Virginia Home and Industrial School for Girls
Virginia Home and Industrial School for Girls
Bon Air, Virginia
Erin N. Bush, Ph. D. , University of North Georgia
In the early years of the twentieth century, state charity and social workers established the Virginia Home and Industrial School, a girls reformatory, to confine and train delinquent girls under the age of eighteen. Despite its name, the reformatory functioned largely as a juvenile prison, as girls were sentenced there by the Commonwealth’s circuit, police and juvenile courts for charges ranging from incorrigibility, truancy and vagrancy to assault, theft and “immorality” crimes such as solicitation, and prostitution. Girls officially served under the authority of the reformatory until they were paroled for good behavior, transferred into other state institutions, or until they reached the age of twenty-one, whichever came first. Girls who were difficult to care for at the reformatory were transferred into other state facilities, such as tubercular and “feeble-minded” colonies, asylums and hospitals, pregnancy homes, and the women’s prison farm. While in residence, girls learned basic domestic and industrial skills such as housework, stenography, nursing, and sewing. They worked the farm and cared for livestock, and learned rudimentary geography, spelling, grammar and arithmetic. Girls were forbidden from leaving the institution without supervision and escape attempts were frequent. Like other similar institutions, the Virginia Home and Industrial School for Girls represented the Commonwealth of Virginia’s attempts to mitigate ““the young girl problem” they perceived had arisen.
In the early twentieth century, middle- and upper-class “progressive” reformers understood female delinquency as a constellation of undesirable behaviors reflecting new social and sexual freedoms afforded by the growth of the city. Those pegged as “delinquent” were often poor, working-class girls who had migrated from rural areas for higher paying jobs. Reformers feared these girls would reject the Victorian ideals of chastity and morality they favored for their own daughters. They also worried “delinquent” girls would cause new social issues such as crime, illegitimate children, “feeble-mindedness,” and disease. Reformers believed the key to reforming society lay in controlling the sexual activity and reproduction of the “unfit”—typically disadvantaged or marginalized populations such as women, immigrants, people of color, the poor, and the infirm or disabled. Believed to be vulnerable to the unfamiliar forces of the city, but also a threat to the existing social order, delinquent girls stirred feelings of both protection and fear among reformers. alt [View Image]
Virginia Home and Industrial School for Girls. First Annual Report 1914-1915.
Image: Public Domain
The Virginia Home and Industrial School for Girls opened in 1910 as the culmination of a reform effort organized by Reverend James Buchanan, a Baptist minister and head of both Richmond’s Juvenile Protective Association and the Associated Charities. Twenty-two prominent individuals joined Buchanan—including notable judges, doctors, charity workers, businessmen and even the Governor, Claude A. Swanson, his Attorney General, and his Secretary of the Commonwealth—to incorporate the “Virginia Home and Industrial School for Girls.” They set their mission toward the “care and training of incorrigible or vicious white girls … without proper restraint and training, between the ages of eight and eighteen years.” Although the impetus to organize stemmed locally out of Richmond, the incorporators represented the major cities and towns across the state. At the time, the Virginia Home and Industrial School for Girls operated with partial state support. Virginia’s General Assembly permitted the state’s county, circuit and police courts to work directly with the Home to admit girls determined by its judges to be incorrigible or “delinquent.” Additionally, the General Assembly allocated a per diem amounting to approximately fifty cents per day for every girl committed by a court, judge, or justice, provided that not more than $12,000 should be disbursed for the purpose of reforming delinquent girls in any one year. The corporation had raised enough money to purchase a vacant farm of approximately 200 acres near the resort enclave of Bon Air in Chesterfield County, just nine miles to the west of Richmond.
When the Home at Bon Air opened in 1910, Buchanan, along with his wife Abbie, assumed the role of superintendent. The Buchanan’s came to the Home with experience running a voluntary settlement house for indigent mothers and working girls near Richmond’s red-light district. During their short tenure, they provided inmates discipline and religious instruction, but they never moved into the Home. Two subsequent superintendents, a Miss Seeley and a Miss Risor, both of whom served for less than a month and whose first names are now lost to history, struggled to maintain discipline. Little is known about their experience beyond that they had been volunteers in Virginia’s court system. When Mattie McKnab (sometimes “McNab”) Light, a southern-born, northern-trained evangelist, assumed the superintendent’s position in November 1910, she brought with her a small female staff and twenty-two years of experience working in missions and settlement homes in New England and New York. Light managed the Home until 1915 when she resigned in the wake of controversy.alt [View Image]
Virginia Home and Industrial School for Girls, First Annual Report 1914-1915.
View of the Hennery. Inset–Farmers Cottage
Image: Public Domain
In the summer of 1913, two sixteen-year-old inmates escaped the Virginia Home and Industrial School for Girls. Both were caught within a few days of their escape, but in an attempt to avoid being returned, one of them complained to the local magistrate and then to the office of Governor William Hodges Mann that the conditions at the reformatory were intolerable. Her specific charges, that inmates—all of them white girls under the age of eighteen—were forced to work long hours in the fields under the immediate supervision of an African American man, spawned public outrage. The incident drew intense media scrutiny and Governor Mann ordered the State Board to investigate the “distressing conditions” at the reformatory. As a result, bureaucrats from the State Board conducted an investigation and publicly interviewed thirty-six witnesses over the course of two days that summer. They mainly focused their inquisition on the two specific allegations: first, that inmates were overworked and given tasks improper for women, and second, that they did so under the authority of an African American man, a local man named Beverly Banks.
