Walkabout: The Training School and Home for Girls, Part 3

1923 Photograph: Collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

By 1919, the new buildings of the Brooklyn Training School and Home for Girls were complete. Nestled almost on the corner of Pacific Street and Kingston Avenue, in the St. Marks District of Central Brooklyn, the walled collection of buildings was both home and school to girls between the age of fourteen and twenty-one. The school, founded by Park Slope philanthropist, Mrs. Phebe Maine, and like-minded friends, was meant to be a refuge from the streets for young women who had few options in their lives. Homeless, or from situations of dire poverty, they lived at the facility, and took classes in housekeeping and the domestic arts, training for jobs in domestic service.

Mrs. Maine always took the opportunity to point out that her school was not a reform school, and her girls were not prisoners or under sentence, they could leave and return as they pleased. This was a refuge. But by the beginning of the 20th century, even before the school relocated to Pacific Street from Downtown Brooklyn, the court system was treating the school not as a refuge, but as punishment. The gates of the Brooklyn Training School closed behind girls who were sentenced there by the courts.

Please read Chapters One and Two for a more complete early history of the school. The Brooklyn Eagle has always been a good source for charting the day to day goings on of charitable institutions, and they often made mention of fund raisers and activities for the Training School. But while wealthy young ladies held socials to raise money for the school, the court system was sentencing girls there for offences that seem ludicrous today. As mentioned in chapter two, in 1899, a twelve year old girl named Josie Springer was sent to the School by a judge because she had sent an obscene letter to a neighbor. Had the case not been overturned, her stay there would not have been the three months spent there, but almost nine years, until she reached the age of twenty-one.

In 1902, another girl, a fifteen year old named Emma Swazeland, was sent to the courts by her father, who said she was uncontrollable. Her crime was disorderly conduct: staying out half the night, going to picnics and balls. With the blessings of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, as well as her father, she was committed to the Training School for Girls for an indefinite time period.

In 1901, one of the girls at the school was badly burned in an accident. Doctors did not think she would survive. Thirteen year old Ellen Morris had been in the laundry when her apron caught fire on a nearby stove. The poor girl panicked, and ran throughout the building, as the fire spread to her other clothing, while the other girls stood and watched in horror. One of the matrons was chasing her with a blanket, and she finally caught up with her and was able to smother the flames, but the child had suffered extensive burns. She was taken to nearby St. Mary’s Hospital, but was not expected to live.

We don’t have photographs of the other buildings the Home was in before they built this new facility on Pacific Street, but one can imagine from the descriptions that they were not institutional buildings, but were houses or perhaps several buildings that had been homes, that had been commandeered by the Girls School and Home. They must not have been particularly secure, probably because Mrs. Maine never intended them to be reformatories. A lot of girls escaped the home, as children have escaped institutions for centuries.

Two girls who escaped were Emma Haag and Clara Morgan, who were both in the Home, having been sent there in 1894 for disorderly conduct. Sixteen year old Emma fell in love with a wealthy young man named George Wood, who was eighteen. He wasn’t saying how or where they had met, but apparently he convinced Emma and Clara to escape and meet him. They did so, and George declared his love for Emma, and promised to marry her. Clara would be Emma’s faithful friend and companion as they travelled. He offered to give the girls a ride in his carriage, but Clara got cold feet, and declined. Emma and George went off in the carriage, and Emma never came home. A day later, George Wood was arrested at his home, charged with kidnapping for immoral purposes. He denied hiding the girl somewhere, and was remanded to jail.

The next day, he was bailed out by his wealthy contractor father, and it looked as if he had been telling the truth, as another young man had been seen with Emma after George left her. The police were looking for him, too. Several days later, all charges were dropped by the authorities. Emma Haag had been found, alive and well. Whatever her story was, the paper didn’t say, but the authorities were not amused. Young Emma was charged as a “vagrant and wayward girl” and sent back to the Training School.

