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Claiborne, Virginia Spotswood McKenney

Virginia Spotswood McKenney Claiborne (1887 – 1981):
activist for women’s education and occupational opportunity, museum director

by Alice W. Campbell


The author is grateful to Meg Hughes, Director of Collections and Chief Curator at The Valentine
and to Christine K. Vida,  Elise H. Wright Curator of General Collections at The Valentine,
for bringing the portrait of Virginia Claiborne to my attention,
and for numerous email exchanges about Claiborne’s life and contributions.


Virginia Spotswood McKenney Claiborne (3 November 1887 – 30 September 1981) was among the first Virginia women to graduate from college. Intelligent and energetic, she joined forces with other prominent Virginia women, working for over twenty-five years as an advocate and activist for women’s educational and career opportunities. Though little recognized today, Virginia McKenney (later, Claiborne) was an important participant in the long years of effort that brought state funding and changed social expectations for southern women. She worked alongside Mary-Cooke Branch Munford as vice-chair of the Co-ordinate College League in Virginia. At the same time, as a member of Orie Latham Hatcher’s Bureau of Vocations for Women, she was instrumental in founding the Richmond School of Social Economy, the first southern school established for the training of social workers and the genesis of Virginia Commonwealth University. After moving to New York in 1918, Virginia McKenney Claiborne continued to work on behalf of Hatcher’s Southern Woman’s Educational Alliance. Claiborne eventually returned to her home state, and from 1942 until her retirement in 1956, served as director of The Valentine Museum in Richmond, Va.



Virginia Spotswood McKenney was the daughter of William Robertson McKenney, a prominent lawyer and U.S. Representative, and Clara Justine Pickrell McKenney.  The McKenney family had deep ties to Virginia, and to the city of Petersburg where William McKenney lived his entire life.

Virginia McKenney and her younger sister, Clara Justine, prepared for a college education at the Southern Female College headed by Arthur Kyle Davis, a vigorous proponent of women’s education (Bryn Mawr College Program, 1906-1907). At the 1904 Commencement, Virginia was listed as a graduate in the school of French, and Clara, though not yet a graduate, was “specially distinguished” for receiving eighty per cent or more on every examination. Clara also received a Founder’s prize for scoring ninety per cent on at least five examinations (Times-Dispatch, 1904 June 1, p.5).

Bryn Mawr College Calendar 1909 cover illustration
Bryn Mawr College Calendar 1909
by Jessie Willcox Smith
Image: Bryn Mawr College via Internet Archive

Both sisters would enter Bryn Mawr College: Virginia in 1904 and Clara in 1906 (Bryn Mawr College Program, 1906-1907). Tragically, Clara would die before graduating, passing on February 1, 1909 at the age of nineteen (Times-Dispatch, 1909 February 3, p.2). Another sibling, William Robertson McKenney, Jr., had died in 1906, just three years previous.

Bryn Mawr College, which Virginia McKenney attended between 1904 and 1908, included among its English and Comparative Literature faculty the dynamic Orie Latham Hatcher. Their meeting, which may well have taken place at Bryn Mawr, would transform McKenney’s life.

While at college, McKenney first studied German and French (Bryn Mawr Program, 1904), then switched her focus to History, Economics and Politics (Bryn Mawr Calendar, 1906-1907, p. 36). She was active in athletics and debate, and served as a class officer (Tipyn o’bob, 1905-1908).   On the occasion of McKenney’s graduation and return to Petersburg in June 1908, the social news special to the Times-Dispatch declared her “one of the most charming girls in this city” whose “arrival is awaited with great pleasure by many friends.”  (Times-Dispatch, 1908 May 31, p. 12)

McKenney maintained ties to Bryn Mawr after graduation. She was an active member of the alumni association; and, over the course of a week in June 1909, McKenney administered the admissions exam for Bryn Mawr “by special appointment of that college.” (Times-Dispatch, 1909  June 5, p. 3)   At that time the Bryn Mawr entrance examinations were accepted as substitutes for the College Entrance Board examinations. Due to the efforts of Virginia Randolph (“Jennie”) Ellett, Richmond had, since 1904, been one of only eight cities where the Bryn Mawr entrance examination was administered (Paul, 2018).

