Relationships Unbecoming of a Girl Her Age
Relationships Unbecoming of a Girl Her Age
Sexual Delinquency and the House of the Good Shepherd
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the “delinquent” girls that stayed at the House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic delinquency home for black and white girls. It looks into how the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, along with the Jim Crow municipal authority, stigmatized black girls' bodies by marking the youth in their care as “sexually delinquent”—they were accused not only of having acted immorally but also having both diseased and criminal bodies. Their experiences provide a glimpse into the world of young women who did not live up to middle-class standards of “niceness.” The records of the delinquency home help in reconstructing the intersection of race, stigma, and sexuality in Jim Crow New Orleans. By linking a girl's sexuality to criminality, the chapter describes how the girls both trespassed the boundaries of respectability and the negotiated the double bind at the same time.
Behind the high brick walls, shut away from the bustle and pulsating life of the city stands the old established House of the Good Shepherd, a holy retreat for many world worn girls and women who find there with the good sisters quiet for their souls, work for their hands and consolation for their bruised spirits.
—Mrs. Joseph E. Freund, New Orleans Times-Picayune (1937)
The bulky brick building of the House of the Good Shepherd sat in downtown New Orleans on the corner of Bienville and North Broad. A concrete wall, cracked from age and adorned with ironwork, separated the convent from its neighbors. At the entrance the name “Good Shepherd” announced the building to the surrounding community, visitors, and passersby. At the heart of the convent stood the chapel; all guests were funneled through its doors. Inside, white nuns worked to rehabilitate the “world worn girls” of New Orleans—both black and white.1 The building was an imposing site of church, municipal, and parental authority in downtown New Orleans. The convent’s centrality in the black community and the visibility of the building ensured that all girls noticed its presence.
Many black women who grew up in New Orleans in the first half of the twentieth century remember the House of the Good Shepherd, although the actual building was demolished decades ago. Some recall that their parents regularly threatened to send them to the convent.2 This threat was so ubiquitous that it was featured in Darrlyn Smith’s New Orleans 7th Ward: Nostalgia Dictionary, 1938–1965. Under the entry “House of the Good Shepherd” Smith wrote, “Institution for wayward girls located on Bienville and Broad. Parents threatened to enroll girls who misbehaved.”3 While some women remember the threat of being sent to the House of the Good Shepherd, others distinctly recall the coercive force suggested by the physical structure. Uptowner Lilli (p.142) Braud remembered seeing girls peer out of the second-story windows. From her vantage point, the girls looked trapped inside, as if they were in a jail. Braud believed that if she behaved badly enough, she too would be locked inside the brick building that held sorrow-filled faces.4
The enclosed structure of the building, along with the nuns and girls cloistered inside, created a grim aura. Although many women recall the House of the Good Shepherd, very few remember the Sisters or why girls were actually sent there; the convent, though familiar, remains a mystery. Most women, thinking back, suspected that the girls were either in trouble with their parents or pregnant or both. The mystery of the House of the Good Shepherd was not singular to black New Orleans; white New Orlean-ians also recall the convent. Furthermore, postwar homes for delinquent girls and maternity homes throughout the country were, as one historian has noted, “gothicattic[s] obscured from the community by the closed curtains of gentility and high spiked fences.”5 The physical structure, its geography, and the mystery and threat of the House of the Good Shepherd worked to discipline the girls of New Orleans. Its very existence signified and confirmed a dividing line between “nice” and “bad” girls.
The House of the Good Shepherd’s story is deeply tied to the racial politics of the South, as well as to the particularities of New Orleans. It was one of very few biracial reform homes in the South.6 The facility was biracial, rather than integrated, because within its walls wards were segregated by race. The Sisters took in girls and young women from all class levels, religions, races, and ethnicities, but they were especially indispensable to the black community.7 Like other southern cities, New Orleans did not have a publicly funded delinquency home for black girls even into the 1950s.8 In most southern cities, therefore, black girls picked up by the authorities were often sent to jail with adult criminals. In New Orleans, however, girls might also be sent to the House of the Good Shepherd or to other smaller orphanages and asylums that accepted black children. Each year the Sisters of the Good Shepherd took in about 180 girls.9 Approximately 50 black girls and a slightly higher number of white girls occupied the convent at any time.
To reconstruct the world of the House of the Good Shepherd, I have gathered a variety of sources detailing the secretive institution: photographs, census data, reports on the methods of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, court documents, newspaper articles, and monographs on the subject of female delinquency. These sources come from different years, even different decades, each divulging only a tiny portion of the whole story. Nonetheless, (p.143) from these sources the world of the House of the Good Shepherd emerges, and it provides a striking contrast to the world inhabited by “nice” girls.
Tracing the Roots of the Good Shepherd
At first glance, the mysterious building seems without context—separate from the city surrounding it. Yet the convent’s development closely mirrored the period in which it was founded. The Order of the Good Shepherd traced back to a seventeenth-century community of cloistered nuns in Angers, France, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of the Refuge. Reorganized in 1835, they became the Sisters of the Good Shepherd; some of these Sisters were silent and cloistered, constantly praying for fallen women, while others worked in the world, devoting their time to wayward girls. Soon, Houses of the Good Shepherd were established throughout the United States. The order opened a convent in New Orleans in 1859, just prior to the start of the Civil War.10
The first three vows of all Catholic women’s religious orders are poverty, chastity, and obedience. After these, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd pledged “to labor for the salvation of souls.”11 They toiled for girls’ souls by vowing to reform those who had fallen into sin. In 1866, Mother Superior Mary of St. Terese begged the New Orleans community for donations, promising to continue “rescuing fallen women from the mire of sin and awakening her soul once more to a consciousness of virtue of God and of heavenly hope.”12 In the same year, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd moved their walled convent to the corner of Bienville and Broad in downtown New Orleans. They would remain in that location for nearly a century. Charitable contributions and public funds from the city chest of New Orleans supported the convent financially; later, the Associated Catholic Charities (ACC) of Orleans Parish contributed funds.13
The House of the Good Shepherd further expanded its reach during the Progressive Era (1890s–1920s). Progressive moral reform movements such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union sought governmental regulation of morality.14 White Progressive activists expressed deep concern for working-class white girls and young women who inhabited the dangerous modern city.15 These white purity activists launched a national campaign to raise age of consent laws to align with new notions of childhood, adolescence, and virginal innocence.16 In Louisiana the age of consent rose from twelve years in 1885 to eighteen by 1920.17 Simultaneously, among middle-class and aspiring-class black activists, there existed a similar “moral panic” over (p.144) poorer black female migrants coming into large, dangerous cities from rural areas.18 White and black activists both believed fallen women were victims of vicious men, poor moral educations, and substandard living conditions in the modern city.
It was during this period of reform that the House of the Good Shepherd began receiving more girls from the city—girls who had been through the newly powerful local court system. Previously, black and white girls had been placed in the convent by their parents or guardians. But during the early twentieth century, girls were sent to the convent by the courts for sexual delinquency. In the late 1920s the ACC was established. Its office oversaw the children and youth sent to the House of the Good Shepherd and other Catholic charitable organizations.19 Although understaffed (in the 1940s it had only one social worker), this move represented the professionalization impulse of charities during the Progressive Era. However, the House of the Good Shepherd remained an outlier—although the ACC brought access to a social worker, religious women without professional training in social work, psychology, or health ran the convent. And unlike many other Progressive reform homes, the House of the Good Shepherd continued to rely on religious moral instruction as the primary mode of rehabilitation.
By the 1930s, therefore, the House of the Good Shepherd operated with a complex notion of sin and piety influenced by definitions of immorality from different decades. This makes tracing the Good Shepherd’s methods all the more complicated. On the one hand, the growing professionalization of the Progressive Era penetrated the walls of the convent through the city courts, the children’s bureau, and the ACC. But on the other hand, descriptions about life behind the walls from the early 1900s and into the 1940s tell overlapping and similar stories that reveal the Sisters’ unyielding commitment to older ideals of industry, confession, and penance. This is not to say the Sisters’ methods did not change over time, but that the Sisters embraced change only reluctantly.
Beginning in 1939, the Sisters at the convent struggled with a newly appointed Jewish judge to the juvenile court, Anna Veters Levy. The politicking that ensued centered on who would have ultimate authority over the girls’ bodies—the state or the Sisters. Judge Levy objected to what she saw as the convent’s antiquated methods of dealing with juvenile delinquents. Furthermore, the basis of her concern stemmed from an important philosophical debate over the role of professionalization and religion in reforming girls. Levy insisted that her job required that she “remove children from such institution when the care and discipline of children committed to such (p.145) institution is found to be unsatisfactory.”20 She believed the convent was just that sort of institution.
The House of the Good Shepherd operated on a program of authoritarian domesticity.21 In essence, the Sisters became the parental authority of the wards and wielded this power to ensure the girls behaved. The Sisters believed their power came from above, from God through the auspices of the Catholic Church. Once Judge Levy stepped in, however, she challenged the Sisters’ influence. Levy’s authoritarian hand became mightier than that of the Sisters. Judge Levy believed the House of the Good Shepherd should be an auxiliary of state authority—and nothing more.22 She protested the fact that parents might actually send their children to the convent without governmental approval. She told the Sisters, “Girls should not be accepted in institutions unless placed there by the juvenile courts of this state…. In no event should a girl be accepted directly from her parents, relations, guardians … unless placement is approved by a juvenile court.”23 In her court, municipal authority trumped that of the church.
