Smith, Carrie Weaver (1885–1942)


By: Michael Phillips and Betsy Friauf

Type: Biography

Published: July 27, 2021

Updated: September 1, 2021


Carrie Weaver Smith, social reformer, physician, and reform school administrator, achieved national fame as a controversial but widely respected expert on the causes of female juvenile delinquency. when she won appointment as the first director of the Texas State Training School for Girls (later called the Gainesville State School for Girls), a penal institution for White female juvenile offenders that opened in 1916 in Gainesville, Texas.

Smith was born to James Rembert and Caroline (Palmer) Smith in Fayetteville, Georgia, on January 14, 1885. She lived with relatives in Thomaston, Georgia, after her mother, a music teacher prior to marriage, died in 1894, and her father, a Methodist minister, died in 1895. Smith graduated from La Grange College in Georgia and Scarritt Bible and Training School in Kansas City before she received her medical degree from the Pennsylvania Women’s Medical College in 1910. Prior to her appointment at Gainesville, she worked for four years as the house physician at the Virginia K. Johnson Home and Training School for young women in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas, Texas.

The Texas legislature authorized the opening of the Gainesville school in its 1913 session. As the school’s first director, Smith had considerable influence over every aspect of the school and advocated reforms, considered progressive for the era, such as ending corporal punishment, and emphasized vocational training and sex education. She wanted to ensure that Gainesville inmates were treated more like students than prisoners, a sharp contrast to county facilities and the state prison system’s State Juvenile Training School for boys (later the Gatesville State School for Boys). In preparation for her pending duties, Smith visited the Dallas County Industrial Girls Home and found the staff there provided the girls tainted meat for meals that resulted in widespread hookworm infections. Discipline at the Dallas home included the use of whips and chaining unruly inmates. Horrified, Smith banned physical punishment at the Gainesville school and sought to rehabilitate the girls through a structured environment that functioned more like a school than a prison. As one social work publication described the school, it was a place “where girls go right.” She hired a staff of college-trained women, which included a psychologist, medical staff, and teachers. She instituted a cottage system in which the girls lived in small groups in cottages and each girl had privacy in a room to themselves, a first for most Gainesville inmates. She also encouraged the inmates to appreciate the beauty and natural wonders available at the school’s 160-acre tract as well as led the girls on nature walks on the school grounds and established a nature museum on the school property where girls kept the flowers and other biological specimens they discovered on their walks. As part of Smith’s effort to provide the girls with positive character training, moral and patriotic activities, and useful skills, she helped organize branches of the Girl Scouts of America and the Young Women’s Christian Association at the school. In addition, the school provided classes in stenography, bookkeeping, nursing, and other skills to prepare the girls for the jobs available to women in that era. With the idea that self-expression was critical to the girls’ rehabilitation, Smith established “open forums” at the school on Sunday afternoons, during which the girls’ questions on any subject would be answered.

Smith never resolved whether the girls under her charge committed criminal offenses because of their impoverished backgrounds, their supposedly “defective” biology, or a combination of the two. She and the staff physically examined the juvenile offenders upon arrival and found that one-third suffered from venereal disease. While the judicial system had charged many of the girls with sexual delinquency, Smith argued that the minors had been subjected to sexual abuse, often at the hands of male relatives who were not charged with a crime. Smith described the inmates as “the children of squatters, the moral and physical filth of their surroundings being unspeakable,” poorly fed, and immodest since they grew up without privacy in “shotgun houses” and “covered wagons.” Surrounded by alcoholism during their childhoods, many inmates suffered from such afflictions before their arrival at the school. Smith often told audiences about one girl who told her that at home she was used to “having half a pint of whiskey and two packages of ‘Camels’ [cigarettes] a day.” Smith also acknowledged that the courts treated impoverished girls differently from their wealthier peers, who the courts rarely sent to Gainesville.

Eugenics played an essential role in Smith’s professional approach. Eugenics was an ideology and a movement built on erroneous racist, scientific concepts that aimed to prevent supposedly biologically inferior individuals from conceiving children while promoting the reproduction of those deemed as the “fit” to improve the human race, She attributed criminal behavior of youths to defective biology, a common but faulty assertion of eugenicists, who viewed criminality as an inheritable biological trait and advocated state legislatures pass sterilization and more restrictive marriage laws. In her presentation, “The Unadjusted Girl,” delivered at the National Conference of Social Work in New Orleans in 1920, Smith stated, “Eugenically, the delinquent girl is a terrible misfit, and reflects the folly and criminal negligence of the state in regard to marriage regulations.” Smith added, “Idiots, epileptics, syphilitics, tuberculars, marry ad libitum. . . . [We] take care of their offspring in the penitentiaries, asylums, schools for the feebleminded, and finally . . . by the hangman’s noose or the electric chair.” In 1919 Smith brought in Cornelia Augenstein, the first eugenics field worker assigned to Texas by the Eugenics Records Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York. Augenstein and other eugenics field workers investigated the family backgrounds of delinquents and others suspected of being “dysgenic” and attempted to document a biological reason for their aberrant behavior. Smith also believed that racial identity played a role in delinquency and that Native American heritage in particular contributed to criminal behavior. In 1916, however, Smith did encourage the state legislature to provide a reformatory school for African American girls, an unpopular request not fulfilled until 1947 (see CROCKETT STATE SCHOOL).

