An orphanage was established in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1729 as a result of conflicts between Native Americans and Spanish. Mississippi became a state in 1817, making this likely the first state-run orphanage in the U.S.
In the years between 1830 and 1850, private charities established 56 group homes for children. Often known as orphan asylums, these institutions were set up by religious groups, notably Jewish, Catholic and Protestant associations. Initially, admittance was restricted to children affiliated with the religion; however, by the early 20th century, this requirement had been dropped.
Children in orphanages were not always there because of deceased parents. In the mid-1800s it was common for more than half of the children in an orphanage to have one living parent, with the other dead or missing. Many of these single parents placed their children in an orphanage because they were not able to provide adequate care.
Late 19th-century orphanages were often associated with European immigrants. Common racial attitudes of the period also applied to orphanages, and black children were segregated. In the early 1930s, some 90 orphanages were designated for blacks or non-whites, which in Western states included Chinese, Japanese and Mexican children.
Children’s Home Society of West Virginia was established in 1896 to place orphaned and neglected children into families rather than county poorhouses. In 1900, the CHS established the Davis Child Shelter in Charleston, named for U.S. Sen. Henry Gassaway Davis, who provided funding.
The Charleston home closed in 1961, although other branches existed in Sistersville and Morgantown. In 1978 a new Davis home opened in South Charleston, later moving near Yeager Airport. Emergency shelters opened in several locations across the state in the 1980s and 1990s.
In 1899, the Rev. Charles McGhee established a “colored orphanage” in Bluefield. This institution became the West Virginia Normal and Industrial School for Colored Children, and moved to Huntington’s Central City in 1900. After losing the option to buy the Huntington site, the institution moved to Blue Sulphur Springs.
Local hostility made the location temporary. Finally, about 1904, it moved back to Huntington after 210 acres became available on Pea Ridge Road (now Norway Avenue).
Resident children helped build the three-story brick building. Funding for the institution came from the home’s farm, boarding school and from private donations. From 1903 to 1910, the state appropriated some financing ranging from $1,500 to $3,000.
In 1911, the Legislature provided for the establishment of the West Virginia Colored Orphanage Home and authorized purchasing the property of the West Virginia Normal and Industrial School for Colored Children. The orphanage served as a school with a separate industrial department to train boys in career skills, such as construction, blacksmithing, painting, plumbing and shoemaking. Girls received training in home economics, cooking, sewing and laundry.
By 1918, the institution no longer used staff for reviewing prospective foster and adoptive parents. These duties were taken over by the State Humane Society. The Legislature established the State Humane Society in 1899 for addressing issues with children, the elderly and animals.
In January 1909, Theodore Roosevelt hosted the first White House Conference on Children. Responding quickly, on Feb. 26, 1909, the Legislature authorized the West Virginia Children’s Home under the direction of the West Virginia Humane Society. Within a year, construction began on a facility in Elkins.
In the 1930s, the Huntington orphanage became affiliated with Cabell County Schools, which provided for further education with transportation to Douglass High School. The institution ceased its educational component in 1951.
In 1954, Brown vs. Board of Education required desegregation and busing. In 1956, the orphanage closed, and the residents were moved to the newly integrated West Virginia Children’s Home in Elkins. These changes in the 1950s were part of a broader decline in orphanages across the country.
This beginnings of this decline can be traced back to the Social Security Act, which passed in 1935. The SSA assisted states with providing care for children. The Aid to Families with Dependent Children program assisted in keeping children in their homes or finding placement with foster families rather than institutionalizing them.
But even so, the number of children in orphanages increased during World War I, the Great Depression and World War II. It was not until the mid-1940s that orphanage populations returned to 1909 levels.
Traditional orphanages, such as portrayed in the Broadway musical “Annie,” were phased out, to be replaced with foster care and adoption. But group homes remain for children with medical, physical or behavioral problems, and to support the foster home system.