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The Rhode Island State Home and School Project


Presentations and Publications

Homelessness Is Not A Crime: Elizabeth Buffum Chace and Creation of The State Home and School for Children, 1875-1885

Elizabeth C. Stevens

Elizabeth Buffum Chace, preeminent Rhode Island reformer, was a radical activist whose life spanned the entire nineteenth century.(She was born in 1806 and died in 1899.) Chace entered public life as a member of the ultra-ist Garrisonian antislavery movement in the 1830's. The Garrisonians, a small group of abolitionists were the most uncompromising antislavery activists in calling for the IMMEDIATE emancipation of slaves and were considered dangerous radicals who threatened the social order. After the official end of slavery during the Civil War, along with other Garrisonian abolitionists, Chace turned her immense energies to woman suffrage, then also a radical "far-out" cause. Co-founder of the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association in 1868, and president from 1870 until her death in 1899 at the age of 93, Chace advocated not only for votes for women, but for rights for indigent persons, prostitutes, prison inmates, factory workers-especially woman and children, for temperance reform, the admission of women to institutions of higher education, prison reform and many other causes, including the establishment of a State Home and School for Dependent Children. Known for her incisive letters to the Providence Journal and other newspapers on subjects as diverse as lotteries, the opening of Roger Williams Park to working men and women on Sundays, and the double standard in which prostitutes were arrested while their clients went free, and for her articulate testimony at legislative hearings, Chace was widely acknowledged to be, in the decades following the Civil War, "the conscience of Rhode Island."

In her private life, Elizabeth Buffum Chace was the wife of textile manufacturer Samuel Chace who owned mills in and around Valley Falls, Rhode Island. Chace was also a mother. Her first five children died between the ages of 2 and 9, of various diseases; three of them died of scarlet fever. She was childless for several months in 1843, before giving birth to her sixth child, four more followed; the youngest, her daughter, Mary was born in 1852, when Chace was 45 years old. Chace's grief following the deaths of her children was formative; it impelled her, in 1843, to reject the Quakerism in which she had been bred and married, and to embrace the extreme and unpopular radical Garrisonian activism as her religion. She converted the helplessness she felt at the bedsides of her own dying children into activism on behalf of other suffering children who could be helped. Uncompromsing, unwavering, iconoclastic, it was said of Elizabeth Buffum Chace after her death by labor organizer Frederic Hinckley, that wherever an issue of justice was concerned, she rose above mere class considerations. [General information on Elizabeth Buffum Chace from Elizabeth C. Stevens, ' From Generation to Generation': The Mother and Daughter Activism of Elizabeth Buffum Chace and Lillie Chace Wyman. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Publishers, forthcoming; the book is also available in a different format as a Ph.D. dissertation, Brown University, 1993.]

In this brief comment on Elizabeth Buffum Chace and her vision for the State Home and School for Children in Rhode Island, I would like to focus on several points. First, I will describe the nineteenth century culture in which Elizabeth Buffum Chace's worldview was formed. Then, I will examine briefly why Chace felt that the establishment of a state home and school for children was essential in Rhode Island. Finally, I will present Chace's hopes and dreams for the organization of the State Home and School, and the main arguments she used to persuade legislators and the public of the need for such an institution. All quotations are taken from Elizabeth Buffum Chace's own scrapbook of newspaper clippings of her public endeavours; the scrapbook is now at the John Hay Library, Brown University.

Nineteenth-century middle class American culture has been described as one of spheres separated by gender. Men dominated in the bruising public marketplace of politics and commerce; women reigned in the domestic "private" sphere, creating in their homes a "haven in a heartless world," where children were nurtured and reared to be pious, obedient, industrious, exemplary citizens. In this domestic sphere the role of the mother was paramount. I have found in my research on Elizabeth Buffum Chace, that despite her radical Garrisonian activism which rejected not only slavery, but organized religion, and the United States Constitution, these cultural norms on gender were held as gospel. Radical female antislavery activists like Chace urged northern women, as mothers, to take to the streets, on behalf of slave mothers and their children, they encouraged mothers to train their own children to be activists, and they fervently believed in the power of woman to accomplish social change from her domestic hearth. Within this framework, the concept of "home," as a domestic haven where children were protected, educated and nourished, was paramount. Elizabeth Buffum Chace never abandoned or even amended these cultural norms and they dominated her public ideas and her public activism.

After the Civil War, female reformers like Elizabeth Buffum Chace became keenly aware of the great changes wrought on the social landscape of Rhode Island by rapid urbanization and the massive waves of foreign and native-born people flooding into the cities and towns seeking work. Fluctuations in the economic markets and mistreatment at the hands of unscrupulous and unrestrained capitalists caused unemployment, poverty and suffering, on a scale never before seen in the state. The Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association took a keen interest in the condition of women inmates in state jails and prisons. In the early 1870's, women from the Suffrage Association lobbied the governor to appoint a "Board of Women Visitors" to institutions like the state prison, where women were resident. Six women, among them Elizabeth Buffum Chace, spent several years in the early 1870's visiting and reporting on conditions in state institutions regarding women and girls.

