On May 15, 1865, the Col. Shaw Orphan House was founded by James Redpath to provide refuge to the city’s African American orphans following the end of the Civil War. The Orphanage would go by many names and move multiple times during its short existence, but the dedication and care provided by the orphan house staff for their charges remained constant.
According to stories by James Redpath, a famous northern abolitionist and superintendent of Charleston schools, he was approached shortly after his arrival in early 1865 by an African American woman about the need for an orphanage for Black children in the city. In April Redpath gained permission from military authorities to start the orphanage, and he began repairing two empty buildings on Mary Street near the train terminal. Redpath named the orphanage the Col. Shaw Orphan House, or the Shaw Colored Orphan Asylum, after Col. Robert Gould Shaw of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment who was killed in the assault on Fort Wagner. Volunteers from nearby Black churches gathered to assist with preparing the orphanage for opening, and a society of "colored ladies" sewed clothing for the children. Not long after its founding, the Freedmen’s Bureau took over operating the orphanage and it relocated to a house on East Bay Street.
This relocation to East Bay Street was just one of many moves the orphanage would undergo during its existence. For a very short while the orphan house would be located at the East Bay Street house belonging to a Mrs. Ross. At some point Mrs. Ross, a former Confederate supporter, took the Federally required Oath of Allegiance to the Union, which restored her property rights and ownership. This meant that the orphanage would have to move once again when the home was returned to her. The orphan asylum was next located in the Memminger House at 150 Wentworth Street, which was the abandoned home of Confederate Treasury Secretary Christopher Memminger. One article in The American Freedman describes the Memminger House as having “ample and elegant surroundings; one of the most princely estates in Charleston.” The orphanage moved twice within its first year, but it also managed to take in and care for more than 230 orphaned children. Many of the volunteers and some of the staff had only recently been freed from slavery themselves, making this orphanage a true community effort.
One of these recently freed volunteers, and eventual staff members was Dorcas Richardson, a formerly enslaved lady’s maid and house servant owned by the Aiken-Rhett family. What Dorcas went through as an enslaved servant is unimaginable, but in 1865 freedom finally came for Dorcas and her family of five children as the Civil War ended. After emancipation Dorcas chose to serve the Charleston community as the Matron for the Col. Shaw Colored Orphan Asylum. As Matron, Dorcas Richardson would have been responsible for the care of all the children in residence, which at some points housed one hundred or more children. In one report by the Board of Trustees of the State Orphan Asylum for the year 1873, they state that “Mrs. Richardson merits our high approval for the constant watchfulness and care that she bestows on the Children.” Mrs. Richardson, and the rest of the staff and volunteers at the orphanage helped raise the children of Charleston when the community needed their help the most.
On January 19, 1869, control of the Shaw Orphan Asylum was transferred to the State of South Carolina and it became known as the State Orphan Asylum. The orphanage moved once again sometime around 1868 or 1869 from its location at 150 Wentworth, where it had been operating for about two or three years, to a new home at the Middleton-Pinckney House on George Street. At that time the property was known as the Elliott Mansion, because it was owned by Mrs. Juliet Gibbes Elliott. Though this large and elegant house may have provided a home for these children, it was nowhere near adequate and it was in relatively poor condition. In one 1872 Report by the Board of Trustees for the Asylum, they write “that the building is damp and unhealthy, and requires very great repairs and improvements to fit it for an Asylum for Children. […] The children, too, stand greatly in need of flannel clothing, suitable for the winter season.” The five appointed Trustees for the Asylum repeatedly asked the State for assistance, but the financial help never came. In 1872 the General Assembly appropriated $15,000 for the Asylum, but only $3,500 was ever provided to the Trustees by the Treasurer of the State, leaving a balance of $11,500 due to the Asylum. This lack of funding left the facility in a permanent state of disrepair.
By 1875, the State and the Asylum’s Trustees decided to close the facility in Charleston and move the State Orphan Asylum to Columbia. However, funding issues continued to plague the Asylum. After the end of Reconstruction and the Democratic Party’s takeover of the State government, which initiated a period of extreme cuts to public services, funding became even more scarce; by the 1879-1880 fiscal year, funding was eliminated altogether. This meant that African American orphans now had to rely on the charity of private citizens or the Ashley River Asylum, until the eventual establishment of the Jenkins Orphanage in 1891.