For Federal and State social welfare reformers, the realities of mobilizing for the United States’ entry into World War I fundamentally altered the flavor of the national “girl problem.” “Young girls are flocking to our camp towns, attracted by the khaki, as well as by stories of the need for workers and fabulous salaries paid them.”1 Reformers worried that concentrations of young soldiers and sailors drew the worst of society–those determined to make a buck off the war effort. Such individuals, they feared, would weaken the fighting force through the spread of venereal disease and vice, including drinking, gambling, “treating,” and prostitution. As a result, reformers fully expected to see an increase in sexual offense convictions following the opening of war camps around the country. Notionally, the “program of repression” designed by the Commission on Training Camp Activities (CTCA) to combat such problems concentrated on the immediate long-term quarantine and detention of women and girls picked up near war camps.2 In 1918, President Wilson directed $250,000 into a program to help southern states hosting military training camps establish or refurbish reformatories and detention homes to accommodate this influx of reprobates. At this time, Virginia was one of only a few states in the South with an existing reformatory for white girls; it was the only southern state with an institution for African American girls. In 1918, Virginia’s two reformatories received $50,000 of this money. The Home and Industrial School for Girls at Bon Air (hereinafter Bon Air or BA) received $30,000, and the Industrial Home School for Wayward Colored Girls at Peake’s Turnout (hereinafter Peake’s Turnout or PT) received $20,000.3
During the war, Anna M. Peterson and Janie Porter Barrett–superintendents at Bon Air and Peake’s Turnout, respectively–both reflected on their patriotic duty to help address the war-time girl problem and demands it presented. “Since the day the special appropriation was given to our school by the Fosdick Commission and our State to take care of the girls who would be harmful to the War Camp community, we have felt that we had a very important part in winning the war.”4 Anna Peterson reports in her annual letter to the Board of Directors in 1919 that the growing demand to receive larger numbers of girls has been “insistent and persistent.” She states, “we have turned away several hundred girls in the past year because we had neither buildings nor equipment to care for them.”5 Both women publicly expressed their gratitude for the influx of cash and its ability to help them meet these duties. However we know very little about how these institutions actually responded to the crisis of war-time delinquency in the wake of these grants. Did Virginia’s reformatories accept proportionally more girls from cities hosting a war camp? Likewise, did Virginia see an actual spike in detentions during the war as they implemented this federal aid? By visualizing admissions data from these two schools, we can begin to answer such questions.6
The data shows that ultimately, these federal grants did have an impact on both of Virginia’s reformatories, but not because they accepted proportionally more girls from war camp cities during the war itself. An admissions spike did occur, but not until 1919, after the Treaty of Versailles ended the war. Evidence indicates that both schools used their federal aid, not to immediately accept more girls into their custody and care, but instead to expand the capacity of their institutions. They built or refurbished cottages and dormitories, which allowed each institution to accept and support more delinquents in the years following the war. Virginia’s reformatories accepted proportionally more wayward girls in 1919 than they had in 1918. Furthermore, the 1919 admissions rate provided a new baseline for the number of girls admitted into these reformatories. They may not have had the immediate capacity to detain an increased volume of girls during the war, but the Federal aid did allow them to begin admitting girls at consistently higher rates until well into the 1930s.
