Janie Porter Barrett (née Janie Aurora Porter)
August 9, 1865 – August 27, 1948
Notable: Social reformer
Janie Aurora Porter was born in Athens, Georgia just a few months after the end of the Civil War. Her mother, Julie Porter, had been enslaved and while her father’s identity is unknown, Porter’s very light complexion seemed to imply that he was most likely a White man. Porter’s childhood was unlike most other Black children’s. Julie moved to Macon, Georgia where she found work as a live-in housekeeper and seamstress in the family home of a White woman from the North. The Skinners allowed not only Julie but also Janie to live in their home and Porter was able to receive an education alongside the Skinner children.
Even after Julia got married and moved into a home with her new husband while continuing to work for the Skinners, Porter continued to live with the Skinners. Mrs. Skinner offered to become Porter’s legal guardian to allow her to continue her education and live in the North as a White woman. Julia declined this offer likely in part because it would have severed Porter’s ties to her mother and Black family. Instead, Julia chose to have Porter enroll at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) so she could experience living as a Black person in a Black community.
Attending Hampton, one of the first Historically Black Colleges & Universities, was a culture shock for Porter as she had only lived within a White household. Adding further complexity, most of the students at Hampton were from rural areas and the school’s curriculum consisted of vocational training. Porter had lived a relatively pampered life where she had never done manual labor. Her education had previously included literature and math but female students at Hampton were being groomed to spend their lives as wives or domestics thus providing morality and housekeeping training.
Porter eventually adjusted to the environment at Hampton. While attending the school she read All Sorts and Conditions of Men: An Impossible Story by Sir Walter Besant which told the story of an heiress in London working to help the less fortunate. The story resonated with Porter who came from a similarly privileged background and inspired her to become involved in the local community. Combining her training as a teacher with Hampton’s message of a responsibility to work in service of others, especially Black people, Porter felt she should do some good in the world.
Following her graduation in 1884, Porter would spend the next five years teaching at a rural school in Georgia, the Haines Institute in Augusta, and back at Hampton where she taught night classes. In 1889, Porter married Harris Barrett, another Hampton alumni who worked as the school’s cashier and bookkeeper. Their marriage would produce four children and Harris found success as a local entrepreneur.
Now comfortably middle-class, Barrett could have spent the rest of her days as a housewife. Instead, she chose to utilize the skills she’d learned at Hampton and her experience as a teacher to help her community. Barrett established a small unofficial daycare school in her home which expanded rapidly and formally became the Locust Street Social Settlement in 1890.
Modeled in part on Chicago’s Hull House, the Locust Street Settlement programs began simply at first with just a few girls from the local area being invited over once per week for a sewing class. Next, the mothers of those girls were invited and over time the classes and programs offered expanded to other domestic skills and handicrafts. Later sports and physical activities for children were also offered. Barrett’s offerings outgrew the family home which led to her and her husband building a new separate facility on their property in 1902. Some of the programs and activities were funded by Northern donors.
After the founding of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), Barrett established the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs as a local affiliate. At the time Black female juveniles were increasingly being remanded to asylums and jails. Barrett used the organization and her connections to fundraise for the establishment of a school with a residential rather than reformatory setting at which these young women could live. Working with allies within and outside the Black community, Barrett enabled the Federation to purchase a farm for $5,000.
Located north of Richmond in Hanover County, Peaks Turnout (Peake), was a 147-acre farm selected as the site for the new rehabilitation facility. Local White residents opposed the school until Barrett personally ensured that she would lead the school and it would be relocated if it became a problem in the neighborhood. The Virginia Industrial Home School for Colored Girls opened in 1915 with 28 students after receiving additional funds and guidance from various organizations and social welfare reformers.
Unfortunately, just two months after the school’s opening, Barrett’s husband died following a stroke. Now widowed, Barrett moved onsite to serve in her role as superintendent. The school’s mission was to serve as a home for the girls rather than a detention center or prison, to this end, there was a greater focus on rewarding and reinforcing positive behavior rather than punishment. Rather than caring for the girls as a group, their individual needs were assessed and addressed. Students were trained to be self-reliant and self-disciplined with Barrett and the other women at the school serving as mentors. The early programs focused on providing safe housing but later expanded to include academics and job training.
The State of Virginia assumed financial responsibility for and control of the school in 1920 though Barrett continued to serve as superintendent until her retirement in 1940. In retirement, Barrett returned to Hampton where she resided until she died in 1948. Barrett had received awards for and acknowledgment of her work while she was alive but two years after her death, the school that she’d founded was renamed in her honor. In time the Janie Porter Barrett School for Girls expanded to accept children of both genders and all races.
- “Barrett, Janie Porter (1865 – 1948).” 2018. Social Welfare History Project. Virginia Commonwealth University. July 25, 2018. https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/settlement-houses/barrett-janie-porter-1865-1948-african-american-social-welfare-activist/.
- “Barrett, Janie Porter (1865–1948).” 2022. Encyclopedia.com. Elite Cafe Media. March 8, 2022. https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/barrett-janie-porter-1865-1948.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. 2021. “Janie Porter Barrett.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. August 23, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Janie-Porter-Barrett.
- “Janie Barrett, Educator, and Welfare Worker Born.” 2021. African American Registry. August 12, 2021. https://aaregistry.org/story/educator-janie-barrett-was-a-reformer/.
- “Janie Porter Barrett Biography.” 2021. Dictionary of Virginia. 2021. https://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.php?b=Barrett_Janie_Porter.
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