The Sisters complained to Bishop Joseph Rummel about Judge Levy and her attempts to limit their authority over the girls. The Sisters believed that Levy talked “disparagingly” about the nuns, their religious program, and their medical services in open court and in conferences with parents.24 When a sixteen-year-old white girl told Judge Levy she wished to stay at the convent rather than go to the all-white state institution in Alexandria because Sister Madeleine had told her she would not be able to practice Catholicism at Alexandria, Levy became upset. Allegedly, Levy told the girl, “You can tell Sister Madeleine for me that she is guilty of Contempt of Court and I’ll certainty tell her myself when this hearing is over.”25
Levy’s education (bachelor’s, master’s, and law degrees from local all-white universities) as well as her professional standing gave her the authority to “objectively” critique the Sisters’ work. In juvenile justice, “there is no punishment to be weighed and no need for show of power or authority in dealing with children,” Levy argued in a book she published about her years in the juvenile court.26 To improve the House of the Good Shepherd, Levy suggested that the convent hire professionals, such as lay teachers, social workers, and especially nurses, and end compulsory work requirements. Levy also objected to the space of the convent: the wall enclosing the structure and the mixing of girls of different ages in rooms together.27 The Sisters fiercely resisted the changes Levy proposed, partially because they did not have the money to radically reform the space of the convent or hire professionals but also because they resisted the idea that hard work and industry (p.146) harmed the girls in their care. Nonetheless, by the mid-1950s, the Sisters began readjusting the ways in which they approached redemption. And in 1955 they began raising funds for a building that would take into account new methods for dealing with delinquent girls.28
Bad Girls: Delinquency, Stigma, and Race
During the decades that the House of the Good Shepherd served New Orleans, the nuns identified the girls by the stigmatized categories of “fallen,” “wayward,” or “delinquent.” However, by 1908, the state of Louisiana established separate laws and a juvenile court that would provide for “neglected and delinquent children.”29 Delinquency, then, was the criminal label for girls accused of improper sexuality in the 1930s. The stigmatized category “delinquent” contrasted with “niceness” because stigma always works in relation to a set of ideological norms.30 As was explored in the previous chapter, black New Orleanians used a language of niceness to identify proper girlhood. Nice girls wore their cleanliness; they had tidy clothes and well-kept hair. Furthermore, sexual purity denoted nice behavior: a nice girl’s body was not only clean but also innocent. Not surprisingly, then, “delinquent” girls were identified by a filth and impurity of the body.
Historians of childhood and youth have noted the ways in which scholars, activists, and the popular press emphasized the various “girl problem[s]” and “youth problem[s]” of the 1910s to 1930s.31 Notions of delinquency overlapped with fears that boys and girls were developing improper or dangerous masculinity and femininity. In the 1930s and 1940s, delinquent black girls were defined as unclean. Their bodies and tattered clothing and the poverty surrounding them became stigma signs—markers of their supposed abnormality and failure to live up to standards of proper girlhood.32 Of course, access to clothing, proper washing facilities, and a well-kept home environment were class-specific. Girls who lived in poorer families were much more likely to be blamed for delinquency. Sociologist Allison Davis, for example, invoked a classed notion of respectability versus delinquency: “When one observes the aberrant sexual, educational, and ‘legal’ behavior of a large portion of Negro adolescents … the first thing one learns is that there are major differences of behavior within the Negro group, according to economic levels.”33
Journalists, researchers, and reformers declared that filthy living spaces created unclean bodies, which, in turn, led to immorality. A 1937 article published in the Louisiana Weekly, “Youth, Crime, and Squalid Homes,” clearly (p.147) linked filth with juvenile crime. The author addressed children living in “sub-standard homes” and “squalor,” arguing that poverty, located primarily in the slums, created immoral youth that might eventually rot the whole “super-structure of society.” In this view, the immorality of poor black urban youth had the potential to destroy American society and culture. The author of “Youth, Crime, and Squalid Homes” argued for more resources and reform directed to poor black neighborhoods in American cities, believing that the only cure for delinquency was a “proper environment,” such as a clean home and pure living. This lesson in physical and moral cleanliness, the piece maintained, was crucial for community building.34 Delinquency, then, was defined in black communities as specifically an urban (slum) problem.35 In this way, poor black children were often stigmatized as delinquent, problem children.
These connections between poverty, filthy environments, and immorality coalesced in the medical and sociological literature on diseased black bodies. Diseased African Americans were already stigmatized, assumed by doctors, reformers, and researchers to have failed to live up to a proper mode of living and thus deserving of their fate in sickness. The Urban League’s southern director, Nelson Jackson, blamed black girls for the spread of venereal diseases among southern African Americans: “It is the teen-age girl who furnishes much of the [sexual] activity. These girls quite often live in communities which do not offer sufficient group work and recreation facilities or other normal outlets for expression. Their recreational outlets frequently take the form of nightly visits to taverns and ‘juke-joints’ where men in uniform congregate. From there they are taken by soldiers to cheap hotels and rooming houses by taxi cab drivers or wander off to dark places where illicit sexual activity occurs.”36 Jackson defined these “promiscuous,” diseased girls in opposition to girls who engaged in “normal” behavior. A revealing linguistic slip occurs in his narrative: Jackson seems to blame all black girls, rather than just aberrant girls, for the spread of disease. He argues that it is “the teen-age girl” who is responsible for sexual activity without mentioning the men with whom the girls are partying or sleeping. To Jackson, the men are blameless victims while the girls are unclean: they go to “dark,” inappropriate places and have unclean, diseased bodies.
The association between unclean spaces, “unclean” bodies, and immorality may at first seem an odd one. Yet the coupling of moral health and physical cleanliness had a long history in American life. From the 1880s to the 1920s, euthenics—inspired by eugenics—argued that clean home spaces promoted moral health for children.37 In this mode of thought, the physical (p.148) body is a boundary, the only thing separating the outside (a filthy home, for example) from the interior of an individual (one’s moral core, such as the soul). The bodily boundary is always fragile. The outside and inside are connected through pores, mouths, and sex organs; dirt, dust, and disease from the outside can make their way inside. In 1944 an article in the African American newspaper the New York Amsterdam News explored the ways in which the filth of the “ghettoes” of New York infiltrated the bodies of black children living there:
The average Harlem home … is filthy, insanitary and unfit for the normal life of youth. Water-soaked and foul-smelling apartments, basements, infested by bugs, roaches and other vermin … are the homes in which too many Negro children must spend long hours or parade through the streets and expose themselves to other kinds of unhealthy conditions…. There, five occupy a single room in which they cook, wash, eat, dance, drink hard liquor and engage in debauchery before the very eyes of their children.38
This discussion of delinquency exposed the fragile boundary between inside and outside. According to the article, in “filth” poor residents ingested insanitary food and drink, washed their bodies with the dirt that surrounded them, and danced and had sex, resulting in sweaty bodies inside the home. In this narrative, even actions normally defined as positive—such as cleaning the body—were corrupted. The size of the home also became an issue; in crowded space, bodies touched and overlapped, as did social activities. Such discussions of delinquency marked poor children as predestined for a life of immorality and criminal behavior while (sometimes unintentionally) blaming delinquency on the messiness of the home rather than on structural and economic inequality.
A 1951 article in the Louisiana Weekly echoed similar concerns. In a special two-part report, the newspaper followed two recently hired African American juvenile officers who worked with the city’s black juvenile delinquents. The officers explained that while parents were away, youth went to “sordid places” and made contact with “questionable characters.” The first article centered on delinquent girls’ sexuality. The officers claimed, “Girls, especially, who have been the victims of carnal knowledge are invariably from broken homes whose fathers and mothers are carrying on illicit relationships with companions before the children…. In many cases such girls have practically no relationship with boys of their own age levels and want none.”39 The article implied that these “delinquent” girls hung out (p.149) in distasteful, dirty places and, therefore, were sexually impure. The girls picked up by the police officers were arrested, sent to the House of the Good Shepherd, and labeled “sexually delinquent.”