War Camps and Wayward Girls
During the war, Virginia hosted war camps in three main regions of the state: Northern Virginia, specifically Alexandria and Quantico; Petersburg, just south of Richmond; and the Tidewater region on the Virginia Peninsula, specifically the cities of Norfolk, Hampton Roads, Newport News, and Portsmouth. Virginia has always been predominantly rural, but the war mobilization effort spawned rapid industrial growth and expansion in the war camp cities across the Commonwealth, especially in the Tidewater region. The ports and Naval bases at Norfolk, Hampton Roads, Newport News, and Portsmouth moved massive quantities of men and good overseas. Members of the American Expeditionary Force, approximately 288,000 soldiers and sailors, sailed from Hampton Roads during 1917-18. The Army’s Camp Lee, near Petersburg, was constructed in only three months with accommodations to house and train 45,000 men.7 These war camps are represented on the map below by blue squares.8
In order to understand the relationship between war camps and reform school admissions, I geocoded the point of origin for all inmates admitted to Bon Air and Peake’s Turnout between January 1, 1918 and December 31, 1920 and mapped this data using Carto.9 Individual inmates are indicated by the colored dots — blue for Bon Air inmates, orange for Peake’s Turnout. (Additionally, you can toggle the specific school on or off in the widget to the right of the map.) As seen in the map below, these incarcerations are unexpectedly scattered across the state, especially in the Appalachian region and in the rural areas to the south of Petersburg. In total, only one-third of all inmates incarcerated during this time period came from these seven war camp cities. By comparison, Richmond alone sent just over one-third of all the girls incarcerated during the war years. Richmond courts sent many girls to the reformatories before, during, and after the war. However without detailed court records, it is impossible tell whether the girls admitted from Richmond during the war years were “caught” keeping company with a soldier or a sailor.10 The other one-third came from locales across the rest of the state, far from the war camps. Of the seventy-five girls admitted from a war camp city, more than two-thirds originated from either Norfolk or Petersburg; Norfolk sent roughly four times as many white delinquents as African-American. Petersburg dominated the attendance rolls for African-American delinquents and sent as many girls to Peake’s Turnout as did the other six war camp cities combined.11
Insistent and Persistent Demand?
This data also shows that until 1919, the admittance rate for both Bon Air and Peake’s Turnout remained relatively consistent. However, as the chart below indicates, the jump in volume in 1919 is significantly larger than the years prior. The unexpected timing of the admissions spike raised more questions than it answered about how these schools used the money allocated to help solve the war camp delinquency crisis during the war itself.
Admittedly, Virginia courts never sentenced one hundred percent of convicted delinquents to its reformatories. The State Board of Charities and Corrections, the oversight organization responsible for Virginia’s reform institutions, usually reported to the Governor that an average of seventy-five percent of all convicted delinquents were either paroled or fined and released. They usually accompanied this statistic with an appeal for more parole officers across the state, so separating the politicking from the reality remains difficult. Juvenile courts and their records are notoriously spotty in Virginia. Counties and cities were encouraged to adhere to “juvenile court ideas,” but in 1918, only Richmond and Norfolk had a sitting juvenile court. Most delinquents convicted during the war years were tried before a recurring special session of the local police court. While the State Board of Charities and Corrections did require these courts to report on the number of children tried, details about these cases and their disposition are inconsistent from court to court and from year to year. In 1918, Norfolk reported only that they saw 608 juvenile cases. It provided no breakdown of the charges or disposition of them. By 1919, the Norfolk juvenile court began reporting more details. Out of 769 juvenile cases in that year, white girls were charged predominantly with “incorrigibility,” a purposefully vague charge that could include everything from refusing to listen to a parent to crimes against morality. Conversely, the vast majority of African American girls were charged with assault. Regardless of the charge, the majority of these girls were dismissed or paroled.12
Between 1915 and 1918, both schools averaged an admittance rate of 20 girls per year. Between 1919 and 1925, Bon Air averaged 59 admits per year, almost three times as many as the years prior. Peake’s Turnout averaged 38 admits per year, nearly double the rate it had been prior to the war. It is important to note that these reform schools admitted, paroled, transferred, or discharged inmates on a rolling basis. Most inmates stayed in residence for at least 18 months before parole; some were transferred earlier. This means that the actual capacity at each school remained constant while the admittance numbers would fluctuate pending available beds. Evidence suggests that both schools used the war-time grants to improve upon their physical plants and add more cottages. At Bon Air administrators repaired their existing dormitories and offices, built a new cottage, and for the first time, lit their facility with electric lights.13 At Peake’s Turnout, the staff contracted the construction of two new cottages and made other much-needed improvements.14 These construction projects increased their capacity, which ultimately allowed them accept and support more girls. In 1917, both Bon Air and Peake’s Turnout reported a maximum capacity of 50 inmates. In 1921, they reported a capacity of 95 inmates and 80 inmates, respectively. By 1921, Bon Air also boasted 50 more acres than it did before the war.15
Observations and Conclusions
The data shows that while the war supplied the needed rationale to fund these institutions, the grants did not immediately ensure the Federal government’s desired outcome of long-term detention. Virginia’s reformatories at Bon Air and Peake’s Turnout did not accept proportionally more girls from war camp cities and their admissions rates remained relatively constant during the war. However, after 1918, once these reformatories had time to funnel the money into improving their institutions and increasing their capacity, they admitted girls at a rate almost double that of the war years.
