August 9th in Feminist History

janie-porter-barrett-1On this day in 1865, Janie Porter Barrett was born in Athens, Georgia to a former slave mother and an unknown (presumed white) father. She was a welfare worker and social reformer who established the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls and the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. Her mother worked as a housekeeper and seamstress for the Skinner family. Thanks in part to her fair skin, the Skinners treated Janie almost as one of their own. She received a privileged education (including mathematics and literature) alongside their children, which was an atypical childhood for a black girl at the time. Mrs. Skinner wanted to adopt her and send her to the northern U.S. so she could live and receive education as a white person. Her mother didn’t agree with the plan. Instead she sent Janie to the Hampton Institute in Virginia to receive her education in a black environment.

Living among fellow African-Americans for the first time was a culture shock to Janie. She had never done manual labor before and the vocational-oriented education was new to her as well. In time she adjusted. The school taught her valuable lessons in altruism and a duty to her race, and it was at the Institute that she began to volunteer for local community projects. She trained to be an elementary school teacher and developed the altruistic values that led her to volunteerism. Josie taught at the Hampton Institute, then a rural school in Dawson, and an Institute in Augusta. After marrying Harris Barrett, she formed a casual day care and sewing class that grew at such a pace that it eventually formed the Locust Street Social Settlement in 1890. It was the first settlement organization for African-Americans in the US. The Settlement existed in a separate structure on the family property, and soon had clubs for children, women, and the elderly.

In 1908 Janie helped to create the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. She was their first president, and engaged in the work of helping create environments for children to help them avoid placement in almshouses and jails. Through the Federation she raised money to create a school for African-American girls. In 1914 the Industrial Home for Wayward Girls opened with 28 students. It later became known as the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls, and featured academic education, vocational education, “big sister” guidance, and a focus on self-discipline and reliance. Janie was the secretary of the board of trustees for some time—fellow suffragist Mary-Cooke Branch Munford was another—and later was the school’s superintendent. Janie’s deep investment in the school and her excellence at what she did gave her a high reputation which allowed her to demand humane treatment from her students’ future white employers. In 1950 the school became the Janie Porter Barrett School for Girls. It still exists today as the racially-integrated Barrett Learning Center.

(A note: My apologies for not posting these for over a week. I have been going through a rough/busy couple weeks but I will try and most more regularly again. Just as a note, you can find my weekly roundup of these women every Monday on Clever Manka!)

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