriculum for the girls, as well as health and welfare of the girls entrusted to the school by Virginia Judges and Courts. Of special note is the the spirit of interracial cooperation prevalent in the success of the school; the report makes several references to the courage of the African American and white women who contributed time and resources to the school which was not always a popular cause.
The correctional education work of Janie Porter Barrett was a remarkable series of accomplishments that helped students who were ready to improve or transform their lives. Barrett boldly used her influential position to advocate black voting and participation in government years before the civil rights movement. By 1920, with help from child welfare leaders such as Dr. Hastings Hart, the institution had achieved national recognition. The William E. Harman Award for Distinguished Achievement Among Negroes was presented to her in 1929. Two years after her death, on 27 August 1948, the Virginia General Assembly named the Hanover County school the Janie Porter Barrett School for Girls. It became racially integrated in 1965. The Virginia Industrial School exists today as the Barrett Learning Center.
In 1929 Barrett received the William E. Harmon Award for Distinguished Achievement among Negroes. In 1930 she took part in the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection. She also served as the president of the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs for twenty-five years. She chaired the executive board of the National Association of Colored Women for four years. Barrett retired in 1940. She died in Hampton on August 27, 1948.
The Virginia House of Delegates introduced the following resolution commemorating the life and legacy of Janie Porter Barrett:
HOUSE RESOLUTION NO. 239
Commemorating the life and legacy of Janie Porter Barrett.
Agreed to by the House of Delegates, February 13, 2015
WHEREAS, 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Janie Porter Barrett, a dedicated educator and passionate civic leader who worked to enhance the quality of life and education for African American women in the Commonwealth; and
WHEREAS, born in Athens, Georgia, in 1865, Janie Porter was educated at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, one of the first training schools for freed people, which later became Hampton University; and
WHEREAS, Janie Porter served the youths of Georgia and the Commonwealth as a teacher before marrying Harris Barrett in 1889 and settling in Hampton, where they raised four children; and
WHEREAS, Janie Barrett was an active leader in the Hampton community, establishing the Locust Street Social Settlement, which hosted vocational clubs and classes, as well as youth athletic programs; and
WHEREAS, in 1908, Janie Barrett founded and became the first president of the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs; during her 32-year tenure as president, the organization purchased a farm in Hanover County that became the Industrial Home School for Colored Girls; and
WHEREAS, later renamed the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls, the school opened in 1915 and taught vocational skills; Janie Barrett also actively worked to prevent the exploitation and mistreatment of former students; and
WHEREAS, in the 1920s, Janie Barrett continued to advocate for equal rights and social justice as a member of the Virginia Commission on Interracial Cooperation, the Richmond Urban League, and the National Association of Commissions for Women; and
WHEREAS, Janie Barrett died in 1948; the school she founded was later renamed the Janie Porter Barrett School for Girls, in honor of her exceptional legacy of care and support for the African American community; now, therefore, be it
RESOLVED by the House of Delegates, That the life and legacy of Janie Porter Barrett hereby be commemorated on the 150th anniversary of her birth; and, be it
RESOLVED FURTHER, That the Clerk of the House of Delegates prepare copies of this resolution for presentation to the Virginia Historical Society and the Hanover Heritage Alliance as an expression of the House of Delegates’ admiration for Janie Porter Barrett’s achievements as an educator and community leader.