Thus, admissions data from Virginia’s reform schools complicates our understanding of the war-time delinquency experience. The existing scholarship on juvenile delinquency focuses on reform efforts as a response to a predominantly urban problem. During the war, this problem was positioned as wanton reprobates flocking to camp cities to take advantage of lusty soldiers at the expense of the nation. At the time when Virginia’s cities were expanding thanks to the war effort, nearly one-third of the delinquents confined to one of the state’s two reform schools still originated from a rural area. This suggests that, at least in Virginia, fears surrounding the sexuality of the rural and mountain poor remained as significant as the desire to protect U.S. soldiers and sailors. Further research is required to understand how Virginia articulated and managed this “mountain girl problem.”
- Henrietta S. Additon, “Work Among Delinquent Women and Girls,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 79 (1918): 152. [↩]
- Nancy K. Bristow, Making Men Moral: Social Engineering During the Great War, (New York: New York University Press, 1996) 91-136. [↩]
- A condition of the grant required the State of Virginia to match these funds. The General Assembly offered $10,000 to Bon Air if they could raise the other $20,000 in private funds; $20,000 was granted to Peake’s Turnout outright, so no additional fundraising was necessary. In total, Bon Air received $60,000; Peake’s Turnout received $40,000. [↩]
- Janie Porter Barrett, Fourth Annual Report of the Industrial Home School for Colored Girls, 1919. Library of Virginia. [↩]
- Superintendent Anna Peterson’s letter to the Board of Directors of Bon Air, dated September 30, 1918. Bon Air Board of Directors Minutes, 1918. Library of Virginia. [↩]
- The dataset supporting the visualizations for this paper consists of 222 inmates admitted between January 1, 1918 and December 31, 1920. This is a subset of a larger dataset gathered by me from the complete admissions logs of the reformatories at Bon Air and Peake’s Turnout; I transcribed the full admissions data from the opening of each school until April 1939. Names and identifying information have been removed to protect the privacy of inmates. Full admissions books are available at the Library of Virginia; the full dataset is available upon request. Erin N. Bush (2017). Full Virginia Reform School Admittance by Origin 1918-1920. Unpublished raw data. [↩]
- Virginius Dabney, Virginia the New Dominion: A History from 1607 to the Present, (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1971) 463-464. [↩]
- Tidewater cities are so close together, they are represented on the map by two squares instead of four. [↩]
- The War Department promoted the claim that they detained 18,000 individuals between 1918 and 1920, so I matched this time frame. Bristow, Making Men Moral, 270 n.145. [↩]
- Reports from Richmond’s juvenile court in 1919 indicate that a majority of girls were charged with “crimes against morality,” but these records do not articulate the circumstances of their arrests. Eleventh Annual Report of the State Board of Charities and Correction, 1919. Library of Virginia. [↩]
- Erin N. Bush (2017). Full Virginia Reform School Admittance by Origin 1918-1920. Unpublished raw data. [↩]
- The CTCA argued extensively against parole as counter-productive to the war problem and instead pushed localities to choose long-term detention. This was the underlying rationale for gifting money for detention homes and reformatories. See Martha P. Falconer, “The Segregation of Delinquent Women and Girls as a War Problem,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 79 (1918): 160-66. [↩]
- Bon Air Fifth Annual Report for the Term Ending September 30, 1919. Bon Air Board of Directors Minutes Collection, 1919. Library of Virginia. [↩]
- Third Annual Report of the Industrial Home School for Colored Girls, 1918. Library of Virginia. [↩]
- Ninth Annual Report of the State Board of Charities and Correction, 1917. Thirteenth Annual Report of the State Board of Charities and Correction, 1921. [↩]