The “filth” written on poor girls’ bodies identified them as members of an urban lower class and as social outcasts. Uncleanliness became a stigma symbol for reformers—a mark of debasement, leading the juvenile courts, officers, judges, or nuns to see young women as immoral and incapable of caring for themselves.40 Written on poor girls’ bodies, then, was the unseemly femininity and immorality that was a sexualized product, “bred” in the “slums” of urban America.41
Coming to the Convent: Girls and Sexualized Crime
Between 1930 and 1954, black girls came to the Sisters for a wide array of sins. Parents might send their children to the Sisters if they misbehaved or were “ungovernable.” And the juvenile courts sent girls who were caught stealing, drinking, or disturbing the peace.42 Despite local myths to the contrary, the convent did not accept girls who were pregnant.43 In 1942 the executive director of the Associated Catholic Charities wrote to the bishop and included a review of cases that went before New Orleans’ juvenile courts. Most of these summaries do not mention the girls’ race, but they do provide clues into how Good Shepherd girls came to be confined at the convent while revealing the ways in which disease was used by the Sisters and the court to mark all the girls in their care as sexually delinquent. Although girls came for a variety of reasons, over half were accused of improper sexual activity. Even more were marked as sexually promiscuous once they entered.44
In the available documents, improper sexuality was usually recorded in relation to “carnal knowledge” charges brought up on the girls’ adult male abusers or partners. But girls were also accused of being entertainers in a “night club of ill repute,” married to or living with men of whom parents disapproved, or simply “in need of medical attention,” which the girl and parents ignored.45
As soon as a girl was admitted to the House of the Good Shepherd, the convent nurse gave her a medical exam. The records constantly referred to the girls’ medical status: one with a “four plus Wassermann report” would remain “in the Convent of the Good Shepherd because of need of medical treatment,” as would a “girl in need of medical treatment which parents ignore.”46 A Wasserman test determined whether or not a ward was afflicted with syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease. This test was commonly used (p.150) on prostitutes, delinquent girls, and black men, despite its notorious unreliability.47 According to the criminal courts, reformers, and doctors, syphilis and gonorrhea were two venereal diseases that denoted immorality and criminality in women.48
The comments in the House of the Good Shepherd case files referring to the girls’ medical diagnoses illustrate the ways in which the ACC and the Sisters believed that measuring disease likewise measured immorality. For them, sin was written on the body. In one record the Sisters noted, “The judge was inclined to allow girl to go home before medical information was brought out.”49 In other words, the nuns wanted to use the “medical information” in court as a reason for further detaining the young woman at the convent. In such cases, the Sisters knew (with physical, somatic proof) that the House of the Good Shepherd girls were guilty of immoral activity, and this medical proof seemed reason enough for them to keep a girl interned inside the convent. Accordingly, the transgression of premarital sex—even in the case of rape—was written on the body of the wards. The sin of improper sexuality was a crime of action; the sinful act was caught in the body through a wicked disease.
Black women and teens, however, were already always defined as promiscuous and were thus less likely to be blamed for prostitution—their regular sexuality was dangerous enough. The medical establishment viewed their bodies, like that those of black men, as sexually immoral and diseased.50 The eugenics movement, which lasted into the 1930s, and the Tuskegee experiment (1932–72) medically defined African Americans in particular, but also poor whites, as licentious and contaminated. Such definitions were so popular that an educated white respondent in a 1930s survey argued against interracial marriage on the grounds that “we [whites] would have more venereal disease because the Negro is full of it.”51 Even among progressive white and black scholars and researchers, there remained a close association between poor black women and sexual promiscuity.
The stories of three black girls sent to the House of the Good Shepherd—Ramona Cruz, Dorothy Jackson, and Vivian Thomas52—demonstrate how sexual delinquency was used to discredit black girls. The girls had wildly different paths to the House of the Good Shepherd, yet their stories reveal a Jim Crow culture that led juvenile courts to define black girls as “delinquent.” At the same time, their stories are potent reminders of the existence of the double bind in these girls’ lives. Although some of the girls sent to the House of the Good Shepherd lived outside the bounds of niceness, they still contended with the racism of Jim Crow and the expectation of purity of the (p.151) middle and professional black classes, along with expectations for purity from religious leaders.
Ramona Cruz: Stigmatized Sexuality
Disease as proof of guilt and sin resonated throughout the limited case files for the House of the Good Shepherd. One ACC record contained the story of two teenage black girls living in New Orleans. The short narrative of the girls’ troubles makes the nexus of disease, class, race, and guilt all the more clear:
Mable, age thirteen, lived with her fourteen-year-old sibling, Ramona. Their parents were divorced and the father resided in Memphis, Tennessee. He had remarried, but sent a check each month to his first wife for the support of the children. [Their mother] had left the children in the home alone, but she came to pay rent and would visit them every two or three weeks.
These adolescent girls lived in a one-room apartment behind a house. It was upstairs and there were six families living in this rear house which had one community toilet…. The room was furnished with only bare necessities and always appeared to be untidy. There was only one bed. Cooking, eating, sleeping, bathing and other activities were carried on in this one room.
Mable and Ramona had a poor relationship. Ramona was aggressive and bossy. She forced Mable to do all household chores. Mable sometimes refused and Ramona beat her. The mother was aware of Ramona’s hostile, antagonistic attitude and openly abused her when she visited the home…. Neighbors often told [the mother] about Ramona’s boyfriend and of her sexual behavior in the community yard.
… Both girls were attending school irregularly. The teacher … was unable to get the cooperation she needed from the home. She referred them to court because of poor school attendance, neglect and delinquency. She knew their environment was conducive to delinquency. A medical examination revealed that Ramona was sexually delinquent.53
Ramona Cruz was sent to the House of the Good Shepherd, while Mable Cruz was sent to Saint John Bercham’s Home for Neglected Girls. In this narrative, the girls’ troubles began with lack of parental supervision, but the case file also made a strong connection between the uncleanness of the home (p.152) and immorality. According to the social workers, the home was “conducive to delinquency”; they thought that the small, poor housing led to filth, which led to immorality. That the girls cooked, ate, slept, and washed themselves in only one room—their only living space—further exacerbated the “untidiness.” Ramona Cruz’s class status made it more likely that she would be accused of delinquency and promiscuity. In the eyes of social workers, the unclean home and crowded surroundings stigmatized the girls as immoral.
The untidiness of the home proved problematic for the girls, but a medical exam verified Ramona’s sexual delinquency; either a broken hymen or a sexually transmitted disease medically proved Ramona’s sin. Her punishment for such delinquency was to be sent to the convent. Ramona’s “crime” was an intimate relationship with what the neighbors called a “boyfriend”; the record did not mention any prostitution or widespread promiscuity. And although her violence toward her sister remained an integral part of the story, the file charged her with nothing more than truancy and sexual immorality. Ramona Cruz failed to live up to standards of proper femininity and normal girlhood. Her teacher and the juvenile justice system marked her as a discredited individual—one who could not care for herself. She was stigmatized by both her poverty and her sexuality.
The Cruz family’s story, however, is much more complicated than what the social workers recorded inside the case file. Ramona’s mother did not live with her children, but she provided them with food and rent and even attempted to discipline them. She cared for her family but could not be there with them. It is possible that she worked away from home, perhaps living with and caring for a white family. Thus, what is defined in the ACC case record as “neglect” and “sexual delinquency” could have also been narrated as a story about the inherent inequalities of racialized domestic work.
Ramona’s sense of self developed within this larger context of race, class, and sexuality. Within her family, she had some measure of authority. She was the older child, and it was her job to care for her little sister. This was an enormous responsibility. She had to get herself and her sister to school, figure out what they would eat, and try to keep the apartment clean. Ramona may not have taken on this role willingly nor taken her responsibilities seriously. After all, she skipped school, and the home was “untidy.” But at the same time, it appears that Ramona put at least some effort into her role as the family nurturer. She and her sister were enrolled in school, their absence was noted, and Ramona attempted to delegate chores to her younger sister. Ramona’s subjectivity probably fluctuated—in her life she was somewhere between a child and a woman on her own. She lived her life in this middle (p.153) space, between a caretaker with all the responsibility and a dependent who needed help from others. If she did see herself as some type of caretaker, being sent to the House of the Good Shepherd was a sign that she had failed in that role for herself and for her sister. Now, she would be taken care of and watched over by the Sisters, while her sister would be outside of her reach.
What is clear from the record is that Ramona was largely alone. Her father and mother were gone. Ramona most likely came to understand her role as a black woman in society through this lens. Not only did the absence of caretaking affect Ramona’s sense of self, so too did violence. Her mother’s discipline was harsh. Ramona passed on this discipline to her little sister. Perhaps Ramona found her solace and pleasure in her relationship with her boyfriend. But the confluence of Ramona Cruz’s race, class, and sexuality in Jim Crow New Orleans led her to the doors of the House of the Good Shepherd.
Dorothy Jackson: Race, Intraracial Crime, and Jim Crow Justice
Dorothy Jackson, a black sixteen-year-old, lived in uptown New Orleans with her eight siblings, mother, and father. Dorothy’s father would beat her, tie her to a bed, and threaten to kill her. In June 1946, Dorothy ran away from home. Angered, her father, Arnold Jackson, searched for her. He carefully watched the home of twenty-six-year-old Ione Washington, who lived only a mile and half from their house. Jackson believed his daughter was hiding at Washington’s home because her brother, who served in the military, and his daughter were friends. After observing the home from afar but without a sighting of his daughter, Jackson began questioning the women inside: Ione Washington and her nineteen-year-old sister Lillian Washington. The sisters claimed they did not know where Dorothy had gone. Infuriated, Jackson shot and killed Ione Washington and critically injured Lillian. After three days on the run, Jackson surrendered to the police. With plenty of witnesses and evidence, the assistant district attorney Guy Johnson believed not only would Jackson be found guilty but that the city could also seek the death penalty.54
The Louisiana Weekly closely followed the sensationalized courtroom drama. The police located the state’s star witness, Dorothy Jackson, just before the trial began. The Weekly wrote, “Miss Jackson, a pretty sixteen-year-old, testified on the stand that she loved her father although she admitted that he had threatened to kill her.”55 In addition to Dorothy’s appearance in court, the judge also ordered the all-white jury to the scene of the crime in the uptown neighborhood.