Emma may have been an inspiration, and she was not alone. The on-line copies of the Brooklyn Eagle stop at the end of 1902, but the paper lists several other escapes by that time. The most compelling were two other girls who escaped at the same time simply by walking out the kitchen door at 1:30 in the morning. They were both fifteen, and had the police in the entire city looking for them.

Inez Bruce was described as a “pretty little thing,” only five feet tall, with thick dark hair and a temper. She had been initially arrested while working as a domestic in a nearby home on Pacific Street. The police were acting on instructions from the girl’s aunt, who lived in Newark. Inez’ mother had recently died, and her father ran off, leaving the girl in the aunt’s care. According to the aunt, the girl had run away five or six times, one time getting as far away as West Point; begging for food and sleeping in outhouses and boxcars. She had been sent to the Training School, where she promised she would escape. She did.

The other girl had been in the papers before. She was Emma Swazeland, the girl who had been sent to the school by her father for being an uncontrollable party girl. She had been at the home for a year, at this point, and wanted out. Apparently, when she had been initially arrested at her home, the year before, her mother didn’t know what was happening. The policeman who was sent to make the arrest was confronted by the mother, who was deaf and dumb. After yelling at the woman to no avail, the officer finally realized she couldn’t hear him, and just grabbed the girl.

As she saw Emma being taken away, the mother went after both the father and the policeman with a broom, knocking both upside the head. She then went for her axe, and chased both men out of the house, but they had Emma in tow. The papers found the whole incident rather amusing, but I’m sure Emma did not. She and Inez calmly walked out of the Training School, and apparently were never seen again.

By 1912, the Training School was listed with the Children’s Court of New York City as one of the institutions used in holding or sentencing children. Mrs. Maine’s refuge had become a much more rigid institution with gingham uniforms and locked doors. By the time the new facility was finished, it was looked to be more school than home. The photographs of the new buildings show three large, four story dormitory like buildings and another two story building all arranged around a center courtyard. The Pacific street side of the building has a ten foot wall and a small sturdy iron gate. Other photographs show a playground in the backyard.

The School seems to have developed a dual function, with girls still being rescued from the street along with girls sentenced there by the courts. That must have been hard for everyone, students and staff alike. Two photographs from 1923 show some of the people of the institution. One photograph shows two of the girls along with a matron. One girl is holding the matron’s hand. Both are older teenagers. The other photograph is of a millinery class, with a group of older girls and an instructor all working on hats, which are in their laps. This photo gives us a better idea of the interior of the building, showing tall windows and open classroom space.

In 1947, an article in the New York Times listed the Brooklyn Training School as one of the institutions the city would be using in its revamped court system for juvenile delinquents and “emotionally maladjusted pupils in need of rudimentary disciplinary attention.” For the first time, the courts were placing these truant and hard to control students in the hands of a school administrator, not a corrections administrator. It was thought that this would be a more effective way to deal with truancy and other problems before they became criminal problems. It was hoped that positive action in these institutions, of which the Training School was the only facility for girls, would result in helping less fortunate children develop into productive adults.

If that was to be the case, the city didn’t give the program much time at the Brooklyn Training School. In 1949, the school closed. I was not able to find out why. I also was not able to find out when the buildings were torn down, but for over forty years, this was an empty lot, surrounded by a tall cinderblock fence. The frame houses next door at the corner of Pacific and Kingston were also torn down, probably not long after the photographs of 1923 were taken, and a row of two-story mixed use commercial/residential buildings were built, which still stand. In 2009, the site was chosen for a new charter school, and today, the Uncommon Charter High School welcomes a new generation through its doors. I would bet very few people in the community today would remember the Brooklyn Training School and Home for Girls. GMAP

(Above 1923 photo: Collection of the Museum of the City of New York)

1923 Photograph: Collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

1923 Photograph: Collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

1980s tax photo: Municipal Archives.

Present day site of the Training School for Girls, now home to the Uncommon Charter School. Photo: Googlemaps.

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