Some of McKenney’s first documented organizational activities were through the Daughters of the Confederacy, as would be expected of a young Petersburg woman whose grandfather had fought in the “Battle of Old Men and Young Boys.” In addition to their memorial efforts, the Virginia UDC engaged in benevolent work that reflected the Progressive movement’s concerns, including awarding scholarships to further women’s education.

McKenney’s participation in the women’s educational reform movement brought her into association with many of Richmond’s most illustrious Progressive Era women, with whom she formed decades-long relationships. Virginia’s educational system in the early twentieth century was one of vast inequities at all levels.  At this time, the Commonwealth of Virginia supported four colleges for men, but not one for women. Instead, women attended state normal schools which were far below collegiate standards. (Freeman, 1970, p. 481-482).  Advocates for women’s education, such as O. Latham Hatcher, Virginia Randolph Ellett, Virginia McKenney, Adèle Clark, and Mary-Cook Branch Munford, considered the full range of education for girls and young women, public and private. Hatcher, in particular, recognized that rigorous education and thoughtful mentoring would be needed for young women to enter the world of professional occupations and opportunities. She foresaw a path that included research, published studies, institutional standards and instructor certification.

Seal of the Cooperative Education Association of VA
Seal of the Cooperative Education Association of Virginia
Adèle Goodman Clark papers, VCU Libraries

In May of 1911, Virginia McKenney was elected corresponding secretary of the Petersburg Branch of the Cooperative Educational Association (Times-Dispatch, 1911 May 7, p. 9) of which Mary-Cooke Branch Munford was president.  The Cooperative Education Association successfully advocated for public education reform in Virginia–improving school buildings and playgrounds, and raising public interest and support for schools through community leagues. As public interest grew, the Virginia General Assembly responded by enacting legislation and increasing funding for schools and teacher pensions (McDaid, 2011).

During the Progressive era, women’s civic activity often found expression through clubs. Women’s organizations had long been part of American society, but during the Progressive era the woman’s club movement increased women’s social and political impact. Both African American and White women formed groups to tackle social issues such as education, child labor, suffrage, temperance, and lynching. Women’s clubs often purchased their own clubhouses where they held meetings and sponsored intellectually stimulating and entertaining speakers. The educated and energetic Virginia McKenney became an active public speaker.

Beginning in 1912, McKenney and Mary-Cooke Branch Munford worked together on a second prominent educational effort, the Co-ordinate College League. McKenney served as one of Munford’s “trusted lieutenants,” as the Co-ordinate College League advocated for establishment of a woman’s college at the University of Virginia. (Freeman, 1970, p. 484). She and Munford co-authored “A Plea for Co-Ordination” (Alumni Bulletin of the University of Virginia, 1914 January). McKenney worked closely with Munford through four co-ordinate college campaigns lasting from 1912 through 1918 (Freeman, 1970, p. 482, note 13).

As Walter Russell Bowie noted in Sunrise in the South; the life of Mary-Cooke Branch Munford, this entire co-ordinate college campaign took place in the decade before passage of the 19th Amendment, at a time when Virginia women had no direct political influence. With no legislators dependent on their votes, these women had to rely on the force of their argument and unflagging zeal. Bowie described the League:

The ‘Co-ordinate College League’ included women who when they had once put their hands to the plough were not easily turned back. Among them were Virginia S. McKenney, a recent graduate of Bryn Mawr, young, blue-eyed, vivacious, vice-chairman of the League, and Douglas Wright Maynard, quick-witted and fearless, who poured into its work an untiring energy which was inspired by their personal devotion to Mrs. Munford (Bowie, p.107).

Despite widespread support (which included the University’s president, Edwin A. Alderman), the Co-ordinate college campaign was defeated in the state legislature by powerful alumni opposition and the efforts of Bishop James Cannon, Jr., a leader in the Anti-Saloon League. Unexpectedly, the effort introduced Virginia men who attended private schools to the needs of public education—which they seized upon as a cause worthier of state funding than a woman’s college at the University of Virginia. Years later Virginia McKenney (Claiborne) would recall Mary Munford saying with a chuckle in 1916, “Never mind, Virginia. We didn’t win our battle for a woman’s college at the University of Virginia, but we did bring out more rooters for the common schools than Virginia has seen for generations” (Freeman, 488, note 27).

