The history of child and social welfare in Rhode Island has been a research focus for me for more than ten years now. What is most intriguing for me in this work in the invisible nature of this history. While historians may focus on great leaders and significant movements, like immigration and industrialization, this history aims to understand how private individuals and public offices have worked to address the needs of the most vulnerable. As we look back, we can take some pride and some shame in the methods they employed but it is important to understand how central this work in is the story of this community.
This entry was published by Rhode Island Public Radio in 2009. Shown below is the written essay; at the end of the text is a link to the radio broadcast.
As a lifelong Rhode Islander who studies how our community has cared for vulnerable people, I believe in the opposite of magic. If a magician makes objects disappear, if by sleight of hand, he renders them invisible, I believe in making hidden places, hidden histories, visible and apparent. With its original settlement by native peoples and three centuries of occupation by the Europeans, our state has layers of social welfare history, most of it unknown to our citizens. Of all the works written about our state and its politicians, its industrial rise and fall, its home for the rich and the infamous, we neglect our history of care for the needy and dependent. I believe in making visible how our ancestors and their ancestors cared for orphaned children, for the lame, for those called the feebleminded, for those whose only crime was poverty.
The need to make this history visible was made manifest in my work recording oral histories at the State Home and School, where remnants of the state’s public orphanage remain on the campus of Rhode Island College. This project collected stories from former residents who argued eloquently for the need to recognize and rebuild the history, to not let their stories and that of the institution be paved over or erased. One can walk these grounds and imagine children living here, working the farm, going to school, aching for a family.
One can drive one mile south of Garden City in Cranston and pass through a small city of red brick and stone buildings—the Howard Complex–and find there the earliest structures of our welfare system, our prisons, our institutions for the mentally ill. At its southern border is the granite building that was The State Poor Farm with its parade of misery, built by the residents themselves. One can drive by these sites and imagine mothers and fathers and children who made these institutions their home, sometimes for decades, some willingly, some under force, many discarded and most abandoned.
On the East Bay, there is the building that was the Bristol Home for Destitute Children constructed by a sea captain to house orphans of the Civil War, and in Scituate, the site of the Watchman Institute, a black run organization that its founders dreamt would be the Tuskegee of the North. These places abound in our state, leaving us a landscape, etched with the scars of institutionalization and the badges of mercy and concern.
Making this history visible makes us less arrogant thinking that we are the first or the best to care. Unless we preserve this history and learn its lessons, we join in an act of collective amnesia. And like magicians, we let it vanish without a trace.