(p.154) Despite the seemingly insurmountable evidence, Arnold Jackson was acquitted. The Weekly noted this injustice a year later: “A year ago the name of Arnold Jackson was on the lips of every Negro in New Orleans and most fair minded whites of the city.”56 Once Jackson was released from jail, the authorities picked up Dorothy Jackson for “relationships unbecoming to a girl of her age with the opposite sex.”57 She was sent to the House of the Good Shepherd.
Dorothy Jackson’s story highlights the indifference of the white justice system; it did not protect black women and girls from abusive fathers and husbands. Arnold Jackson, who beat his children and murdered a black woman in cold blood, was released from jail. Those in the black community in New Orleans complained that they did not receive proper protection from the police or from the courts. Intraracial crime plagued the black community just as interracial crime did. In January 1949, the Louisiana Weekly published a cartoon, labeled “A Gentleman’s Agreement,” illustrating this problem with the justice system (Figure 5.1). A black man who had killed other black citizens stands before the Jim Crow court begging for mercy. The cartoon features the Grim Reaper whispering, “Let him go, he’ll kill more for us ‘cause he knows we won’t punish him” to a white male judge symbolizing the “Southern Courts.” The cartoon represented white supremacy’s hold on the state governing system. White jurors and courts rendered black lives and suffering unimportant.
The inefficiency of the Jim Crow justice system comes to light when we ask, as the Weekly did in 1947, “What’s become of Arnold Jackson and trial for attempted murder?” Not only was he released by 1947, as the Louisiana Weekly reported, he also continued to wreak havoc on his family. Tragically, nearly five years after Ione Washington’s death, Arnold Jackson killed again. In June 1951, his “common law” wife left him. Enraged, Jackson hacked her head and arms with a meat cleaver, killing her instantly. He then set her home afire. The fire not only seriously burned his three young step-grandchildren but also led to Arnold Jackson’s own death. At the hospital he admitted to the murders and also implicated himself in the murder of a previous girlfriend.58
But what became of Dorothy Jackson? Her life after her father’s earlier acquittal is not recorded in any of the newspaper accounts. However, we do know that she was sent to the House of the Good Shepherd shortly after his release. Perhaps her fate was not accidental—the convent’s high walls not only kept “delinquent” girls inside but also worked to keep abusive men like (p.155)
Arnold Jackson out. Indeed, Dorothy Jackson’s stay at the convent opens the question of how such a place could become a refuge for girls who had run away from home looking for safety. The convent’s seclusion, high walls, and all-female space made it the safest space for girls who had been abused by the men in their lives, especially given that the Jim Crow court system would not protect black girls. Arnold Jackson shot two black women looking for his daughter, but he could not challenge the authority of the white nuns protecting Dorothy after he was released from jail. Still, the police may have sent Dorothy Jackson to the convent for reasons other than protection from her father. A stay at the House of the Good Shepherd, no matter what the reason, would be deeply discrediting to Dorothy’s reputation. Furthermore, the newspaper reported that she had engaged in “relationships unbecoming of a girl her age.” Readers of the Louisiana Weekly could (p.156) easily identify Dorothy Jackson as a sexually delinquent young woman with a deranged father.
Like Dorothy Jackson, many of the girls held within the walls of the convent had lived in poverty and experienced sexual or physical abuse at the hands of family members or friends. The Sisters often noted if the wards came from “immoral” or even dangerous home environments.59 Brenda, a white ward, for example, lived in “deplorable” conditions. Her mother left her father and her eight siblings in a single-room apartment. Brenda blamed her mother for leaving and for (unnamed) “sordid” experiences. Because of these experiences, “she was very definitely in need of the protection … which the Convent could give her.”60 A black ward, Viola, was placed in the convent after being picked up by the police for stealing; her case was connected to a “carnal knowledge” charge against two men with whom she was arrested.61 In another case, a sixteen-year-old “begged” the judge to commit her to the convent for at least one year. Not only did she have a venereal disease, but her case also included a carnal knowledge charge against an older man who lived in her home.62 And, a black eleven-year-old who was raped by her grandmother’s white employer was arrested and sent to House of the Good Shepherd. The Weekly reported that “they subjected the young miss” to an “examination which revealed” that she had venereal disease.63 It is clear that the Sisters of the Good Shepherd saw themselves as these girls’ protectors. However, it is not clear to what extent the Sisters blamed the girls themselves for their experience with sexual or physical abuse, nor is it clear how they navigated the injustices of the Jim Crow judicial system.
Dorothy Jackson’s subjectivity developed within a culture of violence. Not only did she contend with Jim Crow violence, but she also had to face her father’s wrath. Surely, her relationship with her father was complex. She expressed love for him on the witness stand, but she also ran away from him to save her life. The documents that shed light on Dorothy’s life do not come from her point of view; her life is recorded only briefly in newspaper articles and glossed over in police records. But it is clear that the sixteen-year-old had multilayered experiences in relation to her physical body. As a child and teenager she suffered severe physical abuse. At the same time, she found support and possibly love from the Washington family and from an older boyfriend. Although she may have enjoyed physical pleasure with her boyfriend, Dorothy Jackson was then sent to the House of the Good Shepherd, where she would have learned new lessons about her body, morality, and self-restraint. These contradictory experiences (p.157) around her body must have led to a sense of self defined by the embodiment of paradoxical feelings of pleasure and pain.
Vivian Thomas: Youth, Punishment, and Interracial Mixing
Although many girls who ended up in the House of the Good Shepherd struggled with poverty and domestic violence, some girls sent to the convent came from the black middle class or striving class—as did fifteen-year-old Vivian Thomas. On Saturday, February 5, 1949, a large group of college students gathered for a party at the home of a local New Orleans resident on Orleans Street in the French Quarter. Students wandered in and out of the party. They drank soda and beer and ate hot dogs while listening to a singer performing ballads. The students chatted with one another; some danced. None of this was unusual. Social gatherings in the French Quarter on a Saturday night were common. What made this particular party noteworthy, however, was the presence of students from the local white colleges, Tulane University and Newcomb College (the coordinate women’s college of Tulane), along with students from the local black colleges, Dillard and Xavier Universities.64 The party on Orleans Street disrupted New Orleans’ Jim Crow politics of space. The ethic of segregation insisted that “nice” young white men and women, like those attending Tulane and Newcomb, abide by the rules of racial separation.
Orleans Street in the French Quarter represented a “front of town” area, where mostly whites lived. The neighborhood where the interracial party was held was less than 10 percent black (but down the street from St. Mary’s Academy).65 Indeed, as the party progressed, a white neighbor noticed black men entering the house. Alarmed, he called the police. Later, he testified, “The laughter of Negroes is louder than the laughter of other people, and that made the party disturbing.”66 The neighbor provocatively suggested that “such goings on” happened every night.67 After a series of harassing visits by the local police, sixty-four people were arrested.
Although many in attendance were college students, the people arrested ranged in age from fifteen to thirty-three. Those over eighteen years old were sent to jail, found guilty of “disturbing the peace,” and fined five dollars or five days in jail. Meanwhile, the only juvenile picked up at the party was a fifteen-year-old black teenager, Vivian Thomas. Vivian was sent to the House of the Good Shepherd.
Students in the New Orleans Young Progressives (sometimes referred to as Young Progressives of America), a former subsidiary of the Progressive Party, had hosted the interracial party. The Progressive Party had supported (p.158) Henry Wallace, a socialist, for president in 1948, and Young Progressives across the country in the late 1940s organized around issues of racial equality and interracial unity.68 The local narratives of the New Orleans party and subsequent arrests intertwined the issue of improper racial mixing with suspected communism. One newspaper informant, a sociology student who was purportedly only “observing” the party, suggested that the other students in attendance were “definitely pink bordering on the red side.” The white newspaper quickly pointed out in the subheading to its article that the party was “sponsored by junior size Wallace organization.”69
Of the people arrested, twenty-two were white students from Tulane University or Newcomb College, and twelve were black college students from Xavier and Dillard Universities (but there were also housewives, and two “maids” nineteen and twenty-two years old).70 The investigation by Tulane’s administration into the interracial gathering found that although there were “idealist” students attending, it was not hosted by or associated with the Communist Party.71
From the beginning, the police did not emphasize the students’ politics or their “outsider” status. The lawyers for the students noted that when the police first responded to the prying neighbor’s phone call, they entered the party saying, “Who are these n——gg——rs? [sic] Were they invited here?” They also taunted, “You ain’t got no civil rights here yet. It’s against the law to have a mixed party. Break it up.”72 Clearly, the police were less interested in the political leanings of the students than in their use of space. The students responded to the police by insisting on their right to hold the party. And, indeed, New Orleans statutes did not prevent their gathering. The youth of the Young Progressives deliberately reworked the segregated space of New Orleans in order to challenge the intertwined raced, gendered, and classed politics of the Jim Crow order. By holding the party in the apartment of a white student who lived in a “front of town” neighborhood, the Young Progressives were taunting the Jim Crow order of New Orleans. A similar party in the home of a black (or white) student living in the Treme, for example, might not have attracted such notice.