Around the year 1914, McKenney became associated with the recently formed Woman’s Occupational Bureau (later known as the Bureau of Vocations for Women), a group interested in providing Southern women with “reliable information and sound counsel regarding education, occupational choices and sound training” at a time when teaching was the primary occupation open to women. The Bureau was the brainchild of Orie Latham Hatcher, who met with other Richmond women in 1914 at the home of Mary-Cooke Branch Munford. (Lemmon, 1971, p.152) to discuss the matter. Hatcher resigned her professorship and position as chair of Comparative Literature at Bryn Mawr to devote herself to this work.

Also in 1914, the eighth annual meeting of the Virginia Association of Colleges and Schools for Girls was held on June 10 at Virginia College, Roanoke, Va. This conference focused on a discussion of standardization and a plan issued and adopted the previous year. Hatcher was chair of the Committee on Standardisation which had authored the plan. McKenney, who had previously administered the Bryn Mawr entrance exams in Richmond, delivered an address titled, “The College Entrance Board Examination and the Necessary Practical Arrangements” (Times-Dispatch, 1914 June 11, p.4).

Evidence of Virginia McKenney’s skill as a public speaker and her experience with the structures of higher education appears in newspaper accounts over the next several decades. Some of these speaking opportunities may have come to McKenney through the Bureau of Vocations’ Speakers Bureau.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported on March 2, 1915 that McKenney and  Mrs. Martha Chamberlayne Valentine McNeill gave a presentation on the “Aims and Ends of the Occupational Bureau” at the Art Club of Richmond. McKenney’s portion of the address was “What the Occupational Bureaus Accomplish in Other Cities” while McNeill spoke on “The Work in Richmond.”  Adèle Clark and her long-time friend and associate Nora Houston conducted an art school within the Art Club at this time. Their work was part of the growing professionalization of women artists in an era of changing gender roles.

In 1916 McKenney was a member of the Juvenile Protective Association of Petersburg (an organization begun c. 1913). McKenney also served as vice-president of the Southern Association of College Women, and in that role gave a report to the 1916 annual meeting of the National Education Association. In her report she noted the important work of the Association in the investigation of the standards of southern colleges. The group hoped to make it more difficult for nominal colleges to secure students through false advertising  (Proceedings National Education Association of the United States, 1916, p. 795).

Civically engaged women formed quite a number of different groups during the Progressive Era, and many women belonged to more than one organization. As suited their interests and missions, organizations would ally for a time. The Southern College Woman’s Association (known in Richmond as the College Women’s Club) teamed with Hatcher’s Bureau of Vocations for Women.  These college-educated women lent their efforts to a variety of reform and legislative causes, such as the establishment of a Richmond city library, and support of the co-ordinate college effort of which McKenney was vice chair (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1915, September 5, p. 4).

With years of experience working alongside Hatcher and Munford, on October 22, 1916 McKenney was named in the Richmond Times-Dispatch as chair of an “assembly of representatives of Richmond social organizations” that included:

Father Hannigan of the St. Joseph’s Mission for Negroes; Miss Grange, of the Travelers’ Aid Society; Miss Minor, of the Instructive Visiting Nurses’ Association: Dr. Smith and Mr. Rudd, of the Medical College of Virginia; Miss Petersen, of Kilbourne Farm; Justice J. Hoge Ricks, of the Juvenile Court; Dr. Buchanan of the Associated Charities; Miss Keller, of Westhampton College for Women; Rev. J.T. Mastin, of the State Board of Charities and Corrections; R.W. Miles Jr.. of the city playgrounds; and Miss Hatcher, of the Bureau of Vocations.

