One of Rhode Island’s Oldest Independent Charities
On a Saturday morning in April, a committee of half a dozen people gathered to decide how more than $100,000 will be spread to three dozen agencies in the Providence area. They are today’s stewards for one of Rhode Island’s oldest independent charities: The Providence Shelter for Colored Children (yes, you read that correctly), which has withstood periodic efforts to change its name since the organization was founded in 1838.
“The name actually struck me as really odd, but I was intrigued,’’ said Linda Cline, the group’s current president. Not only did the name pique her curiosity, but so did the fact that there is no shelter building. That was closed in 1940 and the assets were converted into a foundation. The name, though, and the group’s goals remain steadfast 70 years after the doors closed: financial support for children of color.
“There are so many organizations that need financial assistance in order to thrive, in order to be viable,’’ Cline said. “We’re still servicing African-American children in the Greater Providence area and we have not strayed from that mission.”
Mary Lima has been on the board for more than three decades and knew children who lived at the shelter before it closed in 1940. “It’s quite an interesting history in terms of the role they played because there was no other facility, state or otherwise, that provided a shelter for the colored — black — children at that time. Families needed this kind of assistance, particularly because the women were single parents and worked as domestic workers or maids in homes throughout Providence, particularly on the East Side.’’
The shelter was founded by a group of middle-class white women living on the East Side in 1938 that included the granddaughter of leading anti-slavery activist Moses Brown.
It was housed at 403 North Main Street the first decade, before moving over to the lower end of Wickenden Street. For nearly a century, though, the shelter was located in a building on Olive Street, in what is now the heart of the Brown University campus.
Connie Worthington is a past shelter president and knows much of the organization’s rich history. “The shelter was a place where parents who were working at the houses on College Hill could board their children because the kids weren’t welcome.’’
Elayne Walker-Cabral’s mother, Betty Walker, at the age of 10 lived in the shelter with her siblings after Betty’s mother fled from an abusive husband. Betty Walker later served on the board and died four years ago at the age of 74.
“My mom was insistent as the oldest of six children — she was about 10 at the time — that the siblings stay together,’’ said Walker-Cabral. “So somehow the shelter was responsible for them being placed with a minster and his wife who cared for them until my mother got married.”
Changes in child welfare policies in the 20th century meant a dwindling number of children in the shelter, which ultimately closed its doors.
Since then the organization has transitioned into a charitable foundation. In the 1950s and ‘60s it gave relatively large sums to a handful of organizations, including the Urban League of Rhode Island, The Mount Hope Day Care Center on the East Side and the John Hope Settlement House.
In 1970, the focus shifted and now the shelter annually funds a variety of organizations and schools, including Community Music Works, Crossroads Rhode Island, Sophia Academy and the San Miguel School.
This year a total of $112,000 went to 36 agencies in amounts ranging from $500 to $6,500.
Mary Lima says the organization has had periodic discussions about keeping, or changing, its name. “As we bring new board members on who don’t have the full history of the board, that’s generally when those discussions will come up. A new board member may wonder why we are the shelter for colored children.”
Worthington said, “We refer to children of color in this day and age, so it’s not so impossible. But I think the main thing is that its historic. It’s 175 years old. It’s been the name that long and I think anytime an organization changes its name, it’s tough.”
Walker-Cabral at one point confronted her mother about it. “I remember saying to my mom when she first went on the board, ‘I think you should make some kind of proclamation that they should change the name from colored children to African-American or black children.’ Having gone to college in the South, I was very militant. And she said, ‘They would never do that because that is who they served: colored children.’ And they didn’t make a distinction between black and African-American and Cape Verdean and other immigrant people.”
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