Smith’s rehabilitation methods began to draw the hostile attention of the Texas legislature and the State Board of Control that oversaw the state eleemosynary institutions. In 1924 Richard B. Walthall, a member of the board, got into a heated public dispute with Smith over the board’s proposal to spend $10,000 to build a fence around the institution to prevent escapes and improve school security. Smith objected to a fence and suggested it would create a prison-like atmosphere at the school as well as interfere with the explorations of nature the girls enjoyed. By 1925 legislators also objected to the sex education provided at Gainesville, high costs per inmate, and Smith’s policy on parole, which placed girls to work in what Smith considered healthy home environments. She argued the law that established the school stated the inmates were not “to be considered criminals with sentences” and that what “we do not want at the school is an atmosphere of a prison or a penitentiary but a homelike atmosphere for the rebuilding and remolding of character.” By early 1925 some in the state legislature called for the Gainesville school to be shut down, and in mid-July the Board of the Control voted to not reinstate Smith as director on the grounds of insubordination. Women’s organizations, including the Dallas Women’s Political League and the Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs, rallied to Smith’s defense, but to no avail. She remained the head of the Gainesville school until the end of her contract in September 1925, then officially “retired” from the school. Years later she suggested her removal was caused by “ a row with the Ku Klux Klan.”

Smith was hired by the Federal Children’s Bureau the same year she left Gainesville. She gave lectures around the country and met with women’s groups. In the late 1920s she also worked for the New Jersey Department of Health, then became superintendent of the Montrose School for Girls (formerly the Maryland Industrial School for Girls) in Maryland in September 1929. In late 1933 she was dismissed by the school’s board of directors after complaints of her insubordination and disciplinary methods. In February 1936 she was appointed superintendent of the National Training School for Girls in Washington, D.C., after a brief period of employment with the U. S. Public Health Service. Smith lobbied for increased funding for the training school, which she described as “appalling” because of its aging laundry and kitchen equipment and a lack of hot water. She won the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who persuaded Congress to increase the school’s budget by $100,000. In May Roosevelt invited Smith and some of the inmates to the White House for tea. According to press accounts, African American and White girls from the school stood in separate “cottage units” at the south portico of the White House during the event. In 1937 Smith was dismissed by the Board of Public Welfare for being too “lenient” after a fight broke out between White and African American inmates at the school.

After her dismissal, Smith left the field of juvenile rehabilitation and opened a bookstore in Washington, D. C. A lover of poetry, Smith had begun composing verse in her early childhood. Carrie Weaver Smith died in Washington, D. C., on May 22, 1942. She was buried at Westview Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia. A collection of her poetry, Andrew’s Raid: A Ballad and Selected Songs, was published posthumously by her sister, Leonora Smith, in 1944.  

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Atlanta Constitution, December 10, 1895; May 25, 1942. Austin American, July 15, 19, 1925. Baltimore Sun, September 26, 1929; November 14, 1933. William S. Bush, Who Gets a Childhood (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010). Dallas Morning News, February 5, 1921; February 1, 4, 6, 11, 17, 1925; August 10, 1925; September 2, 1925; December 14, 1925; May 17, 1936. The Eagle (Bryan, Texas), July 23, 1925. Evening Report (Lebanon, Pennsylvania), February 18, 1936. Evening Star (Washington, D. C.), October 29, 1937. Evening Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), November 10, 1933. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, May 21, 1925; July 17, 1925; August 23, 1925. Houston Post, August 15, 1915. Michael A. Rembis, Defining Deviance: Sex, Science, and Delinquent Girls, 1890–1960 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013). Carrie Weaver Smith, “The Unadjusted Girl,” Proceedings of the National Conference of Social Work at the Forty-Seventh Annual Session Held in New Orleans, Louisiana, April 14–21, 1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1920). Carrie Weaver Smith, “Indian-White Blood,” The Eugenical News IV (March 1922). Carrie Weaver Smith, Andrew’s Raid: A Ballad and Selected Songs (Self-published, 1944). Washington Post, October 30, 1937.

Categories:
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  • Advocates
  • Social Workers
  • Education
  • Health and Medicine
  • Hospital, School, and Association Administrators
  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Prison Administrators and Reformers
  • Politics and Government
  • Women
  • Women's Clubs
  • Writers, Authors, Publications, and Literature
  • Literature
  • Poets
Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era
  • Texas in the 1920s
Places:
  • North Texas

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July 27, 2021
September 1, 2021

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