The Providence Shelter was an actual building from 1838 to 1951, and during these 119 years it housed up to two dozen “children of color” at a time. Since 1951 it has been a foundation granting financial assistance to local agencies which serve children of color. It is one of the longest-lasting charitable organizations in the city of Providence, and one of the oldest in the United States.
The Providence Shelter for Colored Orphans (the name was changed in 1847, and in spite of frequent discussions, it remains the Providence Shelter for Colored Children to this day) was founded by a group of middle-class white women in 1838. Quaker Anna Almy Jenkins, granddaughter of leading antislavery activist Moses Brown, opened a small shelter on North Main Street, helped by her daughter Eliza Almy, her friend Elizabeth Congdon and other Providence women .
The decade of the 1830s was a period of racial tension in Providence, and as an earlier children’s home housed only white children, Mrs Jenkins saw the need for a shelter for “Colored Orphans.” Twelve children soon moved in, one of whom was described as “Indian.” Very few of the children were, in fact, orphans; most of them had parents who were alive but unable to care for them, and these children were accepted as boarders. Many of the mothers were “living in” servants whose employers did not want a child in the house, and some of the fathers were at sea. These parents paid fifty cents a week, which represented perhaps one third of a female servant’s wage at that time.
The parents were looking for adequate child care, while the founders had different ideas: they shared many of the period’s views about the children of the poor, who, they believed, needed to be taught how to work and how to behave. The founders wanted to rescue some “little immortals” from what they described as “scenes of iniquity” and make them good servants (if they were girls) or tradesmen (if they were boys.)
According to the first annual report, the women aimed
“to provide a suitable home where the children might be placed and taught habits of industry, improved in their morals, and instructed in such branches of knowledge as would enable them to procure respectable maintenance, as domestics in families, or to acquire trades adapted to their capacities or inclination.”
The Shelter was incorporated in 1846 and moved to larger premises at 11 Wickenden Street. By that time more than one hundred children had been cared for, some for short periods while a family crisis was solved, others for longer periods when a parent was unable to provide for them. During the first decade, however, in spite of the emphasis on vocational training, very few of the children went out to work; instead, most returned to their parents, or, sadly, died of disease in the care of the Shelter.
Anna Jenkins and her daughter perished in a house fire in 1847, but shortly before her tragic death she gave the Shelter a plot of land on Olive Street on Providence’s East Side. After some energetic fund raising, a building was erected there, and served as the Shelter for Colored Children for almost one hundred years.