Her experience on the State Board of Women Visitors led Chace and her colleagues to identify a group of children who were in need of particular attention. These were children whose parents were unable to adequately care for them. "Those children, found to be without means of support and proper care, through the intemperance, crime, incapacity or death of one or both parents" Chace wrote, in describing this class of children. ["The State School," undated newspaper clipping, EBC Scrapbook, Brown University Library] She gave the example of a man in Pawtucket who had murdered his wife in a fit of anger, and had three small children. "Who would care for these children?" she queried in a letter to the Providence Journal in the mid-1870's. ["State Public School," undated newspaper clipping, EBC Scrapbook] There was "a large and constantly increasing class of children [who had been] left without natural protectors," Elizabeth Buffum Chace asserted at this time. ["State Public School," undated newspaper clipping ca. 1876? EBC Scrapbook, Brown University Library] When Chace wrote or spoke of these children, she used words like "innocent, destitute, forsaken, neglected, abandoned." Chace accepted without question that this group of children, thrown on the resources of society through no fault of their own, were the wards of the state and that it was the duty of the state to care for them. [ibid.]

In the 1870s, Chace inquired, what were the arrangements made for such children? Many were sent to almshouses in their towns, or to the newly opened State Almshouse in Cranston, where impoverished citizens lived. Other destitute children were placed at the Rhode Island Reform School on the grounds of the State Farm in Cranston. Chace rejected both the almshouse and the reform school as appropriate placements for these children on two grounds. One was that the stigma associated in the public's mind with such institutions would harm children's opportunities to lead full productive lives. Further, she asserted that it was was unjust to send children innocent of any wrongdoing to the reform school where the regimen presupposed a need of "correction." She feared that by associating with troubled older children who were themselves potential criminals, perfectly "innocent" children would be led down a similar path, and themselves turn to a life of mischief, wrongdoing, and criminality. If such children did turn to a criminal life and ended up being incarcerated behind bars, Chace asked, who would be the real offenders, the young persons who committed the crimes or the legislators and citizens of the state who did not adequately and properly ensure that, these neglected children had a chance to lead wholesome and productive lives. ["The Industrial School," undated newspaper clipping, EBC Scrapbook, Brown University Library]

Elizabeth Buffum Chace's solution to the necessity to care for indigent children in Rhode Island was to create a model institution, variously referred to as, "The State Industrial School," "The State Home and School," and simply "The State School." Modeled after a school opened by the state of Michigan in 1871, the Rhode Island state school would be an institution where children were nurtured and educated by kind, loving adults. As a home, Chace proposed, "it shall be so pleasant that it never can be regarded as a place of restraint, any more than any well-ordered home is so regarded." And, as a school, it would be "as respectable to be an inmate of it as attendant of any district school." ["The State School," undated newspaper clipping, EBC Scrapbook, Brown University Library] It would be a place where children would receive training in a trade or profession, according to their abilities and interests, where she maintained, they would become "useful artisans and citizens." ["The Proposition on an Industrial School" undated newspaper clipping, ca. 1874? EBC Scrapbook] She abhored the system at the Reform School where girls were trained only in housework. "No girl should be kept peeling potatoes or washing dishes who has the making of a good bookkeeper or fine wood carver or engraver; no boy should spend his minority in cane-seating chairs if he has a genius for architecture or any higher mechanical labor," she asserted [Ibid.]

And critically, there would be no stigma attached to attending such an institution. It should be a place, she maintained, where any parent in the state would be satisfied to send their children to school. In the era of economic upturns and downturns in which they lived, she argued, "We have none of us arrived at that elevation in human life from which there is no possibility of descent for ourselves or our posterity. So, in providing for an establishment of this kind, it is well for us to consider what sort of a place we should choose for our own or our children's children should they ever come to need its protection and its fostering care... " ["The Industrial School," undated newspaper article by EBC, EBC Scrapbook, John Hay Library, Brown University]

