West Virginia Colored Orphans Home (1899-1956)
by Sarah H. Shepherd
Founding and Early History
In the early 1900s, the booming mine and lumber industries in West Virginia drew Black migrants from the South, a foreshadowing of the Great Migration of African Americans to Northern, Midwestern, and Western states. In the dangerous coal regions of West Virginia, Black miners, who were given the most hazardous jobs, often faced danger with the prospect that their death could leave their family destitute.
Black politician and businessman, Charles McGhee (1858-1937), was serving as a pastor in Bluefield, West Virginia when he was confronted by this lack of support for Black orphans after the death of his brother-in-law in a mining accident. In the Jim Crow South, few state resources, if any, were dedicated to African Americans. West Virginia was no different. During this period of racial segregation, Black orphans were not admitted to white orphanages and faced significant hardships.
Experienced from his work in helping to found the Bluefield Colored Institute, primarily a teacher-training school, McGhee established the private West Virginia Normal and Industrial School for Colored Children in Bluefield in 1899. The institution moved to Huntington, West Virginia, an industrial center with a rapidly growing population, in 1903.
Orphans and children whose families were unable to care for them were taken in, as well as children committed there by a justice of the peace or juvenile court. All children under the age of 16 who were “sound in mind and body” were eligible to be placed there. However, children from juvenile court had to be under nine years to be eligible. Otherwise, they were considered unsalvageable from evil influences (State Board of Control of West Virginia, 1916, pp. 383–384).
The orphanage was reliant on public support and struggled to secure funding. McGhee traveled to several cities to raise money with the Orphan Home Troupe, a brass band and a choir made up of the children. In 1905, the Clarksburg Daily Telegram described the troupe as a “brass band of eight pieces” whose “program consists of vocal and instrumental, music, recitations, etc” (Colored Orphans are in the City, 1905). Finally in 1911, after years of lobbying the state legislature, the orphanage became a state institution and was renamed the West Virginia Colored Orphans Home (The Colored Orphans Home, 1911).
Even as a state institution, the orphanage struggled. It was destroyed twice by fire, once in 1909, and again in 1920, with both fires enabled by the lack of proper fire equipment. As was common during segregation, the institution was underfunded in comparison to white orphanages. In 1916, a field agent was hired to find families for children and ensure good homes for adopted children. This position had long existed at the white orphanage in Elkins. However, by 1917, the office was removed by Governor John J. Cornwell who wanted to cut government expenses.
The institution also suffered from corrupt and negligent management. In 1939, William B. Fox was rehired as superintendent despite being fined and imprisoned for six months after his first term as superintendent under the charge of obtaining money under false pretenses. The McDowell Times, a leading Black newspaper in the state, wrote “Mr. Fox is on record for his untiring efforts to discourage and block every effort to give these orphan children an opportunity.” Black West Virginians were outraged that Fox was reinstated after his prison stint (Shoke-up [sic] in State Institutions Decried, 1939). Previously, the position was occupied by a prominent Black educator. William B. Fox was white and a proven criminal.
The West Virginia Colored Orphans Home sought to shape the children, who were often impoverished, into model laborers or trade workers. The focus on moral reform was connected inextricably to the belief that the lower classes were immoral, lazy, and diseased. This refrain was most explicit at the intersection of race and poverty. In 1914, McGhee described the orphans as “offsprings of families of the lowest walks of life” (State Board of Control of West Virginia, 1914, p. 438). McGhee often used the language of racial uplift in his fundraising efforts before the institution was taken up by the state. In 1910, McGhee wrote, in the Black Charleston newspaper, The Advocate:
Should it not be our highest aim in life to make good citizens out of even the worst of our race much less the innocent and unfortunate ones of the race who are made so by God and are not responsible for their condition? Dear readers, should we not wake up to the sense of our duty and in the name of our God set up our banner, to be unfurled for this rising generation, that says we stand for the bettering of our race and the uplifting of humanity. (McGhee, 1910)
The second superintendent, James L. Hill, had a similar philosophy. In 1916, he declared that “since a child is an impressionable creature, and early impressions go to form almost the entire character of the child, the work of reforming evil tendencies must begin in early childhood” (State Board of Control of West Virginia, 1916, p. 383). Evil was something learned in poverty, in Hill’s mind.
