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Shaw Orphan Asylum, 16 George Street

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.

Images

Exterior 14 George St. In 1869 control of the Shaw Orphan Asylum was transferred to the state of South Carolina and the Asylum was moved to 16 George Street, which was then known as the Elliott Mansion. 16 George Street is now the Middleton-Pinckney House and its address is 14 George. The Middleton-Pinckney House was once occupied by the Charleston Commissioners of Public Works for more than one hundred years until 1980 when it became the headquarters for the Spoleto Festival. In 1941 a Historic American Building Survey was conducted on 14 George Street, this 1977 photograph of the rear of the house is from later documentation produced for the survey. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The American Freedman Not long after the Col. Shaw Orphan House was founded in may of 1865 the Freedmen’s Bureau took over operating the orphanage and after it relocated twice within its first year of operation. By 1866 the Orphanage was located at 150 Wentworth Street, then known as the Memminger House, where it would stay for at least 2 years until moving once again. This clipping form an 1866 issue of The National Freedman, a publication released by the Freedmen’s Relief Association and the Freedmen’s Bureau, describes the origins of the Orphan Asylum and its current state and location at the Memminger House at 150 Wentworth Street.
Dorcas R. 1870 Census at orphan house This clipping from the 1870 Federal Census shows Dorcas Richardson as the Matron of the State Colored Orphan Asylum and some of the other residents at the Asylum.
1872-73 General Assembly Report on Asylum Sometime around 1869 the State Orphan Asylum was moved to 16 George Street, which was then known as the Elliott Mansion, but is now known as the Middleton-Pinckney House. This house, though large and elegant, provided a home that was no where near adequate for children and it was in relatively poor condition. This is a scan of the Physicians Report in the “Report of the Board of Trustees of the State Orphan Asylum for the Regular Session 1872-’73.” In his report the physician for the Asylum, Dr. J.S. Buist, tells of twenty-two deaths, eleven males and eleven females, ranging in age from one to eight. The various causes of death include: Scrofula, which is now known as swelling of the lymph nodes of the neck; Consumption, meaning tuberculosis; and dropsy, now referred to as edema.
Rear of 14 George In 1869 control of the Shaw Orphan Asylum was transferred to the state of South Carolina and the Asylum was moved to 16 George Street, which was then known as the Elliott Mansion. 16 George Street is now the Middleton-Pinckney House and its address is 14 George. The Middleton-Pinckney House was once occupied by the Charleston Commissioners of Public Works for more than one hundred years until 1980 when it became the headquarters for the Spoleto Festival. In 1941 a Historic American Building Survey was conducted on 14 George Street, this 1977 photograph of the rear of the house is from later documentation produced for the survey. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
14 George St. Exterior Detail In 1941 a Historic American Building Survey was conducted on 14 George Street, this 1977 photograph of exterior detailing on 14 George is from later documentation produced for the survey. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
14 George St. Interior Doorway In 1941 a Historic American Building Survey was conducted on 14 George Street, this 1977 photograph of one of the extravagantly decorated doorways inside of 14 George is from later documentation produced for the survey. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
14 George St. Interior Chandelier In 1941 a Historic American Building Survey was conducted on 14 George Street, this 1940 photo from the survey is of one of the main rooms in 14 George featuring an elaborate chandelier and doorway. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
14 George St. Interior Fireplace In 1941 a Historic American Building Survey was conducted on 14 George Street, this 1940 photo from the survey is of a mantel in a room on the Western side of the house on the second floor. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
14 George St. Interior Bookcase Interior of 14 George: In 1941 a Historic American Building Survey was conducted on 14 George Street, this 1977 photo from a later portion of the survey is of a hallway door to a room on the Northwestern side of the house on the second floor. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
14 George Front Gate The Middleton-Pinckney House has a very well documented history, but yet it still has somehow managed to leave out the use of the house by the State Orphan Asylum. Along with the very well documented history of the house it is also frequently photographed. One of the most photographed features of 14 George is the wrought iron gates in front of the house. Photograph courtesy of Grace Hall.
14 George St. Historical Marker In 2004 The Preservation Society of Charleston placed a historical marker along the front wall of 14 George to commemorate its extensive history. Photograph courtesy of Grace Hall.
Exterior 14 George St. Present 14 George Street the Middleton-Pinckney House is now home to the Spoleto Festival, USA. It is fitting that the Spoleto Festival now calls 14 George home, because the Festival Promotes diversity and education through the arts, just as the Orphan Asylum once provided education and support for Charleston’s diverse orphan population. This photo is of the rear of the Middleton-Pinckney House and the former State Orphan Asylum. Photograph courtesy of Grace Hall.
14 George Street Front Facade 14 George Street the Middleton-Pinckney House is now home to the Spoleto Festival, USA. It is fitting that the Spoleto Festival now calls 14 George home, because the Festival Promotes diversity and education through the arts, just as the Orphan Asylum once provided education and support for Charleston’s diverse orphan population. This photo is of the front walkway leading to the front door of the Middleton-Pinckney House and the former State Orphan Asylum. Photograph courtesy of Grace Hall.

Location

16 George St., Charleston, SC 29401

Metadata

Grace Hall, “Shaw Orphan Asylum, 16 George Street,” Discovering Our Past: College of Charleston Histories, accessed February 5, 2023, https://discovering.cofc.edu/items/show/23.