Elizabeth Buffum Chace was very specific about her vision for the State Home and School. It should be both a school and a home "entirely free and separate from all penal and pauper influences", "wholly educational in its character" and "wholly respectable." ["The Industrial School," undated newspaper clipping, EBC Scrapbook, Brown University Library] I'll read excerpts from an article Chace published in a local newspaper in August, 1877 which laid out her physical conception of the school. The State Home and School should be located "near the city of Providence . . but it should also be in the country, that there may be plenty of room, pure air, and freedom for large variety in out-door exercise. That the life in it may be as much as possible like family life, I would have it built in this wise," she wrote. "There should be a large, plain central building, in which should be kitchen, laundry, dining-room, school-rooms, workship, hall and sleeping rooms for adult persons employed therein. Then the plan should be to build a circle of cottages around the central house, all facing toward it, with plenty of space between them for free circulation of air, and also between them and the central building for a large play ground, and avenues. It would be necessary only to begin with one or two cottages with the design of increasing them in numbers as the wants of the institution demanded. In each cottage I would place a good woman and a certain number of children; and this should be their home when not engaged at school, or meals or work. When not employed in the general or particular duties of the institution, under special or general superintendence, each household of children should be under the care of the matron of its own cottage, who should, as nearly as possible, supply the place of a mother to them. The whole establishment should be under the general care of a superintendent and head matron, who should also live in a cottage in the circle, in order to have the whole institution under their eyes."

"On the land outside of the cottages," Chace wrote, "I would have little gardens for the employment of the children at suitable times, and in the workshop, facilities for various mechanical operations, whereby the peculiar genius of each child might be developed and something done toward their support; and where they could prepare to enter the industrial, self-supporting world when they go hence. In the school-room, I would give them a solid, practical education, on the system of half-time schools, found so beneficial in the manufacturing districts of England ... " she observed. Indeed, Chace wrote, the school should provide such an education and training that its excellent reputation would provide an outstanding reference for any former pupil seeking employment in Rhode Island. ["The Prevention of Pauperism and Crime," 27 August 1877, newspaper clipping from EBC Scrapbook]

[She did not envisualize the school as a "permanent home," however. She wrote that, "whereever and whenever a positively good place can be found for a child, he should be transferred thither. But there should be great care exercised herein, and when no unexceptionable situations offer, I would have the education completed inside the institution."]

Chace argued for the creation of such a benevolent institution on the grounds of "safety, economy, and justice." ["Report of Board of visitors to Penal and Correctional Institutions of the State," undated newspaper clipping, EBC Scrapbook, John Hay Library, Brown University.] The school would benefit the children themselves who would grow into self-supporting prosperous citizens. They would add to the well-being of the state and its economic and social progress by providing skilled labor for the Rhode Island. Second, (and she used this argument many times in trying to convince legislators and the public of the economy of the school), by nurturing virtuous and upstanding citizens from childhood, the state would have less need for penal and correctional institutions, and would save funds that would almost undoubtedly have to be spent on erecting and maintaining jails and prisons.. ["Memorial of Elizabeth Buffum Chace to the Senate and House of Representatives, General Assembly of Rhode Island, 22 February 1880," EBC Scrapbook, Brown University Library] Chace ended her arguments by emphasizing that the ultimate persuasive issue was one of justice: "But aside from all considerations of economy and public safety, we owe[emphasis mine] to these children, destitute of proper care from natural guardians, an oversight, protection and education, such as can no longer be justifiably withheld or neglected," she argued. ["The Proposition for an Industrial School," undated newspaper clipping, EBC Scrapbook, Brown University Library]

As I mentioned previously, critical to Chace's conception of the State Home and School was her deep conviction that no stigma should be attached to residence or attendance there. When the school was first proposed, location of the school became a central issue. For this reason, the ultimate place where the school was built, on state land off Smith Street and Mt. Pleasant Avenue,on what is now the Rhode Island College campus, is as historically important as any fact about its conception. Many legislators admitted the need for such an institution, but argued that, for economic reasons, it should be constructed on the grounds of the State Farm where the almshouse, reform school, prison and other state institutions were located. Elizabeth Buffum Chace was adamant that to build a State Home and School for dependent children on the grounds of the State Farm would be to subvert its entire purpose. She held that the school MUST be located entirely separately, at best some miles away from the state farm, so that in the public's mind, it would not be associated with correctional or [punitive] institutions of any kind.["The Industrial School," undated newspaper clipping, EBC Scrapbook, Brown University Library] Ultimately, Chace's view prevailed, and the School was constructed in Providence, several miles away from the "odium of the State Farm." ["Brayton Farm School," undated newspaper clipping, EBC Scrapbook, Brown University Library]

Elizabeth Buffum Chace's principal role in the creation of the State Home and School was in its conception and creation. Tragically her ideal conception was far from realized. She was just short of eighty years old and in failing health when the School was built in 1885, and her attention turned the following year to a statewide referendum for woman suffrage, which she directed from her bedroom, where she was confined by illness. Despite her failing health, Chace visited the school several times a year after it opened, "made some inspection of the buildings, and talked with the officers [officials] and children." She was unaware of problems at the state school, including lack of food and, especially, corporal punishment of the children. When informed, in 1889 by a worker at the school that children were being mistreated there, Chace's daughter later wrote: "The shock and the horror that the old woman felt can only be imagined. But she bestirred herself at once, and one of the Providence` papers said that the mere fact that Mrs. Chace believed there was something wrong in the State School was sufficient reason why an investigation should be made. She girded herself up for what was to be her last great personal conflict with official authorities, but it was difficult, at first, to obtain an investigation" into allegations of misdeeds at the newly opened school."