As chair, McKenney appointed the committee of fifteen women and men who would draw up plans for a school for the training of social workers in Richmond, Va. (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1916, October 22, p. 4). The idea for this new school had originated with Hatcher and the Bureau of Vocations as a means of meeting both the south’s need for social workers and southern women’s need for training and vocational opportunities (Bosher, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1917 July 1, p. 8). Before the school opened, its office immediately adjoined the offices of the Bureau of Vocations (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1917 January 29, p. 2).

On January 4, 1917, Orie Latham Hatcher, chair of the Committee on Organization and Incorporation of the Conference to Provide Training in Social Work in Virginia, called a meeting at the Jefferson Hotel. At the meeting, McKenney was chosen as temporary chair of the Board of Directors of the new Richmond School of Social Economy. She then took charge of the organizational meeting at the Jefferson Hotel.  McKenney continued as an important organizer in the earliest days of the school. She is listed in the first Richmond School of Social Economy Bulletin as a member of the executive committee of the Board of Directors, along with J. J. Scherer, Jr. (president), Wortley F. Rudd, (vice-president), Virginia S. McKenney (secretary), and F. B Dunford (treasurer). In 1918, the Richmond School of Social Economy was renamed the Richmond School of Social Work and Public Health. Eventually, the training school would become a part of the Richmond Professional Institute, the ancestor of Virginia Commonwealth University.

Virginia McKenney’s life of educational advocacy in the Commonwealth took a turn on April 20, 1918, when she married U. S. Marine captain Robert Watson Claiborne in Petersburg, Va. The couple moved to the New York area where Virginia Claiborne retained her interest in Virginia and Southern education while Robert Claiborne at first practiced law and later taught music. In 1919 a son, Robert, was born.  According to the Bryn Mawr Register of Alumnae and Former Students, by 1920 Virginia McKenney Claiborne was working as Financial Secretary, Vocational Guidance and Employment Service for Juniors, New York City. (Bryn Mawr College Register of Alumnae and Former Students, 1922) In 1923, their daughter Clara was born.

The Claibornes’ relationship was complicated. In January 1919, Robert W. Claiborne was court-martialed in Quantico, Va. for alleged inappropriate touching and improper conduct with the privates and ensigns under his command. While acquitted of the charges against him, the proceedings affected his law career. By the 1930s, though still married, Robert Claiborne lived openly as a gay man. He and his family occupied a duplex in Manhattan with Robert and one of his former male students sharing the upstairs, while Virginia and the children lived downstairs (Hanson, 2018).

During the years Virginia McKenney Claiborne was working in New York, Orie Latham Hatcher continued to develop the organization she had founded in 1914. In 1921, the Virginia Bureau of Vocations for Women changed its name to the Southern Woman’s Educational Alliance and expanded its mission to include research on existing vocational guidance programs. Hatcher continued to serve as president and guiding force and the organization remained an alliance of groups with common cause.

Though Hatcher was nearly twenty years older than Claiborne, these two talented women appear to have enjoyed a strong professional relationship, and likely friendship, nourished by their ties to Bryn Mawr, their shared concern for young people, and their interest in expanding educational and professional opportunities for women. Virginia Claiborne served on the SWEA board of directors in 1921 (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1921, August 7). Her name likewise appears in the organization’s 1927 study, Occupations for Women. A Study Made for the Southern Woman’s Educational Alliance as a member of the executive board of the SWEA from the Vocational Service for Juniors.

Still living in New York, in 1930, Claiborne spoke as part of the New York branch of the Southern Woman’s Educational Alliance about the Alliance’s work among poor girls in rural districts of the south. A notice in The Bronxville Press (1930, November 18, p.2) indicates she spoke at a committee meeting where a benefit in support of the Alliance was being planned. The paper noted “Mrs. Claiborne has been closely associated with Dr. O. Latham Hatcher, former dean of Bryn Mawr College, who gave up her work with that institution to found the Alliance.”

In April 1934, Robert Claiborne moved to the Virgin Islands and later to Puerto Rico with his son and a former student. (Papers of Robert Watson Claiborne, University of Virginia Library). Virginia McKenney Claiborne and their daughter, Clara, remained in New York.  In New York, Virginia continued in educational work, and became associated with the Museum of Costume Art, founded in 1937 by Irene Lewisohn (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1950 May 14, p.61). Clara attended Radcliffe College, graduating in 1944 and marrying the following year.

