Today on my way to hike the wooded Eisenhower State Park, up north on the Oklahoma border, I stopped in at the Red River Museum in Sherman. A charming historian toured me through the small museum, located in an old Carnegie library. I bought a book called Red River Women, about the many vivid and strong women I encountered in the museum.
The tour reminded me of Edna Gladney, who worked tirelessly for child welfare in Texas. She began by imploring County Commissioners to improve conditions at the Collin County Poor Farm. She pointed out that the children there were "everyone's children".
Her research into a place for the orphan children at the poor farm led her to an adoption agency founded by minister IZT Morris. Morris launched his orphan's home when he figured out that Fort Worth was the "last stop" for orphan train kids.
The orphan trains were used in the late 19th Century to send over 10,000 kids from the crowded northeast to homes in the south, midwest and west. Kids who had no place in the populous urban centers were parceled out, stop by stop, to farmers and small town folk at each little whistle stop town along the way. Social committees in each town coordinated in a way that could not be easily imagined today. Although imperfect, the project in general helped a lot of kids find a home who might otherwise have lacked one.
But Fort Worth was along one route the "end of the line". Brother Morris figured out that many orphan kids who had not been taken along the way just ended up without a family or place, in Fort Worth. He rose to the situation, and did good by those kids.
He set up a home in the 1890s to take them in and get them adopted. Edna Gladney found this home years later, in 1925, hunting for places for the poor farm kids. It became her life's work, just in time to permit Morris, a Civil War veteran, to retire. She became its tireless supporter and advocate. She lobbied the legislature in Texas (1936) to remove the term "illegitimate" from adopted kids birth certificates (saying "there are no illegitimate children--just illegitimate parents"). She worked to get adopted kids their inheritance rights (1951).
In the movie, she was played by Greer Garson. But the movie mangled up the facts. Still, she used the money to bail out the home, so fame had its small compensations.
I'm a huge believer in adoption. I posit that while I completely understand the desire to have one's own biological child, the chance to be of service to an unwanted child is so important. Sometimes I want to urge people frustrated with child-bearing issues to wait out the delays and hassle of the adoption system, but then I realize that it's not my business, and in particular, it's not my business when I do not really know anyone else's life but my own. I find that childless people like myself often pontificate the most about children issues, when we have, as is usual with pontificators, the least true insight. But I do know adopted kids whose lives were transformed by having a "real" home.
The system is still very imperfect. In our time, some state child welfare agencies do a horrendous job of foster care tracking and adoption preparation. I like the image, though, of IZT Morris recognizing that a need existed for help for the unwanted remnants of the orphan train, and of Ms. Gladney coming into her own as a matchless PR genius and promoter, creating a foundation that still lives and does good today. Edna Gladney attacked head-on the stigma that adoption carried, a stigma that sadly still lingers today.
Edna Gladney and her husband, Sam, once were wealthy people. They owned the Gladiola flour factory in Sherman. Sam celebrated their holidays with rich bouquets of gladiolas. But the factory foundered, and Sam died. I sometimes think "gee, if I were only rich, I could do so much good with my money". But Edna Gladney began her great life's work when she was virtually a relatively impoverished widow.
I imagine that a child arrives in Fort Worth, discouraged after seeing dozens of other children taken at each farm town along the long way from New York to Texas. Then I picture that same child being taken to a nice home in Fort Worth. Finally, I cut to a vision of that child on a Texas farm, loved and part of a family. It's a far cry from institutionalization or a sweat shop. My vision is a bit cinemagraphic, really, but the funny thing is that it really did happen for a lot of kids. Edna Gladney made her errors and had her detractors, too, of course. All active people do. But she did what she could with what she brought to the table.
I think that we make heroes of the wrong people sometimes. If you pass a flower shop, and see some gladiola flowers, buy a few and think of Edna Gladney, could you?