After returning to the party several times to harass the students, the police finally rounded up all the attendees, separated the men from the women, searched the partygoers for weapons, and took them to the local jail. The racial slurs and insults continued after the arrests. As the police threw the black women into a cell, one said, “If I had a five gallon can of gasoline, I’d throw it in the cell and burn up all them n—gg—rs.” One cop accosted a white female student with, “What’s a nice girl like you doing at a party with n—gg—rs?”73 By recognizing her as a “nice girl” he was recognizing her place in New Orleans society rather than coloring her as an (p.159) “outside element” or a lower-class white New Orleanian. The students were then ushered to night court, where a marathon session relayed the details of the party and the students’ transgressions of Jim Crow ethics.74 According to the students’ attorney, one officer’s very first statement to the court was, “When I walked into the apartment, I saw negro men and white women dancing.” The students’ attorney argued that he said this “in a loud voice, so that everyone in the courtroom would be sure to hear.”75
The insinuation by the police, of course, was that more than just “partying” was going on at the interracial gathering. The police wanted to draw attention to improper sexuality activity. According to the local black newspaper, the Louisiana Weekly, the police officer testified that he did not want the judge to ask probing questions because “he did not wish to embarrass anyone by having to state exactly what they were doing.”76 The police officer thus suggested that the students were engaged in interracial sexual activities. Their presence at the party, together, was insinuation enough for those southerners who equated interracialism with amalgamation.77 After further questioning, the police officer could not recall any one person who was not “dancing, talking or merely walking through the house.” But to further discredit those in attendance, the officer consistently referred to the black young women and men as “niggers.”78
Vivian Thomas had attended the party with her parents. After her arrest, the police department released her to go home while her parents remained in custody. According to lawyers’ documents, the police officers assigned to take her home decided instead to send her to the House of the Good Shepherd. By placing Vivian in the House of the Good Shepherd, the police were sending a message. And if the Sisters followed procedure, Vivian would have been given an invasive “medical exam” on entrance to find out if she was “sexually delinquent.” Because the police insinuated to the court that the partygoers were engaging in immoral and “embarrassing” activities, it is logical to assume that they told this to the Sisters as well. Yet, we cannot know how the nuns balanced their calling to work with wayward girls with the pressures put on them by local police to help control behavior disruptive to the Jim Crow order.79 Whether or not the Sisters fully cooperated, the police’s decision to send Vivian Thomas to the House of the Good Shepherd demonstrates how municipal authority used the convent to control girls and uphold segregation. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall—a student activist in the Young Progressives—could not remember Vivian Thomas as she thought about the incident over sixty years later, but she recalled, “All [young] girls were terrified by threats that they would be sent there.”80
(p.160) In the confrontation between the Young Progressives and police, Vivian Thomas developed a political subjectivity. In her activism, she may have seen herself as an active agent in the fight for racial equality. At the same time, however, she experienced state authority: local law enforcement had the power to police and control her body. The police determined, in part, how Vivian would interact in the space of the Jim Crow city. But they also had the ability to police the more intimate spaces of her body: the medical exam at the House of the Good Shepherd represented a form of state violence.
Vivian, unlike Ramona Cruz, was from a middle-class family and had a community of support. Her attendance at a party organized by college students heavily interested in politics (and attended by middle-class African Americans) suggests that she was in the “aspiring class” of black Americans that looked upon education as a means to bettering one’s position in society and as a way to help strengthen the race as a whole. Indeed, Vivian Thomas would later graduate from high school and attend Xavier University. The House of the Good Shepherd, then, took in girls from all classes, even if they more routinely worked with girls from the working class. Vivian’s story complicates the Sisters’ work, showing that they not only dealt with girls who were defined as delinquent because of poverty, sexuality, and abuse but also worked with girls who were deemed delinquent because they were a political threat to the Jim Crow order.
Bad Girls Made New: Catholicism and Life inside the Convent
Once a girl entered their walls, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd worked to rehabilitate her. The nuns tried to turn stigmatized girls into pious, solemn women who could become housewives, mothers, and nurturers. The House of the Good Shepherd used institutional and municipal authority in fashioning selves. Moral weakness, the stigma sign of entering girls, was deemed a problem of the inner self—the soul. Therefore, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd attempted to teach what we might call a Christian—or more specifically, a Catholic—subjectivity.81 The Sisters controlled the wards by rewriting their past, remaking their bodies, encouraging confession, and providing penance. Ideally, this remade Christian subject canceled out the evils of juvenile delinquency. It is impossible to know if the Sisters “successfully” turned the wards into Catholic subjects or how (and to what extent) girls resisted the changes in self sought by the nuns. However, investigating the Sisters’ methods provides a picture of how the House of the Good (p.161) Shepherd contained and monitored the sexualities and bodies of the wards in their care.
Girls of all religions were committed to the convent, either by parents or the courts, and entered with their own religious histories. By 1940, nearly one-third of the black population in New Orleans was Catholic.82 Unlike black Protestant girls, black Catholic girls placed in the House of the Good Shepherd were familiar with Catholic doctrine, rituals, and white Catholic authority figures. They knew what it meant to be a subject of religious authority and had a familiarity with Catholic discourses of sin and sexuality. Nuns, for example, taught girls who were educated in Catholic schools; both white and black nuns taught black children in New Orleans, depending on the school. In her memoir, A Light Will Rise in Darkness: Growing Up Black and Catholic in New Orleans, Jo Anne Tardy writes about life as a black Catholic girl in the 1940s. She remembers cleaning the nunnery for the Sisters of the Holy Family, a black order of nuns. Inside hung a series of photographs, including pictures of the Holy Family founder, Henriette Delille; Pope Pius XII; and “the ubiquitous image of the current Archbishop of New Orleans, Joseph Francis Rummel.”83 The images of white father figures reinforced for black Catholic girls a church hierarchy while simultaneously teaching a lesson about race.84 All whites were not to be feared—some looked over you, although with a judging eye, and as confessors, others held your deepest secrets. After all, black Catholic girls had regular interactions with the white priests in their parish.85
Jo Anne Tardy fondly remembered Father Walsh, the priest who had taught her catechism and heard her confessions. The moral training she received from him reached farther than the church building. While Tardy was in junior high school, the priest stopped Jo Anne and her friend while they were crossing the street, headed for a group of older kids. Father Walsh said to them, “Don’t go over there, Jo Anne…. Don’t associate with trash. Stay over here. They don’t care anything about their immortal souls!”86 Jo Anne then realized the older teens were taking turns making out. Father Walsh’s presence in Jo Anne Tardy’s coming-of-age story signals the interrelatedness of Catholic doctrine, white father figures, and lessons about sexuality for the girls who grew up in the city. At that moment, Father Walsh taught an important lesson about improper sexuality, sin, and one’s soul—a lesson she never forgot.
Thus, black Catholic girls knew, perhaps better than their Protestant counterparts, what to expect from the religious training offered by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. At the same time, however, New Orleans was a (p.162) Catholic city. Black girls of all religions knew enough to fear the House of the Good Shepherd. And black Protestants engaged in some Catholic rituals and celebrated Catholic holidays. Millie McClellan Charles explained, “Our lives were dominated by the Catholic religion, even though we were Protestant.”87 Nonetheless, the New Orleans black community was divided along the lines of religion: some black New Orleanians even claimed that black Catholic girls were less likely to befriend black Protestant girls.88 Yet once inside the House of the Good Shepherd, Protestant and Catholic girls found themselves living, learning, working, and worshiping together.
To affect a Catholic subjectivity, the first step of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd was to throw away the ward’s past and then renew her—just as nuns did when entering the convent. This helped the girls forge new identities inside the walls of the home. The Sisters advised the delinquent girl to “keep the story of her former life secret, telling it only to the mother in charge who [would] guide, direct and console her.”89 The original purpose of this secrecy was to protect the identity of the wayward girl, so that the outside world might never know she had been a ward of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd—itself a stigma and mark of sin.90 But refusing to allow the past to enter the walls of the convent also created a space of rebirth; girls could become whomever they chose. The girls’ identities were also “thoroughly protected” by their new religious name—“such as ‘Catherine’ or ‘Mary’ ”—thereby protecting the family name and the ward’s future. No one inside of the convent, except the Mother Superior and the particular Sister charged with a girl’s care, would know the young woman’s birth name.91 In the process of renaming, a girl received the opportunity to construct and enact a completely new self.92
Not only were girls given new names, but all of the wards of the Good Shepherd were called “children” by the nuns, regardless of religion or age (the girls ranged in age from eight to eighteen, though the majority were in their teens).93 The wards clearly became children of God; they were now hailed as religious subjects. At the same time, the Sisters became the parental authority. Notably, the ideal child’s body, particularly in the Bible, was represented as free from sin.94 By setting up a new system of identification, the girls were radically introduced to their new environment. Nearly everything in the atmosphere worked to set up an entirely new “system of meaning, hence a wholly different speaking subject.”95
Despite this new Catholic subject, one element of the girls’ former selves was preserved within the walls of the convent: race. An article in the Catholic Louisiana noted, “For wise reasons the Convent is divided into sections (p.163) according to the different classes of those who live therein.”96 Though the Sisters had little extra space, the convent was divided strictly—not by class, as the Catholic Louisiana neatly phrased it, but by race on the one hand and by level of sin on the other.97 White girls did not live, play, work, or worship beside black girls.
