History has a way of impacting our daily lives. Whether it’s world history, family history or the history that Lisa Wingate writes about in her book Before we were Yours. While fiction, Wingate’s novel is based on true events.
While watching a tv show, a couple of years ago, on Discovery Channel called “Deadly Women,” Wingate saw a scene of an old white house with baby bassinets full of all sorts of babies: fat and happy, crying, and some sickly. It was the story of Georgia Tann, an American child trafficker who operated the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, an adoption agency in Memphis, Tennessee. Wingate thought to herself how awful it was that the children in her care were grossly misrepresented and wanted to tell a story of “what it was like for the children who were removed from their home.”
Children in the Memphis area had been taken by workers in medical facilities, public aid clinics, and the police department. The children were put under the care of Tann, in an unlicensed home used for the purpose of her black market baby adoption scheme from the 1920’s until 1950. Children of all ages were neglected, molested, abused, and treated as objects.
“To the general public, Tann was simply a matronly, well-meaning woman who devoted her life to rescuing children in need,” says Wingate. “Her celebration of children adopted by wealthy, well-known families helped to popularize the idea of adoption in general and dispel the widespread belief that orphaned children were undesirable and inherently damaged.”
Political figures such as New York governor Herbert Lehman and Hollywood celebrities such as Joan Crawford and June Allyson with her husband, Dick Powell, were a few of the many families who adopted children from Tann. Families who adopted were unaware of the tactics used by Tann. She had babies transported to different homes around the United States, such as California and New York. “In reality, these children were often being shipped off to profitable out-of-state adoptions in which Tann pocketed the lion’s share of the exorbitant delivery fees,” Wingate explains.
Tann set sights on single mothers, indigent parents, women in mental wards, those seeking help through welfare services and those in maternity clinics. In hospitals, social workers would talk mothers into signing over their newborn babies for “medical treatment,” and then told later that their child had passed away. Similar to the young children in Wingate’s novel, some children were snatched from their front porches, roadsides, and houseboats from the river.
“There is little doubt that the organization did rescue many children from unthinkable circumstances and placed them in loving homes that afforded promising futures,” says Wingate. “There is also little doubt that countless children were taken from loving parents without cause and never seen again by their desperately grieving biological families.”
During interviews about her methods, Tann openly glorified the generosity of removing children from poor, “unloving” parents who could not possibly raise their children and placing them with rich, loving able parents. She displayed children in Newspaper advertisements underscored by captions like “Yours For The Asking,” “Want a Real, Live Christmas Present?” and “George Wants to Play Catch, But He Needs a Daddy.” Georgia Tann kept up the reputation as the “Mother of Modern Adoption” and was even consulted by Eleanor Roosevelt on matters of child welfare.
“Average residents of the city, while unaware of her methods, were not unaware of her work. For years, citizens watched for newspaper advertisements bearing photos of adorable babies and children,” Wingate explains.
In today’s society, it’s hard to imagine how Tann and her workers managed to operate or where she found workers willing to turn a blind eye to the inhumane treatment of children. Her crimes were accomplished with the help of Memphis Family Court Judge Camille Kelley, who used her position of authority to push Tann’s matters through.
The characters’ experiences in Wingate’s novel were inspired by the stories of reported survivors. “Many who, due to abuse, neglect, illness, or inadequate medical attention, did not live to tell their stories. They are the silent victims of an unregulated system fueled by greed and financial gain,” Wingate says.
It is estimated that about 500 children simply vanished under Georgia Tann’s management. Thousands more disappeared into adoptions for profit in which names, birth dates, and birth records were altered to prevent biological families from finding their children.
The Tennessee Children’s Home Society was closed in 1950. Today, the Tennessee Children’s Home is accredited by the state and has no legacy connection with Georgia Tann or the Society which she operated.
Governor Gordon Browning revealed publicly that Tann had benefitted illegally to the tune of $1 million (equivalent to roughly $10 million today) while employed by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. However, during the investigation of her crimes Tann was suffering from uterine cancer and died at her home. A newspaper expose ran opposite her obituary on the front page of the local paper.
While the closing of the home gave grieving birth families reason to hope, that hope was quickly taken from them. “Legislators and political power brokers passed laws legalizing even the most questionable of her adoptions and sealing the records,” explains Wingate. “Of the twenty–two wards remaining in Tann’s care at the time of her death, only two-who had already been rejected by their adopted families–were returned to their birth parents.”
Wingate hopes readers will take away from this novel, a special meaning for adoptions and how nothing can separate the bonds of biological families. Orphanages still exist and there are still children out there who face the hardship of not having a loving family. “If there is one overarching lesson to be learned from the true-life story of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, is that babies and children–no matter what corner of the world they hail from–are not commodities, or objects, or “blank slates,” as Georgia Tann so often represented her wards; they are human beings with histories, and needs, and hopes, and dreams of their own.”
Lisa Wingate will be beginning her book tour soon and be visiting Chattanooga at the Southern Literature Alliance on June 14. She will have a talk titled “Where are the Children” from 5:00pm to 7:30pm with a book discussion and reception following.
For more information please visit lisawingate.com.
Image courtesy of Preservation and Special Collections Department, University Libraries, University of Memphis