In October, 1942 Claiborne returned to her home state of Virginia to become director of The Valentine Museum of Arts. (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1942 September 26, p. 12) The Valentine was the first private museum in Richmond, founded through the work and bequest of Mann S. Valentine II. Arriving at the museum at the beginning of World War II, one of Claiborne’s first challenges would be staffing the museum on Sunday afternoons so that members of the armed forces might visit (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1950 May 14, p. 61).

Claiborne served as director of The Valentine  from 1942 to her retirement at the end of 1956 when she became director emeritus. An adept fundraiser, Claiborne strove to strengthen the Valentine and further establish it as a museum of the life and history of Richmond. Described as “a woman of directness and determination with a liking for people and a well-developed sense of humor” Virginia McKenney Claiborne expanded both the Valentine’s collections and its physical plant (Wren, 1954).

In 1948, under Claiborne’s leadership, museum memberships were established, thereby moving the organization toward public support.  During Claiborne’s directorship, the Valentine acquired thousands of photographs and glass-plate negatives of American photographer, Heustis Cook and the Cook Studio.  Another major accomplishment was raising the funds to buy, move, and rebuild the Bransford-Cecil House adjacent to the museum’s properties to house the archives, gift shop, and programming space. The 1840 house had been located at 13 N 5th Street, but needed to be moved to make way for an expansion of the Presbyterian Church.

painted portrait of a woman sitting at her desk writing
Portrait of Virginia McKenney Claiborne by Adèle Goodman Clark.
Image courtesy: The Valentine. V.83.150.01

Virginia McKenney Claiborne retired from the Valentine in 1956 at the age of sixty-nine. One year later, Claiborne’s portrait, by Richmond artist and activist,  Adèle Goodman Clark appeared at the “Three Generations of Richmond Artists” art show held in November 1957 at the Valentine. Clark kept the painting in her studio for over a decade (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1967 December 6, p. 26).

Program cover for art exhibition
Three Generations of Richmond Artists
November 26, 1957 – January 26, 1958
Image courtesy: Adèle Goodman Clark papers, VCU Libraries

Claiborne’s civic engagement did not end with her retirement; neither did her Confederate ancestry define her attitudes and actions. In 1960, Virginia McKenney Claiborne wrote in a letter in support of African Americans’ desire to desegregate the William R. McKenney public library in Petersburg. The public library sat on property deeded to the city by Mrs. Clara J. McKenney, Claiborne’s mother. (Progress Index, 1960 April 6,  p.13). The basement of the building was designated for Black citizens, and the upper floors for Whites. In February and March of 1960, the segregated library facilities became the site of civil rights protests at which the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, the Rev. R. G. Williams, Mrs. Cassie L. Walker and a number of college and high school students were arrested (Gordon, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1960 March 8, p. 4).

Throughout her long life, Claiborne organized for social reform. In 1967 at the age of eighty, Claiborne became one of fifteen charter members of the Richmond chapter of International League for Peace and Freedom, serving as treasurer. The League, founded in 1915 by Jane Addams, promoted the idea that “peace must be based on economic and social justice achieved by non-violent means.” The U. S. section of the organization further advocated for an end to colonialism and intervention, including an end to the Vietnam war. They urged the “removal of all segregation in education, employment, housing, public and recreational facilities” (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1967 June 7, p. 10).

Virginia Spotswood McKenney Claiborne continued to live in Richmond until her death on September 30, 1981. At that time she was survived by her son, folk singer, author, and union organizer Robert Watson Claiborne, Jr. (1919-1990) and her daughter, author and lecturer at Williams College,  Clara Claiborne Park (1923-2010). Virginia McKenney Claiborne was buried near her parents and siblings on October 3, 1981 at Blandford Cemetery, Petersburg, Va.



This work may also be read through


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How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Campbell, A. W. (2020). Virginia Spotswood McKenney Claiborne (1887 – 1981):
activist for women’s education and occupational opportunity, museum director. Social Welfare History Project. 

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