Sociologist and Protestant reverend Edward Coogan’s 1954 study of Houses of the Good Shepherd located across the country underscored the importance of religious pedagogy in remaking sinful girls anew. In preparing his study, he wrote to juvenile courts that dealt specifically with the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. He asked if the homes’ efforts were “helpful at all.” Judge John Wingrave from the New Orleans juvenile court replied, “In ninety-five percent of these cases the Sisters [in New Orleans] are able to work wonders with these girls, because of religious training and the general spiritual atmosphere.”98 The moral pedagogy of the convent created the “spiritual atmosphere” and relied on several factors: a notion of the body that placed sin in the flesh, spatial isolation that would help keep the girls from returning to sin, confession, and feminine notions of hard work. These aspects of the “spiritual atmosphere” attempted to refashion girls into Catholic subjects.
Because the Sisters knew, upon entrance, if girls were “sexually delinquent”—or more precisely, “sexually active,” since the two were conflated according to Catholic doctrine—they worked to rid the wards of the sins of the flesh.99 Sisters of the Good Shepherd tried to help the girls repress sinful actions and desires and become bodies without sin. To do this, the Sisters created a safe and sacred space: the imposing walls of the convent separated the corrupt from the pious. But it was not just a matter of keeping sin outside—the nuns need to keep temptation at bay.
For that reason, the “spiritual atmosphere” of the House of the Good Shepherd began with the physical space of the convent. The spatial seclusion protected girls’ moral safety from the sexualized public space of the vicious city and violent world. By barricading girls off from the world, the Sisters hoped to keep temptation out. The interior was simply adorned, as were the girls themselves. The space of the inside was purified from the excess of the world: there were no extra books, magazines, newspapers, or movies that might distract a ward’s attention from purity. Sister Mary Bernard explained: “We do not allow [the wards] to read anything of loose moral or crime, but all current news and any other article of interest is always cut out and put on their bulletin board. With regard to magazines, besides many fine Catholic magazines they have American Girl, Southern Agriculture, Current Science, Modern (p.164) Mechanix, Popular Science, and others, but Life and other sensational books are forbidden.”100 The Sisters controlled the discourses that entered the walls of the convent. The bulletin board told the girls what they needed to know of the world—presumably this excluded stories of racial violence (as it excluded crime as a rule), war, poverty, and probably anything from the world with which girls like Ramona Cruz or Dorothy Jackson were familiar.
Before girls could refashion a new self, they had to account for their sinful self. Despite being told to hide their past from their peers, the convent provided girls with the opportunity to confess their sins either to the Sister in charge of them, to a counselor, or to a priest.101 Some girls may have taken this act of confession seriously, while others may have refused to speak or fabricated narratives of their past “misdeeds.” Honest, silent, or fictionalized confessions will never be found in the archive. Nonetheless, the Sisters treated the act of confession seriously, as an important moment in the ward’s refashioning. In preparation for confessing their “misdeeds” of the past, girls of the Good Shepherd were told, “‘Look into your hearts, but with cheerful eyes.’ Even a misspent past has its uses.”102 The Sisters compelled the girls to speak—to say something. Especially when confessing to a priest, such a speech act brought the most intimate matters of a girl’s past into the hands and judgment of another. Such an act (even when falsified or refused) laid bare something of a ward’s interior self.103
Confessing sins of the flesh was especially important for affecting a Catholic subjectivity.104 Black Creole Aline St. Julien grew up in a New Orleans household steeped in Catholic culture. Thinking back to the ritual of confession, she recalled the emphasis on impurity in the confessional as a girl:
I was so scrupulous, so not only was I going to confession telling my sins, which I thought were sins, they weren’t even sins. Everything was a sin in those days, girl. I was confessing things like stealing a piece of meat out of my mama’s red beans…. And, oh Lord, if you did a little sin of impurity! If I’d say, “We’d be looking at each other’s breasts” or … “I was in the bathroom pasting a lemon peel on my little nipples,” I’d have to go tell [the priest] everything. It had gotten to a point where I think I was a little too scrupulous.105
The practice of confession, even for a “nice girl” like St. Julien, depended on speaking of sin. And the very act of confession created a “scrupulous” way of interpreting one’s actions and one’s self. Eileen M. Julien told a similar story about “sins of impurity” in her memoir, Travels with Mae. One evening she saw her cousin Connie, two years her elder, nude. Eileen Julien remembered, (p.165) “I noticed these little buds on her chest. My eyes got big and I said, ‘Connie, can I touch them?’ She said, ‘Sure, Leanie.’ So I felt the bumps—soft and contoured.”106 Realizing that she was guilty of “the sin of touching,” young Eileen “prayed that I would not die before getting to confession.” Eileen Julien interpreted her actions in the same “scrupulous” manner as Aline St. Julien. She was “panicked” and understood immorality and morality through a Catholic lens. This scrupulous way of interpreting her own actions sexualized play between herself and her cousin. Eileen Julien remembered that at confession, the priest “asked who did the touching. When I said I had, he asked how long it had lasted. I replayed the episode in my mind and estimated perhaps five seconds. With three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys, I was free to go and sin no more!”107
Confession controlled not only Eileen Julien and Aline St. Julien’s actions but also the way they came to understand themselves in relation to sin and sexuality as girls. Catholic subjects (like Julien and St. Julien) confessed “freely”; they felt compelled to speak of their sexuality to a priest. So, for a black girl coming into the House of the Good Shepherd, the act of confession asked her to speak of herself as a sinner, reinterpreting her life as a religious subject even while segregation had taught her to see herself as a “colored” New Orleanian. No matter what their past had been, girls of the Good Shepherd were advised by the Sisters and priests to continue to do their “best.” Once they had confessed the ways of their sin, they were to “treat the past as dead.”108 In this way, the Sisters, the priest, and God were to be directors of a girl’s changed self, reinforcing the hierarchal authority of the delinquency home.
Because so many girls sent to the House of the Good Shepherd by the courts grew up around “immorality,” the sisters believed they needed to teach and reform the girls’ internal sense of decency and propriety. They concluded that girls needed to be “re-educated” in family life because they did not fully understand the value and virtue of domestic industry.109 Thus, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd turned to lessons in proper feminine industry as a cure for the sins of the flesh. In this atmosphere, black girls who became “reformed” had to sublimate bodily desires through hard work and simplicity. A clean and proper domestic space renewed and cleansed the spirit, and the Sisters used their authority over the girls to exhibit a work ethic that relied on focus, hard work, and feminine duty.
Therefore, wards of the Good Shepherd of all colors were expected to work hard. Wards of compulsory schooling age received educational instruction for four hours a day.110 Additionally, the girls were taught how to properly be a woman. They learned how to cook, sew, and nurse as part of (p.166) their “vocational” training. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd believed that a reformed girl would go on to be a mother and nurturer, passing on what she learned at the convent to her own children, or in black girls’ cases, to the white children they cared for. In 1937 the convent allowed an “intimate view” of life inside the convent to a writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The ACC let the female author interview one (presumably white) ward. The sentimental article extolled the “kindness and devotion of the sisters who take such a bruised reed, mend its soul and body and prepare it as best they can to meet the new stresses of life when again the girl issues forth and takes her place in society.”111
To be in their proper “place” in society, young women had to be “useful.” Ideally, girls’ stay at the convent would turn them into valuable women—women who could cook, clean, and take care of a home. If the Sisters could mold wayward girls’ bodies into useful bodies, then they could claim the successes of their reformation project. For example, in the 1920s an author for the Catholic Louisiana made such a claim about the convent’s value:
Since the opening in 1859, over 20,000 have been received and sheltered in the Fold. Of those who have returned to their homes, thousands have become useful, honored members of society. There are homes in every section of the country where mothers are teaching their little ones lessons they learned while under the care of the Good Shepherd. Everything possible is done to improve this condition so that they will be better equipped to make their living after leaving the Convent. Plain and fancy sewing, shirt and umbrella making and laundry work: each girl spends a part of the day in one of these departments besides the household duties which are assigned for their instruction.112
The Sisters, then, had a deep commitment to teaching proper femininity.
Of course, there were different standards of “use” for black and white girls in the Jim Crow South. Most jobs were not open to black women in New Orleans. Black women could work as domestics in homes or companies; as laundresses or seamstresses; or in restaurants. The black girls at the convent, then, worked in only one capacity: as domestics for the convent.113 They were expected to clean the “colored” wing, the visiting and common areas, and the nuns’ buildings. The designation of “useful” also worked against what both white and black girls were before they came to the convent: wayward and, thus, worthless. At their entrance to the House of the Good Shepherd, they were the antithesis of “nice girls.”
A series of photographs taken in the 1950s demonstrates the ways in which the Sisters of the Good Shepherd worked to present “useful,” pious girls to the New Orleans community. In 1955 the Sisters decided they needed a new building to better care for the girls, to update their methods, and to respond to the concerns addressed by local juvenile court judges. To help raise donations, articles were published about the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in local newspapers, and they printed their own materials explaining their work. As part of this broad advertising campaign, the House of the Good Shepherd allowed a photographer inside the convent to capture the images of a handful of girls, both black and white, to prove the civic good done by the house. This small collection of photographs, then, shows the girls in their supposed daily life and claims to offer a glimpse into the inner world of the convent (see Figures 5.2, 5.3, and 5.4). Most of the photographs were never published, and as we will see, the Sisters chose carefully how to present their work to the public.
