Her name was Janie Porter. She was born just as the American Civil War came to a close. Growing up in Macon, Georgia, Janie was an exemplary student, eventually graduating with honors from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. Janie took her teaching degree seriously, accepting a position in rural Georgia. Five years later, she met and married Harris Barnett, a Virginia businessman.
Disturbed by the plight of African American children, who grew up in squalid conditions, often ending up in jail at the age of 7 or 8, Janie determined to do something about the problem, which she viewed as a moral crisis. She began a fund-raising campaign throughout the state of Virginia. The money was used to build what was then called “a home for wayward girls” – the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls. In today’s world, it would be referred to as a juvenile detention facility.
Prior to 1920, state funds had been used to establish facilities for white males and females. But no funding was available for similar facilities for African American children. Therefore, Janie made it her business to find private support for her school. She received financial and material donations from African American communities and white communities. As far as Janie was concerned, race was never an issue. Donations included: cash, blackboards, paint, laundry supplies, library books, farm animals and farm equipment.
The Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls began operating in 1915. The institution’s superintendent was Janie Porter-Barrett. The school’s mission was to instill its residents with Christian character. At the time, the common and accepted form of motivation utilized by most institutions was punishment. Janie rejected this method and substituted a system of rewards, while at the same time presenting and operating the school as a home instead of as a prison.
Student participation in programs orbited around an honor system, which Janie believed encouraged self-discipline. The students were educated in household skills, agriculture, and hygiene. On the job training was provided at local farms. Ninety-nine percent of the school’s students went on to lead productive lives.
Janie Porter-Barrett served as superintendent of the Virginia Industrial School for Colored Girls for 25 years. Her innate kindness and commitment, combined with a stubborn refusal to take no for an answer, coalesced into life-changing opportunities for hundreds of children.