We Were Not Orphans
By Sherry Matthews
Book provides a stark look inside the now-defunct Waco State Home
By Joel W. Barna
First-person stories provide a stark look at a forgotten chapter of recent Texas history—as well as a warning for the future—in a new book about the defunct Waco State Home.
We were not orphans: Stories from the Waco State Home (University of Texas Press, 2011) tells the story of the State Home for Dependent and Neglected Children (renamed the Waco State Home in 1937), which housed and cared for thousands of abandoned and abused children from 1923 until it closed in 1979.
Through a collection of more than 50 interviews with former residents, author Sherry Matthews sheds light on the harsh realities of life at the home.
In the book’s foreword, journalist Robert Draper calls the Waco State Home “the de facto safety net for children who had committed no crime other than the offense of being born poor.” For many of its young residents (who were wards of the state but not orphans), the institution provided education and skills that helped the children establish successful adult lives. But, for others, Draper writes, the home was “part of a Dickensian saga that has remained untold until now.”
Credit for the telling of the story goes to Matthews, who was 3 when her three older brothers were taken away to live at the home. Matthews and her mother traveled from East Texas to Waco to visit the boys during their six-year stay there. As Matthews writes, the family tragedies that sent her brothers to the home are not included in the book’s collection of stories.
But her family’s story, nonetheless, carries great weight. She writes that her one surviving brother, Bing, “says he remembers his time in the Home as the most miserable years of his life and has no story to tell.”
In June 2004, more than 50 years after she had last visited the home, Matthews joined Bing at a Waco State Home reunion. Matthews describes former residents eagerly showing off their old living quarters to children and grandchildren, sharing memories of homemade rolls, fresh dairy ice cream and beloved teachers.
Read More »