As narratives, the photographs work to demonstrate the “truth” of the interior of the House of the Good Shepherd. But the images also obscure as much as they reveal because photographs are coercive. Images perform effective ideological work: social categories such as race, class, gender, and sexuality appear natural, and the photograph becomes evidence for the stability of these categories.114 As the image is put forth as evidence, “the institutions of production, circulation, and reception of photographs effectively discourage inquiry into how things got to be the way they appear.”115 With very little background information on the scenes shown in the photographs or the girls who sat for them, how, then, should we approach the photographs of the House of the Good Shepherd? (p.168)
Some of the photographs appeared in a pamphlet produced by the ACC to raise funds for the new building. Next to a series of four photographs, the pamphlet included large letters floating on the page:
- Awaits new Hope …
- for those in need of guidance, re-education and training
- for self-supporting
- family and community living117
The four images on the page included white girls in a chemistry class (with a Sister in a habit instructing them), white girls sewing or ironing a garment (with what looks to be an instructor overseeing their progress), three white girls cooking, and three black girls in the sickroom (with a white nurse). Save for the chemistry class, the photos are all domestic images: they emphasize both the “family” atmosphere and the “community living” within the convent. And just like the quotation that accompanies them, the images stress that the convent is a space of instruction—a learning environment where girls are “re-educated.” Therefore, the images neatly pair domesticity with education. By drawing on viewers’ notions of proper gender roles, all (p.169)
The girls in Figure 5.4, for example, appear to be learning how to care for a sick loved one. With the dark background and light on the starkly white sickbed, the girl being cared for appears to be undergoing some sort of religious transformation. The girls photographed play the role of nurturer (rather than being nurtured or punished, which is why they ended up in the convent in the first place). It is clear, however, that this is only a learning environment. Each person in the photograph has a pleasant look on her face. The instructor is smiling broadly, and the “infirm” agreeably allowed a photograph to be taken of her. This type of training would be useful in a family setting or in working as a caregiver for a white family. Although they are playing at nurse, it is unclear if this photograph was actually taken in the infirmary. The large number of beds suggests instead that it is the black girls’ dormitory. A series of dresses is barely visible in the periphery of the photograph—perhaps the wardrobe for the black wards.
This photograph is meant to give an inside peek at the living quarters for the white wards of the Good Shepherd. Smiling white girls line up to have their image shot. They all wear matching white dresses and have simple curled hairstyles; all look at the camera. The beds are neatly made and the room is plain, although it has drapes with flowers. In comparison to the infirmary, the scene comes across as much more intimate and warm. Although the beds and the bedframes are identical to the infirmary beds, the comforters in the dormitory are decorated with patterns and flowers. The intimacy of the photo charms the viewer into believing that this feminine, indeed girlish, space is where delinquent children are sent to live. The room is not presented as a space in which young women were unwillingly confined or imprisoned.
The photograph tells the viewers that the girls of the House of the Good Shepherd are happily domesticated. They sit, feminine and proper, with legs crossed and folded in their conservative and unadorned dresses. Although the girls recline across beds, the scene is not sexual. The simple mode of dress and hair inside the bare room purifies the space. These girls are not a sexual threat to the social order; they are happily plain and properly feminine. Yet this is also the only photograph in which the girls are not doing anything, are not in the act of learning, exercising or working. There is no (p.171) parallel photograph of black girls sitting happily, presenting their femininity or at leisure in their beds, perhaps because a “useful” black woman would not be at leisure in this way. However, in the larger collection taken by the photographer, but not included in the ACC pamphlet, there is a photograph of black girls in “dance class”—according to the archival record. The girls seem to be learning how to perform a respectable feminine posture, with arms daintily raised and necks long and elegant (Figure 5.2).
The plain adornment and identical hairstyles are common elements throughout the Good Shepherd photographic archive. Both suggest that once inside the convent, the girls’ individuality was forsaken for a communal identity. The girls’ new clothing redefined who they were, replacing the old self and wardrobe. But instead of wearing white dresses, as the white wards are, the black girls appear in the photographs in dark-colored dresses. The color difference clearly marks the girls’ racial difference for the viewer. The difference in dresses suggests that black wards were, at least symbolically if not actually, treated differently from the white wards. And, in a photograph showing the black wards in class, the girls sit with their hair pulled back in indistinguishable braids.
The building fund pamphlet explained that girls received the benefits of a “thorough educational program.”118 In an earlier set of promotional materials, the convent explained that “the Girls of school age attend school four hours daily. This is compulsory. Classes also are held for girls over school age who are defective or whose early education was neglected, and who may wish to avail themselves of this opportunity.”119 The photograph of black girls in class is meant to demonstrate the education they receive. Yet again, the photograph was staged. A close-up of the photograph reveals that the girls’ books are open to different pages, and the student writing on the board wrote nothing at all.
“The secret of the success of the Sisters in their efforts to reform those under their care,” argued a 1909 description of the House of the Good Shepherd, “is industry. From the superior to the smallest child there is no one idle; the sisters set the example and in the kitchen, laundry, sewing and class rooms are always in attendance watching over and directing every employment.”120 The photographs from the 1955 archive reinforced the notion that industry, particularly feminine industry, was the cornerstone of the Sisters’ rehabilitative work. The tasks performed in the photographs seemed not to matter much in and of themselves; instead, it was working that was important. In all the photographs (except the white girls’ dormitory), the girls are at work, in action, are doing something. A photograph of black girls in (p.172) sewing class demonstrates the notion of industry the archive attempts to propagate (Figure 5.3). Every single girl in the frame is busy; none look up at the camera. By setting the photograph in a seeming “learning” environment (just as a similar photograph with white girls does), the archive obscures the white girls’ daily work in the convent’s laundry that helped to raise money and paid for upkeep of the facilities; the archive also hides the work of the black girls as domestics for the convent. The “industry,” described in 1909, remained literal—girls continued to work hard as laborers for the convent at the start of the 1950s as well. Their work helped provide their food and shelter. This type of work was not for the sake of education but for the sake of diligence and penance.
Throughout this photographic archive, the convent is a place of performance. Indeed, performance for the Sisters was a thing of healing power. If we think of the work the girls did not only as education, as the Sisters attempted to present it in the 1955 pamphlet, but also as penance, as they suggested in earlier material, then the compulsive need for “industry” and “work” was a religious necessity. For penance, it did not matter what type of work the girls learned or did; the emphasis was on the doing, the performing of physical labor, not on the final product of that labor.
The complex relationship between work as penance and work as education is highlighted in a photograph titled “Convent of the Good Shepherd Kitchen.” The girls appear to be practicing proper kitchen techniques for baking and setting the perfect table for a family meal. Such a session represented an educational lesson in femininity and simultaneously a lesson in the proper role for black women in a Jim Crow economy—a lesson the girls appear happy to learn, with their large smiles. However, a close-up of the photograph reveals that there is nothing inside any of the bowls, in the oven, or on the table. In fact, there is not any food or edible product (such as flour) out at all. Just like the shot of the girls in the classroom, the photograph was staged. If the girls were working merely for penance, the emphasis would not be on aesthetics, such as on the proper look of the table; instead, it would be on the labor put into cooking the meal.
In creating an intimate knowledge of life behind the convent walls, the images worked to give the citizens of New Orleans—possible donors to the convent’s cause—an ideal world of the life of a ward of the Good Shepherd. The images of reformation were not violent, coercive, or even policed, beyond the presence of a benevolent (usually lay) instructor. The photos displayed no resistance from the wards. Girls were not shown as imprisoned inside or kept against their own will nor do they show parents or family (p.173) members. According to the photographs, everything came easy and neat for the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.
GIRLS WHO GREW UP in New Orleans knew about the House of the Good Shepherd. Many were afraid that if they acted badly enough or were caught in inappropriate relationships, they would be sent there and become stuck behind the walls. Although the records of the House of the Good Shepherd are limited in what they reveal, they do help us reconstruct the intersection of race, stigma, and sexuality in Jim Crow New Orleans. “Sexually delinquent” girls at the convent were accused not only of having acted immorally but also of having both diseased and criminal bodies. By linking girls’ sexuality to criminality, the convent and city turned “guilty” girls into stigmatized bodies that wore their sin.
Many of the girls sent to the House of the Good Shepherd were victims of sexual and domestic abuse. And many of these “bad” girls were really just girls who had faced the difficulties of growing up in poverty in New Orleans. Some of the black girls sent to the House of the Good Shepherd had simply been in search of pleasure—attempting to find some balm to protect them from the harshness of life. But they found their bodies regulated by the state or by their families because this pleasure was stigmatized and considered illicit. The next chapter explores in more detail where girls might go to find pleasure within the boundaries of respectability.
(5.) American Youth Commission, “A Proposal for a Study of Negro Youth,” October 1936, 1, 3, American Council on Education, Hoover Institute, Stanford University (hereafter ACE).
(6.) American Youth Commission, “Activities of the American Youth Commission,” October 12, 1936, 1, ACE.
(7.) Allison Davis, “Comments on Criticisms of Davis-Dollard Typoscript Transmitted by Dr. Sutherland,” December 1939, ACE.
(8.) Robert Sutherland, “Revision of Prospects Worked Out at the Chicago Meeting of Negro Youth Study,” n.d., ACE.
