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1930s Negro Girls Home

By Gary R. Kremer and Linda Rea Gibbens

...A detailed look at one Midwestern facility for juvenile delinquents graphically illustrates how ill-prepared and unequipped were the facility's operators to handle their charges. The Missouri Industrial Home for Negro Girls at Tipton housed more than one thousand black juveniles 5 between the time it opened in 1916 and its closing in 1956. Throughout that forty-year period, the institution generally failed to help its inmates prepare to enter the mainstream of American life.

Political patronage determined who would govern the institution, leaving well-meaning but ineffective leaders, with poorly-trained staffs, to deal with an often too- large number of girls whose background and behavior would have challenged even the most sophisticated juvenile delinquency experts. This essay focuses primarily on life in the Missouri Industrial Home during the 1930s, not because that decade is more important than any other, but because through historical accident the case files of seventy- seven inmates incarcerated during that period have been deposited in the Missouri State Archives and are available to researchers. The rarity of such records becoming available to historians makes their use all the more imperative...

One of the most graphic examples of (Supt.) Bowles' use of corporal punishment appears in the case file of a nineteen-year-old St. Louis girl named Clara, labeled by Bowles as "a sex problem." Clara was a member of the C.O.C. group until she "became involved" sexually with another girl. According to Bowles's testimony, she demoted Clara to the Fourth Group and placed her in "isolation" after discovering her homosexual behavior.

Subsequently, another girl named Alice managed to sneak into Clara's room for a night of sexual activity with her. Both girls were then locked in their respective rooms "and not allowed to mingle with the rest of the girls for two and a half months."

The two girls were finally released from their rooms after promising to stay away from each other. They did not, and this time the threat of further punishment evoked a violent response in Clara. According to Bowles's account, she was punishing yet another girl (by cutting her hair) when Clara entered the room and, after a brief exchange of words, tried to wrestle the scissors from Bowles, shouting that she would never submit to having her hair cut again. Ultimately, it took Bowles, her husband, a matron and the night watchman to subdue Clara.

Bowles described Clara as the worst case she had had since becoming Superintendent (at the time, five years) and bluntly told Col. J. E. Matthews, Director of the Department of Penal Institutions, that: "I have punished this girl many times during the four years she has been here, even whipped her in December, but she had always admitted I was right and that she more than deserved whatever punishment she received."

In view of Clara's intransigence, Bowles recommended she be "returned to the Court as an incorrigible whom we are unable to handle at the Industrial School for Negro Girls." The case of Clara illustrates that homosexuality was a problem at the Home, although just how widespread it was would be impossible to say. David Rothman contends that "sexual offenses were invariably among the leading three or four causes of disciplinary action" in early twentieth century homes for juvenile delinquents...

Also, matrons often defined girls merely as "sex problems," by which they meant both masturbation and homosexuality. That homosexuality caused both institutional and individual tension is clearly evident in the case of a young girl named Lillian, who was thought to have "more intelligence than the average" at Tipton.

Her case history reveals that her "conduct was almost perfect with the exception of the sex problem. She was usually in the C.O.C. but would occasionally become involved and drop to the 4th group. She was seldom in between. either the top or the bottom." Not only did Lillian suffer the loss of privileges that came with a demotion to the Fourth Group; but also she lost self-respect because she had disgraced herself and disappointed Mother Bowles.

Her letters reveal her own inner conflict as she pleaded for both understanding and forgiveness, acknowledging at once that her behavior was deviant and immoral but that she was unable to change it: "I'm writing this against my will, but not for my benefit, but for the benefit of others I have gotten in trouble with. You have beat me, and you have done everything that you could do to break me of the most disgraceful habit that one could have. . . . Please lock me up forever, I can't live like this and I don't want to. I've tried but I never go any length of time before I fall again for the same thing. So let me go, you have wasted too much precious time on me and it is in me and I know it, but you don't know. ..."

Lillian's release was contingent upon her ability to control her homosexual encounters. Arrangements had been made to parole the young woman to a family that had already arranged for her to finish high school. But when Lillian's future foster parents found out about her homosexual activities, they refused to take her.

This change of heart nearly destroyed Lillian. Her feelings of complete abandonment and hopelessness are evident in a letter of Superintendent Bowles, written a few weeks after her date of release was canceled.

Again, the letter abounds with expressions of appreciation and apologies and pleas for forgiveness: "I hope you will not misunderstand my letter or think me ungrateful for I don't mean to be ... I'm more than grateful for everything that you have done for me, knowing that my conduct all along has not been worthy..."

Source: Gary R. Kremer, Linda Rea Gibbens. "The Missouri Home for Negro Girls: The 1930s," American Studies (1983): 77-93.

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