Eugenics also played a role in the school’s admission policy. The pseudoscience eugenics movement was “politically influential, culturally fashionable, and scientifically mainstream” in early twentieth century America (Leonard, 2016, p. 110). The institution refused to accept children who mentally or physically disabled. The 1914 State Board of Control report on the orphanage included comments referring to the “feeble-minded” that stated “this class breeds with great rapidity, and transmit to their offspring their own congenital defects. These offspring, in turn, become the fathers and mothers of a brood of feeble-minded children: and so it goes on in an increasing ratio of burden and menace” (State Board of Control of West Virginia, 1914, pp. 428–429). The West Virginia Board of Control proposed a program of segregation and sterilization for “afflicted, feeble-minded, and imbecile children.” While somewhat ambiguous, the report appears to indicate that McGhee shared this view.
Superintendent James Hill repeated this alarm for children who were disabled. In 1916, he was distressed to find two children with disabilities at the institution. He continued stating that “many cases in the annals of crime fall to this type of person. They are not recognized as irresponsible or dangerous until the community is startled by some shocking crime” (State Board of Control of West Virginia, 1916, p. 384). Crime and disability were often linked in eugenics. Prominent educator and eugenicist, Charles E. Fernald had written in 1913 that “feeblemindedness is the mother of crime, pauperism and degeneracy. It is certain that the feeble-minded and the progeny of the feeble-minded constitute one of the great social and economic burdens of modern times” (Fernald, 1912–1913, p. 93). By rule, the orphanage did not take in children with disabilities, though, as James Hill found, some children were taken in regardless.
Life for Orphans
The number of children living at the West Virginia Colored Orphans Home fluctuated greatly throughout its history, from fewer than twenty to more than three hundred children. The children were taught several practical and domestic skills as well as attending school, running a large farm, and raising livestock.
One Sunday in July 1916, M. T. Whittico, the editor of The McDowell Times visited the orphanage with Rev. Watson, formerly of the Huntington M. E. Church. A feature article published a few weeks later reported that the facilities were well run and orderly, but in need of expansion to meet the need–especially for girls. Whittico described visiting a chapel, the main building with a “scrupulously clean” kitchen, dining room, sewing room, dormitories and laundry, along with a farm of “possibly forty-five acres of growing corn and beans.” He noted:
It is a home where all the children seem happy. To me it had the appearance of one large family of which the Superintendent and his wife are the heads. It is a beehive of industry where each fellow has a task to perform and this is being done as well regulated as a clock. Play is free and spontaneous for the fellows too small to work. In the background is supervision. (Editor McDowell Times Visits West Virginia Colored Orphans Home, 1916)
In 1915, The Wheeling Intelligencer wrote that “the Home table was bountifully supplied with farm products, which did not cost the State a cent, as the work was done by the inmates.” The children’s hard labor ensured that the institution was not completely dependent on state support as well as enforced the proper work ethic. The Intelligencer continued that “the scheme is not only of economical, but humanitarian consideration in affording work and diversion for the inmates, getting them away from a feeling of mere dependency. It also fits them for useful and productive citizenship” (What State Farms are Accomplishing, 1915)
Children at the orphanage had disparate experiences, likely reflecting the impact of different superintendent’s leadership. Superintendents and staff were neither uniformly qualified nor compassionate. Newspapers repeatedly emphasized how the orphanage felt like a large family (Methodist Prelate Touring West Va., 1916). However, Sargent Joseph Turner, who spent seven years at the orphanage, stated in 1972 that he could not “put in words the terrible conditions that existed in the orphans’ home at that time.” He described the orphanage as a prison where children were punished severely for small infractions—beaten with sticks and horsewhips. Turner (1972) also remembered the long days the young children would have to work on the farm. In contrast in 2012, Delores Moody remembered the orphanage and the matrons fondly. Moody described their punishments much more lightly explaining that “we had to be punished and every once in awhile we got a whupping just like any other child would get a whupping but they didn’t mistreat us or nothing like that they were all good to us. I thank God for it” (Moody, 2014). She also spoke on how the children worked on the farm, raised livestock, and canned supplies.
In 1915, the founder of the institution, Charles McGhee, resigned in disgrace as superintendent. He was suspected of misconduct, malfeasance, and gross immorality. He was accused by Larlean Tinsley, a seventeen-year-old former orphan in the home, of seduction (a lesser charge often leveled instead of assault or rape) and alleged that he fathered her two children (Damage: Suit for $10,000 against McGhee, on the Grounds of Seduction, 1915). Another orphan who had been at the home for eight years, Virginia Williams, also accused McGhee. McGhee denied everything and blamed political enemies who had sought to remove him (Resigns Job Under Fire, 1915). After his resignation, McGhee continued to succeed financially in Huntington seemingly experiencing little to no consequences.