(9.) Other minor studies were also published, but the NYS led to “Four Principal Reports”; see Robert Sutherland, “Report of Progress on Negro Youth Study of the American Youth Commission,” n.d., ACE. The other two published manuscripts were Frazier, Negro Youth at the Crossways; and Reid, In a Minor Key.
(12.) Not all of the children’s interviews have survived, but some can be found in the Allison Davis Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library (hereafter ADP), and others in the SCDP.
(p.231) (13.) These interviews are exceptional sources for both childhood history and African American gender history. Rarely are girls’ daily concerns so carefully recorded and preserved in the archive.
(14.) Ellen Hill, interview by Elizabeth Davis, May 2, 1938, ADP.
(15.) For important works on the subject of black women’s sexuality and respectability during the early twentieth century, see Michele Mitchell, Righteous Propagation; Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent; White, Too Heavy a Load; Gaines, Uplifting the Race; Wolcott, Remaking Respectability; Carby, “Policing the Black Woman’s Body”; Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood; duCille, Coupling Convention; Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow; and Hine, “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women.”
(18.) Beverly Carter, “I Have Always Been Influenced,” ca. 1938, SCDP.
(19.) Beverly Carter, “What Would You Do,” ca. 1938, SCDP.
(24.) On life history data presented in social worker case records, Regina Kunzel has warned that “case records often reveal as much, if not more, about those conducting the interview as they do about those interviewed.” Kunzel, “Pulp Fictions,” 1468. At the same time, Stephanie Shaw has pointed out the importance of listening to the voices of interviewees even in “flawed” conditions. On using WPA interviews, Shaw noted scholars’ hesitance to use WPA life narratives because of “concerns about the power dynamics of the interview process, the competence of the interviewers, and the advanced age of the informants that led to … discomfort with the narratives as sources. And although most scholars of slavery writing during and since … chose to use the narratives, they did point out that the documents were, in some ways, flawed.” Shaw, “Using the WPA Ex-slave Narratives,” 625, 637. For further discussions of methodological approaches to reading life narratives, see Kunzel, “Pulp Fictions,” 1468–73; Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography; Hicks, “‘Bright and Good Looking Colored Girl’ ”; and R. Williams, “I’m a Keeper of Information.”
(28.) “Allison Davis, 1902–1983,” University of Chicago Centennial Catalogues, accessed September 9, 2008. http://www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/spcl/centcat/fac/facch25_01.html.
(29.) “Guide to the Allison Davis Papers, 1932–1984: Biographical Note,” n.d., ADP.
(p.232) (37.) “Guide to John Dollard Research Papers,” n.d., John Dollard Research Files for Fear and Courage under Battle Conditions, Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.
(38.) Dollard’s method of researching racial problems in the United States came directly from this psychological approach and is clear in articles such as “Culture, Society, Impulse, and Socialization.”
(49.) Mordecai Johnson to Reeves, December 12, 1939, ACE.
(59.) Ibid., 27. They say, “There are even more puzzling aspects of Julia’s behavior than her fear of accidents, sickness and sexual attack…. [She] displays behavior which is often childlike, almost infantile.”
(60.) Jeanne Manuel, interview by Claude Haydel, August 2, 1938, ADP.
(61.) Ellen Hill, interview by Elizabeth Davis, June 7, 1938, ADP.
(68.) Elizabeth Davis, “Abstract of Interviews with Ellen Hill,” 1938, ADP.
(69.) Ellen Hill, interview by Elizabeth Davis, June 15, 1938, ADP.
(70.) “Rampart Street to Be Ghost of Days Gone,” Chicago Defender, February 28, 1953.
(71.) “New Orleans Cleans Up after Betsy,” Baltimore Afro-American, September 25, 1965.
(73.) “13-Year-Old Girl Beaten by White Grocer,” Louisiana Weekly, February 12, 1944; “Accuse Whites of Abusing Negroes in New Orleans,” Chicago Defender, March 4, 1944, national ed.
(75.) For example, see the following from the Louisiana Weekly: “Landry School Crowns Queen and King,” January 7, 1939, Society: Of Interest to Women sec.; Norman Holmes, “Cause of Doubt and Despondency and Their Dissolution: Weekly Sermon,” February 22, 1930; Nannie Burroughs, “Why Negroes Have ‘Most Nigh Ruint’ Their Dispositions,” March 1, 1930.
(77.) Michele Mitchell, Righteous Propagation, 85. On “respectability” see also Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent; White, Too Heavy a Load; Gaines, Uplifting the Race; and Wolcott, Remaking Respectability.
(79.) “Civic Bodies Raising Funds,” Louisiana Weekly, February 22, 1930. In a 2009 article, “Justice Mocked,” I argue for the need to understand the gendered dynamics of respectability as it relates to this case. For consideration of the political and civil rights ramifications of the (p.229) case, including the work of the Federation of Civic Leagues, see Coffey’s 2013 article, “State of Louisiana v. Charles Guerand.”
(80.) “Service Men Seek Freedom for Girl in LA State Pen,” Louisiana Weekly, February 24, 1945.
(84.) Du Bois was editor of the Crisis until 1934. See covers of the Crisis, 1930–45.
(85.) Ivy Lenoir, “Defending Her Honor,” Louisiana Weekly, February 22, 1930.
(86.) See “Ivy [misspelled in database as Inez] Lenoir” Year: 1940; Census Place: St. Ferdinand, St. Louis, Missouri; Roll: T627_2154; Page: 62A; Enumeration District: 95-307. Database: Ancestry.com; Ivy Anita LeNoir, Sursum Corda (Lift Up Your Hearts) (Gainesville, FL: Naylor Company, January 1, 1973); “Generous Donation,” Jet Magazine, September 27, 1999; “Our Foundress: Elise Lenoir Morris,” The Drexel Society. Accessed on November 12, 2014, http://drexelsociety.org/elise_lenoir_morris.htm.
(88.) “Cop to Die for Girl Slaying,” Chicago Defender, April 12, 1930.
(90.) “Coroner’s Report.”
(92.) For courtroom narrative see Coffey, “State of Louisiana v. Charles Guerand,” 74–90.
(94.) Ibid.; “Indict Cop for Murder of New Orleans Girl.” How long Hattie had been out of school is unclear, but Hattie McCray’s mother, Moorelilli McCray, had only completed fourth grade. She had her first child at age nineteen in 1911. By 1920 Moorelilli was widowed with three daughters, Margell, Helen, and Hattie, the youngest. By 1930, Moorelilli had remarried, and she and her oldest daughter both worked in the homes of white families. But two months after Hattie McCray’s death, when the census taker came to their home, Helen McCray was briefly back in school. Hattie and Helen’s struggles to stay in school demonstrate just how difficult it was for black girls during segregation and the Depression to continue in school. The 1940 census shows Moorelilli using the last name McCray again and listed as head of household. She lived with one of her daughters, Helen, and a granddaughter. According to that census, Helen (McCray) Barton had completed eighth grade and had her daughter when she was nineteen years old. There are various spellings of Hattie McCray’s mother’s given name. For family information, see “Hattie McCray” 1920: Census Place: New Orleans Ward 3; Orleans, Louisiana; Roll: T625_619; Page: 1A; Enumeration District: 54; Image: 389. Database: Ancestry.com; “Helen McCray” 1930: Census Place: New Orleans Ward 3; Orleans, Louisiana; Roll: 801; Page: 8A; ED: 0029; Image: 721.0: FHl: microfilm: 2340563. Database: Ancestry.com; “Helen Barton” 1940; Census Place: New Orleans Ward 3; Orleans, Louisiana; Roll: T625_619; Page: 1A; Enumeration District: 54; Image: 389. Database: Ancestry.com; “Moorelilli McCray,” United States Social Security Death Index. Number: 439-26-4024; Issue State: Louisiana; Issue Date: Before 1951.
(95.) The Chicago Defender article “Cop to Die for Girl Slaying” says, “According to the traditions of the South, a white man’s life may not be taken in return for the life of one of our group. It is an unwritten law which is generally upheld by the people and one which has caused white men to kill with impunity, so long as their victims were of the darker races.” For white reaction, see “Policeman Seeking Lunacy Board Aid,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, April 22, 1930; “Begin Fight to Save Ex-cop from Noose,” New Orleans States, n.d.
(p.230) (97.) “Motion H-1,” n.d., State v. Guerand, NOPL.
(103.) “Motion H-1.”
(104.) “Petition #3,” April 28, 1930, State v. Guerand, NOPL. Emphasis mine.
(105.) “August 27, 1935,” State v. Guerand, NOPL.
(106.) Charles H. Houston to James Gayle, March 10, 1936, Papers of the NAACP, Part 12: Selected Branch Files, Series A: The South, Microform Collection, Duke University.
(107.) Fred Oser, “March 2, 1937,” State v. Guerand, NOPL.
(108.) “Slayer of Colored Girl Escapes Noose,” Louisiana Weekly, March 6, 1937.
(109.) “August 27, 1935.”
(110.) Ibid. My emphasis. It should be noted that at this point a new judge was assigned to Guerand’s case because Judge Henriques passed away before Guerand’s trial could be heard again.
(117.) “House of the Good Shepherd Building Fund.”
(120.) “The Good Shepherd.”