“Under the Guise of Protection: Sex, Race, and Eugenics in Virginia’s Reformatories for Wayward Girls, 1910-1942”
Successfully defended on March 29, 2019 at George Mason University.
“Under the Guise of Protection” examines how early twentieth-century child savers understood and attempted to reclaim wayward girls in Virginia through the programs at two juvenile reformatories—the whites-only Home and Industrial School for Girls at Bon Air, and the Industrial Home School for Colored Girls at Peake’s Turnout. From their beginnings as privately-run houses of refuge in the 1910s, these two reformatories evolved within the context of an expanding state public welfare network until 1942 when their separate, quasi-private governing boards were abolished in favor of one, state-run Board for all juvenile facilities.
The social forces that informed the growth of Virginia’s public welfare system, particularly industrialization, population shifts, progressive reform, eugenic thought, and Jim Crow segregation all set the climate of juvenile reform. Believed to be vulnerable to the dark forces of urban life in an industrialized society, but also a potential social menace, delinquent girls stirred feelings of both sympathy and fear among reformers. By analyzing both discourse and data, this dissertation argues that eugenic notions of hereditary fitness combined with both environmental views of crime and immorality and southern hierarchies of gender, race, and class to shape the entire reform experience. Between 1910 and 1942, the Commonwealth’s public welfare bureaucrats and charity workers confined over 2,300 adolescent white and African American girls under the guise of “protection.”
Using a variety of sources including unpublished reformatory data and published juvenile court and state public welfare statistics, this dissertation argues that delinquent white and black girls judged to be redeemable were extended the protections of the reformatory, given moral and industrial training, paroled into racially appropriate jobs, and then released. Conversely, those girls believed to be difficult to reform were serially institutionalized within Virginia’s network of segregated hospitals, correctional facilities, and Colonies (and after the Buck v. Bell decision in 1927, likely sterilized as well). In these cases, the protections of the reformatory extended only to Virginia’s communities to shield them from the burdens of supporting potentially dangerous girls.
This project explores how eugenic thought permeated progressive approaches to child saving, including the charges leveled and girls’ sentencing; the racial and geographic dynamics in state-wide reform; and the processes by which authorities tested, sorted, and judged delinquent girls at every stage of the reform process. The presence of segregated, state-supported reformatories makes Virginia an important site through which to study the crossroads of progressive juvenile justice, racial politics, and the selective use of “science” in southern reform, particularly as such efforts targeted children.