Upon completion of the investigation the State Board ruled that strenuous and abundant exercise was appropriate to keep delinquent girls healthy and manageable. To address the charges that the reformatory was violating proper local race sentiment by employing a black man, the State Board did rule that an African American in “virtual control” of white girls was wrong. But they couched this opinion by further stating that delinquent girls in a reformatory needed supervision during their out-of-doors exercise. They recommended instead the reformatory hire a white laborer of “unquestionable character and probity” to help serve this function.
The most significant change after the report affected the administration of the reformatory. The land, operation, and administration of the reformatory were officially transferred to the state by an Act of the General Assembly on March 21, 1914. Beverly Banks was fired; James Buchanan and Mattie McKnab Light both resigned. In response, the State Board hired Anna M. Petersen as superintendent. Petersen received her degree from Western Reserve University, and held a certificate in eugenics from the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science in Cold Spring Harbor. To distance the reformatory from the controversy, Petersen renamed the Virginia Home and Industrial School for Girls as “Kilbourne Farm,” the land’s original designation. Petersen served as superintendent until 1920 when she left the institution in the hands of Margaret Bair. Bair held an education degree and had worked at the reformatory as a probation officer. Bair retired in 1943 and was replaced by Margery Wyatt, a graduate of Western University in Colorado with a Masters in social work from Smith.
The institution evolved over time. It moved from a segregated (by race and sex) private charity to a segregated state reformatory. In the 1940s, the State Board placed all four juvenile institutions that existed at the time—the Virginia Industrial School for Boys, Virginia Manual Labor School for Colored Boys, the Virginia Home and Industrial School for Girls, and the Industrial Home School for Colored Girls–for the first time under the full authority of the State Board of Public Welfare (by then renamed the Department of Public Welfare). In 1951, the Department of Public Welfare created a centralized Department of Juvenile Probation and Detention to manage the juvenile probation system. The 1950s saw continued growth of juvenile institutions including a new reformatory for boys.
In the 1960s, two new reformatories opened and all juvenile facilities in the state became racially integrated.
In 1972, the General Assembly replaced the city and county juvenile courts, which had operated for nearly 50 years as independent courts, with 31 regional Juvenile and Domestic Relations courts complete with permanently seated, full-time juvenile judges. Finally, in 1974, the tide of expansion shifted into consolidation and declension as the state officially separated the juvenile reformatories, courts, detention homes, and probation facilities from the Department of Public Welfare and placed them under the authority of the Department of Corrections. The other reformatories became co-ed. The Virginia Home and Industrial School for Girls is now known as the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center (1900 Chatsworth Avenue, Richmond, Va.); it is the only remaining long-term residential juvenile co-ed reformatory in the state.
This work may also be view through HathiTrust.org
This work may also be viewed through HathiTrust.org
For further reading:
(1913, February 5). Juvenile court tried 410 cases…Girl problem grows. Regarded by Juvenile Protective Society as its most difficult task.” Richmond Times-Dispatch, p.7.
Brooks, C. M. (2017). The uplift generation: Cooperation across the color line in early twentieth-century Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
Bush, E.N. (2019). Policing immorality in a Virginia girls’ reformatory. Southern Cultures 25(2), 46-61. doi:10.1353/scu.2019.0016.
Bush, E.N. (2018). “Attracted by the khaki” War camps and wayward girls in Virginia, 1918–1920. Current Research in Digital History (1). https://doi.org/10.31835/crdh.2018.07.
Dorr, G. M.(2008). Segregation’s science: Eugenics and society in Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.
Dorr, L. L. (2004). White women, rape, and the power of race in Virginia, 1900-1960. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Green, E. C.(2003). This business of relief: Confronting poverty in a southern city, 1740-1940. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press.
Holloway, P. (2006). Sexuality, politics, and social control in Virginia, 1920-1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
James, A. W. (1939). Virginia’s social awakening: The Contributions of Dr. Mastin and the Board of Charities and Corrections. Richmond: Garret and Massie.
Keve, P. W. (1986). The history of corrections in Virginia. Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press.
Osborne Association (1943). Handbook of American institutions for delinquent juveniles, First Edition, Vol. IV. Lebanon, PA: Sowers Printing.,
Shepherd, Samuel C. Jr (2001). Avenues of faith: Shaping the urban religious culture of Richmond, Virginia. Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press.
Virginia Home and Industrial School for Girls, Chesterfield Co. Annual report. V.1-5 (1914-1919). HathiTrust.org
Virginia. State Board of Charities and Corrections. (1909). Annual report of the State Board of Charities and Corrections to the Governor of Virginia for the year ending … Richmond: Davis Bottom, Supt. of Public Printing. (pp. 46-47).
Ward, H. M. (2015). Children of the streets of Richmond, 1865-1920. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland and Company, Inc.
Key foundational works on juvenile delinquency include:
Platt, A. M. (1969). The child savers: The invention of delinquency. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Schlossman, S. L. (1977). Love and the American delinquent: The theory and practice of “progressive” juvenile justice, 1825-1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Schlossman, S. and Wallach, S. (1978 February). The crime of precocious sexuality: Female juvenile delinquency in the Progressive Era. Harvard Educational Review, 48(1), 65-94.
Cahn, S. K. (2007). Sexual reckonings: Southern girls in a troubling age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
Resources related to this topic may be found in the Social Welfare History Image Portal.