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Three Notable African American Women in Early Child Welfare

Three Notable African American Women in Early Child Welfare

by Wilma Peeples-Wilkins, Ph.D., Boston University

For the most part, social welfare history has focused on efforts to protect dependent and delinquent white immigrant children. Information on the care of African American children has been excluded. Because of racial separation and discrimination, information describing the care of African American children has often been left out. It is important to call special attention to this situation.

During the early decades of the twentieth century, some northern white benefactors developed special services for African American children, but members of the African American community began to develop their services to care of delinquent and orphaned African American children. Some of these services continue to exist in modern times and others were later provided by the state government and local communities. There are three notable African American women from the South who contributed to the development of these services, Janie Porter Barrett, Fredericka Douglass Sprague Perry and Carrie Steele.

Janie Porter Barrett

Janie Porter Barrett
Janie Porter Barrett

Janie Porter Barrett began providing services for African American children from the first African American settlement, Locust Street, which she began in her home in Hampton, Virginia in 1890. Her prominent husband, helped her build a separate settlement facility in 1902. Later, she moved just outside of Richmond, Virginia where she founded, with the help of African American Club women, the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls in 1915. Some of the girls at this school were delinquent and some were orphaned or had parents who could not care for them. Before Mrs. Barrett founded this home, all of these African American teenage girls were sent to jail. This Industrial School focused on creating an environment with caring and accepting attitudes to help these young girls develop and prepare for going into the work world. Famous child welfare leaders such as Hastings Hart from the Russell Sage Foundation also gave advice to Mrs. Barrett. Many communities throughout the United States wanted to develop such a model program. The Industrial School provided such quality services that the state of Virginia took it over and renamed it. The Industrial School still exists today as the Barrett Learning Center.


Fredericka Douglass Sprague Perry

Fredericka Douglass Sprague Perry was the granddaughter of the famous abolitionist, Frederick Douglass. She and her husband, Dr. James E. Perry helps to provide better health care to African American children in Kansas City, Missouri. During this time, African American children suffered from poor nutrition and had poor physical development as a result. In addition to working with her husband who founded a hospital, Mrs. Perry worked as a juvenile court worker. She was concerned about the lack of foster homes for African American children over 12 years old who were sent to the state delinquency institution when they got into trouble or had no one to care for them. In 1934, with the help of African American club women and other prominent African Americans in the community, she founded the Colored Big Sister Home for Girls. Mrs. Perry called attention to the need for foster care services for African American children to the local Community Charities Chest Committee which developed these services for white children The Colored Big Sisters Home existed until 1943 and by this time, states began to provide child welfare services that included African American children.

Carrie Steele

Carrie Steele worked as an individual to care for abandoned children, first in her own home and later in orphanage she built by selling her house. Her orphan home founded in 1888 still exists today in Atlanta, Georgia as a private institution renamed the Carrie Steele-Pitt Group Home. Mrs. Steele worked as a maid in an Atlanta railroad station. When children were abandoned in the train cars, she began rescuing and caring for them. Mrs. Steele was not as prominent as Janie Porter Barrett or Fredericka Douglass Sprague Perry and did not use African American club women to help her set up her orphanage.

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How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Peeples-Wilkins, W. (2006). Three notable African American women in early child welfare.  Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from

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