Making Invisible Women Visible

Encyclopedia Virginia in conjunction with our partners at The Library of Virginia’s Dictionary of Virginia Biography is pleased to publish a biography of Janie Aurora Porter Barrett, a pathbreaking educator and social reformer who exemplifies Black women’s contributions to the Commonwealth in the Progressive Era. And we’re equally thrilled that Barrett’s biography was contributed by the legendary historian Anne Firor Scott before she passed away in 2019. 

Scott is best known for her book The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930, published in 1970, which is widely credited for helping to “open the floodgates both for women historians and women’s history,” according to the citation for the National Humanities Medal that President Barack Obama presented to Scott in 2013. Her contribution to history can be summed up by the title of her 1984 book Making the Invisible Woman Visible. Of course, women like Barrett weren’t invisible in their own communities, or in the Commonwealth, in their lifetimes. But they are often overlooked by history.

Scott was determined to write history that restored women like Barrett to their place in the historical narrative. She was particularly fascinated with the role that women’s civic organizations, both Black and white, played in reforming society in everything from education to welfare policy to sanitation at a time when women held little formal political power. With her 1991 book Natural Allies: Women’s Associations in American History, Scott reframed the history of “women’s clubs,” which had been largely dismissed as frivolous social organizations, to show how energetically women organized and how the associations they formed “lay at the very heart of American social and political development.”

Barrett was a perfect example of this organizing and reforming impulse. She credited Sir Walter Besant’s 1882 utopian novel All Sorts and Conditions of Men: An Impossible Story, about a philanthropist who sets out to help the poor of London’s East End, with inspiring her. After graduating from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, Barrett taught school before marrying Harris Barrett, who would become an influential local entrepreneur. However, writes Scott, “Rather than becoming another comfortable member of the developing Black bourgeoise,” Barrett “formed a sewing class for neighborhood girls,” part of a trend of women working within their communities to create educational and recreational opportunities for working-class girls.

This led to the creation in 1890 of the Locust Street Settlement, which over the next twenty years, notes Scott, “reached into every part of the Hampton community,” offering clubs and classes on childrearing, housekeeping skills and handicrafts, agriculture, and education, and providing support to the local Black community in the form of childcare and recreational activities.  

In 1908, Barrett helped found the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs to organize the Black women’s clubs that had formed around Virginia, which, like white women’s clubs, addressed community issues such as child welfare and public health and campaigned for woman suffrage, while also addressing racism.

Barrett’s most lasting legacy, however, would be the creation in 1915 of the Industrial School for Colored Girls, which sought to divert from incarceration what were then called “wayward girls” through vocational education, recreation, and a home-like atmosphere. This was a major Progressive Era advancement at a time when there were no social services or age-appropriate facilities for juveniles who found themselves in trouble with the law—Barrett often told the story of finding an eight-year-old girl in jail as her impetus for creating the school. Barrett marshaled support for the school from both Black and white clubwomen and from the General Assembly and guided the school until her retirement in 1940. Later renamed the Janie Porter Barrett School for Girls, and integrated in 1965, it would fulfill its founder’s mission for ninety years, before closing in 2005.


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