The West Virginia Colored Orphans Home slowly started to decline after World War II. By 1951, the orphans were no longer home schooled at the orphanage, but were bused to the segregated public schools. In 1956, two years after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling overturned school segregation, the institution closed. The children were moved to the newly desegregated Children’s Home in Elkins. The Huntington property served briefly as the West Virginia Home for the Aged and Infirm Colored Men and Women before being sold to Marshall University for student housing. The property was sold to Cabell County and the buildings demolished to make way for a new Huntington East Middle School which opened in 2014.
For almost sixty years, first as a private charity, and then as a state institution, the West Virginia Colored Orphans Home provided much needed services to Black children who were previously abandoned by their state. Black West Virginians refused to accept the state’s discriminatory practices, instead founding an institution, and providing support, funding, and homes for African American children in need. The West Virginia Colored Orphans Home stands as a testament to the dark history of discrimination and segregation in child welfare; and yet, Black West Virginians advocated for their community and to care for vulnerable children and youth. Today, there is a greater focus on keeping children with their families, foster care, and adoption than institutionalizing children in orphanages. The State of West Virginia’s Bureau for Children and Families, as well as nonprofit organizations such as Children Home’s Society of West Virginia, seek to provide for children in need.
Colored Orphans are in the City. (1905, September 30). The Daily Telegram. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85059715/1905-09-30/ed-1/seq-1/
Damage: Suit for $10,000 against McGhee, on the Grounds of Seduction. (1915, June 23). The Daily Telegraph. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85059715/1915-06-23/ed-1/seq-1/
Editor McDowell Times Visits West Virginia Colored Orphans Home. (1916, August 11). The McDowell Times. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86092050/1916-08-11/ed-1/seq-3/
Fernald, W. (1912–1913). The Burden of Feeble-Mindedness. Journal of Psycho-Asthenics, 17 https://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/lib/detail.html?id=1208&print=1
Leonard, T. C. (2016). Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era. Princeton University Press.
McGhee, C. E. (1910, June 16). Appeal for Aid. The Advocate. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85059812/1910-06-16/ed-1/seq-4/
Methodist Prelate Touring West Va. (1916, March 3). The McDowell Times. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86092050/1916-03-03/ed-1/seq-3/
Moody, D. (2014, March 26). Oral History. (Trent Spurlock and Sarah Reynolds, Interviewer) [Audio file]. Retrieved from https://www.cabellschools.com/Page/1209
Resigns Job Under Fire. (1915, July 2). The McDowell Times. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86092050/1915-07-02/ed-1/seq-1/
Shoke-up [sic] in State Institutions Decried. (1939, March 31) The McDowell Times. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86092050/1939-03-31/ed-1/seq-1/
State Board of Control of West Virginia. (1914). Third Biennial Report of the State Board of Control of West Virginia for the period October 1, 1912, to June 30, 1914. State of West Virginia. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044115917700&view=1up&seq=9&skin=2021
State Board of Control of West Virginia. (1916). Fourth Biennial Report of the State Board of Control of West Virginia for the Period July 1, 1914, to June 30, 1916. State of West Virginia. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.li12vp&view=1up&seq=9&skin=2021
The Colored Orphans Home. (1911, February 23). The Advocate. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85059812/1911-02-23/ed-1/seq-4/
Turner, J. (1972, October 5). May God Bless You, Miss Fannie. The Charleston Gazette. https://newspaperarchive.com/charleston-gazette-oct-05-1972-p-7/
What State Farms are Accomplishing. (1915, April 2). The Wheeling Intelligencer. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86092536/1915-04-02/ed-1/seq-4/
For further reading:
Cierco, M. F. III. (2019). Black Huntington: An Appalachian Story. University of Illinois Press.
Hacsi, T. A. (1997). Second Home: Orphan Asylums and Poor Families in America. Harvard University Press.
Leonard, T. C. (2016). Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era. Princeton University Press.
Marshall University Libraries. (2022, October 27). African American history : WV Colored Orphans’ Home. LibGuides. Retrieved November 12, 2022, from https://libguides.marshall.edu/c.php?g=343403&p=2312779
O’Brien, G. V. (2013). Framing the Moron: The Social Construction of Feeble-Mindedness in the American Eugenic Era. Manchester University Press.
Ramey, J. B. (2012). Child Care in Black and White: Working Parents and the History of Orphanages. University of Illinois Press.
Sarah H. Shepherd is the recipient of a 2022 VCU Publishing Research Award.
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