Changing our Landscape
Where Once Stood an Orphan Aslyum, We Installed A Memorial to the Girls Who Resided There
In May 2023, Hard Histories at Hopkins organized a memorial installation that featured the names of girls once resident at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Colored Orphan Asylum. One hundred and seventy six signs were installed across the Wyman Park Building lawn, at the JHU Homewood Campus, adjacent to where the asylum once stood. What follows are the remarks delivered by lab members on the occasion.
I’m Martha Jones, director of Hard Histories at Hopkins and with me today are members of the Hard Histories at Hopkins Lab: Emma Katherine Bilski, Kamal Kaur, Matt Palmer and Emma Petite. Thank you for joining us for this installation, which honors the girls once resident here at the Johns Hopkins Hospital Colored Orphan Asylum.
In October 1895, a new home for the Asylum was opened on this site in a ceremony attended by hospital trustees and its lady managers. The asylum moved into the improved country home of Maryland Governor William Pinkney White which had been built on this site in 1860.
Among that day’s speakers was Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, who was by 1895 renowned as a poet, anti-slavery lecturer, suffragist, temperance advocate and novelist. On that occasion, perhaps no facts about Harper’s biography were more pertinent than her origin story. Frances Harper was born in Baltimore City in 1825 and as a girl orphaned. She was raised by her uncle, William Watkins, a minister, educator, newspaper commentator, and champion for the rights of Black Baltimoreans.
In 1895, Harper returned to her home city to speak to the girls who were taking up residence in this place. They were, Harper knew, coming of age along with the rise of Jim Crow’s segregation, disenfranchisement and violence, including the rise of lynching. The surviving news report does not relate what Harper said that day. But we do know that in that same year she published her poem “Songs for the People,” whose words aptly captured Harper’s concern for all of humanity, including the very young.
Songs for the People.
Let me make the songs for the people,
Songs for the old and young;
Songs to stir like a battle-cry
Wherever they are sung.
Not for the clashing of sabres,
For carnage nor for strife;
But songs to thrill the hearts of men
With more abundant life.
Let me make the songs for the weary,
Amid life’s fever and fret,
Till hearts shall relax their tension,
And careworn brows forget.
Let me sing for little children,
Before their footsteps stray,
Sweet anthems of love and duty,
To float o’er life’s highway.
I would sing for the poor and aged,
When shadows dim their sight;
Of the bright and restful mansions,
Where there shall be no night.
Our world, so worn and weary,
Needs music, pure and strong,
To hush the jangle and discords
Of sorrow, pain, and wrong.
Music to soothe all its sorrow,
Till war and crime shall cease;
And the hearts of men grown tender
Girdle the world with peace.
Emma Katherine Bilski:
For us at Hard Histories, it has been a semester for breaking silences. Our work began with a reading of the March 1873 letter that Johns Hopkins penned to the men he selected to steer the future of the hospital that would bear his name. Among his provisions were those related to what became the Johns Hopkins Hospital Colored Orphan Asylum. Today at Johns Hopkins, we have had very little to say about what his words came to mean. Our research aimed to remedy that by examining the records from the orphan asylum and understand how it ultimately provided for the “reception, maintenance and education of orphan colored children,” as Mr. Hopkins put it.
These words — “reception, maintenance and education” — had no plain meaning in the lives of girls resident in the asylum during its operation between 1875 and 1914. To discover the lived experience of these terms, we reviewed the surviving asylum records — most of them concerning administrative and financial matters — along with news reports, city directories, census returns, and maps to recover the perspective of the hundreds of girls (and for a time the few boys) who resided there.
Here, on this site, African American girls between 5 and 18 lived, worked, and were trained as domestic workers. Some, we learned, also died. In the asylum, girls lived amidst callous juxtapositions: Between middle class niceties and the demands of service to others, between training for domestic work and the rise of a new university, and between elite white caretakers and Black communities. This installation is a first step toward restoring the memory of the asylum and the girls once resident there. They are, like our university and hospital, essential facets of our founding legacy.
The ways of accounting for the asylum’s girls — in financial records and the census — rendered them isolated “inmates” or “orphans,” while new research discovering their whole lives — in sources from news reports to death records — reveals that the same girls were also daughters and sisters, young people with family ties that pre-dated and out-lived their time spent at the asylum. The 176 names installed here represent some, though not all, of the girls once resident on this site. This list is incomplete and reflects names used by officials, rather than the names girls may have used or were called by their loved ones. Today, our care for the dignity of the girls and their descendants lead us to use first names and last initials only. And in the absence of surviving images, we created silhouettes to only suggest how these young people may have appeared.
The material conditions of the asylum introduced girls to a respectable or what we might term a “middle class” lifestyle that included sewing quality clothes, the donning of shoes and hats, healthful meals, a playground, and a well-maintained flower garden. In the later years of the asylum, girls regularly visited the dentist and were fitted for eye glasses. Still, the provision of these relative fineries did not aim to prepare girls for their own futures as heads of their own households. Instead, the material circumstances of the asylum prepared girls to perform domestic work in homes headed by the elite white women for whom they were expected to labor.
The asylum’s “Lady Managers,” women who closely governed the place also stood in for those women among Baltimore’s elite who expected to hire the girls when they aged out of care at the asylum. Along with the elite men on the Johns Hopkins Hospital board of trustees, the Lady Managers shaped the experiences of girls resident there. At the same time, their presence permits us to appreciate how great the social distance was between the asylum’s young residents and the philanthropically-minded women who governed it.
In 1895, the asylum relocated from its original Biddle Street location to the one-time summer residence of Maryland Governor William Pinkney Whyte – bounded by what are today Wyman Park Drive, 31st Street, and Remington Avenue – until it was closed in 1914. Just as the Hospital was preparing to close the asylum in 1914, Gilman Hall was going up on property just across the way. Two visions for young people’s futures, in Baltimore and beyond, faced off — and stood in stark contrast. One encouraged Black girls, educated in middle class ways, to spend their lives in service to others. The second promoted the education of young white men for elite leadership and to become the heads of households that would run on the labor of girls like those resident in the orphan asylum. For a moment at Johns Hopkins, both things were true.