Council board member Dr. Sandra Enos of Bryant University spoke about her motivation for developing a tour on the new Rhode Tour mobile application at a preview event last month. Read her remarks below to get an inside look at this new application and check out her tour: Orphanages, Asylums, and Almshouses.
A few years ago, I wrote a piece that was broadcast on RI Public Radio’s This I Believe series. It was about what I called the opposite of magic, that is instead of making things disappear like a traditional magician might, I argued that my work as a public humanities scholar was the reverse—this work is to make the invisible visible, to call attention to the richness of our past history and culture that in a state like ours echoes on nearly every street and community—if we just know what to look for.
As some of you know, I have been for many years now, uncovering the history and sociology of our social and child welfare system. Unlike our tributes to industries and our salutes to public leaders, our social welfare system—orphanages, asylums and almshouse—typically receive little attention. What is so compelling about this history is that many of us are not that many generations removed from it. My mother and her siblings grew up in an orphanage, as did many of our parents or grandparents. Millions of our citizens have passed through foster care, in fact.
But to research that history—What happened to me? Why were we poor? How long did we stay? What sort of child was I? Are my memories of that place correct?—those questions are hard to research. These social histories often end up in a dead end. And I have worked to try to help people flesh this out, to learn a bit more about lives in these institutions, making important connections between the personal, the historical and the cultural.
So, the opportunity that Rhode Tour affords to make this history more visible and more real to a larger population is what motivates my work. I am a lifelong Rhode Islander—a classic child of working class immigrant parents—and it was perhaps, this history of seeing relatives fall upon hard times, of visiting old aunts in state institutions, of having foster care children as “cousins,” that has also motivated this work.
Another motivation is bringing it to the present to ask important questions. Right now, I work with children in foster care who a few summers ago read aloud the oral histories we had taken with adults who had grown up in the State Home and School. Their comments were extraordinary. They noted how their experience—of being separated from siblings, of not knowing what was being planned for them, of the pain of not having a family when that was how the world was supposed to be—were the same issues expressed by individuals many generations removed. These foster children benefitted greatly by reading these stories so that they could write their own in the belief of the power of stories. So, that is why I do this work.
I am hoping that these tours encourage our citizens to add their own stories. When I participated in the EnRICHment program speaking about the great array of orphanages in our state, there was never ever an event when some member of the audience didn’t add to my storehouse of knowledge or questions. Accounts of a summer at Sunshine Island when the nice nurses “fattened us up” or an account of the smallpox house in Coventry where residents went to be isolated and perhaps, cured, right next to the Town Poor Farm. So, that is my other motivation. The activation of community memory in the recognition that the professionals who do this can’t record everything, that our professional journals don’t always include stories “regular” people would love to know. I strongly believe that once these stories are up and on the web that we will hear from storytellers in the community. I have already heard from some of the sites in our collection that they want to place links to Rhode Tour on their website and want to publicize this to the board and the larger community. These links are important to make for these agencies—to understand that the humanities have clear application to their work today.
So many stories and so many emerging opportunities to do so in compelling ways—that is the story of Rhode Tour.
I think all of us who have been involved in this project to date could put together a guide for local resources that have proved important in our work. These include local newspaper clipping files, reports from state agencies, and what I call “orphaned” archives—wonderful resources that are on a dusty shelf, in an unused safe, in a pantry (I have found records in all these places), in agency offices.
I can see wonderful work being done with our local educational institutions—letting loose high school students to reach and document their stories with the support of teachers, historical societies, libraries and the like. I have spoken with a summer enrichment program about their researching the Pawtucket Poor Farm.
I look forward to further development of this work. Every time I talk about the Rhode Tour application, someone suggests a topic for me and for themselves to do. What about an entry about films made here in Rhode Island? About the amazing art, stained glass and frescoes in our state’s houses of worship? About Native American history? What about the history and development of ethnic festivals—the festhas in West Warwick, the Armenian one in Cranston—why do these continue generations after the immigrants who created them have passed away?
The Rhode Tour mobile application offers the opportunity to explore these and many other questions, making Rhode Island history more visible in the places we live, visit, and simply pass by today.