[Chace noted that the initial report of the investigating committee seemed to find little wrong with the behavior of the superitendent, Martin Healy, who was accused of beating children and squeezing their windpipes to prevent their crying. " It seems very strange to me that intelligent men cannot see that a man who could from choice treat children in this manner is incapable of employing any wiser or more humane measures," Chace commented. Chace herself gave formal testimony at the hearings into Healy's behavior. She made a statement at the end: "The evidence of numerous witnesses, including Mr. Healy himself, has shown that the design of the school has been to a great extent subverted by the methods adopted for its management. The treatment of the children has been harsh and cruel, the punishments astonishingly frequent and severe, and often inflicted where there was no blame or responsibility resting on the child. What I consider the worst feature in this case has been that the idea has pervaded the management, and been impressed on the children, that they belong to an exceptionally degraded and depraved class--in short, that they are thoroughly bad, and that they are paupers and must be set apart from other children. Had the design been to hold them down, to keep them low, to make certain their degradation, no surer methods could have been devised... [badness] "cannot be whipped or knocked or choked out," Chace wrote. "The cruel blows, the tortures inflicted upon the children, have hardened and degraded them and kept them down; the patches on their clothes have symbolized the patches on their minds; and altogether their treatment has made them what Mr. Healy describes some of them to be ..."

"The newspapers at the time report that what Mrs. Chace said at the hearing was received with profound attention; they describe her as being 'draped in black, looking exceedingly pleasant"; they speak of her great age with a little evident wonder that she could endure the fatigue of the sessions... " As a result of the investigation Healy and his wife were discharged, and a new man and woman placed there by the State Board of Education. In 1891, "in response to numerous petitions for a change of management, the Home and School was taken from the Board of Education and consigned to a special Board, to be composed of four men and three women... Governor Herbert Ladd... appointed an excellent Board, without regard to party or creed." [Excerpts from Elizabeth Buffum Chace 1806-1899 Her Life and Its Environment, vol. 2: 242-248]]

Steeped in a culture that revered the dominance of the "home" and the power of the "mother" to create worthy, industrious citizens, Elizabeth Buffum Chace used her activist skills to advocate for indigent, neglected and abused children in Rhode Island. Her vision of a State Home and School that literally re-created a home setting with "mothers" in cottages to care for the children reflected her own activist belief in the power of woman to redeem the downtrodden. There is no doubt that her continual lobbying efforts in the Providence press, and in legislative committee hearings, brought the debate on the care of destitute children to a more compassionate place. Elizabeth Buffum Chace's insistence that indigent children were not to blame for their condition, and that they should be cared for in a manner consistent with upholding their dignity and personhood was crucial. That such children should not be punished for their condition was a key underpinning of her theory. "Homelessness is not a crime," she asserted in a newspaper article advocating for her vision of the school. ["The Reform School," undated newspaper clipping, EBC Scrapbook, Brown University Library] Her impulse to protect vulnerable children from the stigma which could be associated with their condition was a critical piece of Chace's philosophy. That is why she fought so tenaciously to have the school located in a setting apart from public institutions on the State Farm which were associated with shame and criminality. The location of the remaining building and ruins of the Rhode Island State Home and School, now being excavated, are a testament to this woman's vision of a state that would truly care for and nurture its most vulnerable citizens, by creating a model institution for change. When her idealistic concept for the State Home and School was first suggested, Chace later remembered, "much contempt was cast upon a project of giving to dependent children a pleasant, happy home." ["Children of the State," undated newspaper clipping, EBC Scrapbook, Brown University Library] If her unwavering faith in a state institution as the agent of change seems archaic to us today, Elizabeth Buffum Chace's defiant response to those who would deny indigent children the right to enjoy the pursuit of happiness ring uneasily in our ears in 2003: "If a pleasant and happy home helps to make good men and women of the favored sons and daughters of worthy and well-to-do parents," Chace said, "how much more do those need it, who have begun life under the most unfavorable circumstances! And what can the expense of a good training for such children weigh against the enormous out-lay we make to build reform schools, alms-houses and prisons...? [ ibid]

To learn more about the project contact Patricia Nolin, Special Assistant to the President, call (401) 456-9854, or email

To contribute to the oral history project contact Diane Martell at (email) or 401-456-8628 (phone).