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Wichita Phyllis Wheatley Children's Home

Wichita Phyllis Wheatley Children’s Home

City/Town:
Location Class:
Built: 1935 | Abandoned: 1980
Historic Designation: African American Heritage Site
Status: Abandoned
Photojournalist: Emily Cowan
Wichita Phyllis Wheatley Children's Home
ca. Jan 1978

The Phyllis Wheatley Wichita Childrens Home was organized by Elsie Miller and the Federated Womens’ Club, a group of selfless and caring women that wanted to provide a safe place for African American children in 1920. Named after ‘Phillis’ Wheatley who was the first African American and the second woman to publish a book of poems. She was born in Gambia, Africa where she was captured and brought to America as a slave in 1761. The institutional home cared for children ages two to fourteen whose parents could not afford to care for them. It also served as a day nursery for parents working whose kids were not in school. The still existing modern brick two-story building was completed in 1935 for $16,000 after years of fundraising through community events and donations. The new building, needed after the old one was condemned by a city building inspector, was dedicated on April 28, 1935. An annual open house was held to celebrate the building, on the seventh celebration they burned the $20,000 mortgage.

Just eight years after opening in its new building the Phyllis Wheatley Children’s Home was caring for fifty children. Being at capacity other arrangements had to be made for other incoming children. The reason for such high numbers was blamed on World War 2, still active during this time. Children were taught how to play with others, share, observe, and learn to be creative through arts and crafts. The home thrived off of donations and was one of 34 health and wellness agencies that were a part of the United Way Fund, which donated every 3/4 dollars earned, to the children. The Hyde Recreational Building, named after A.A. Hyde who had made sizeable donations to the home, was added on at a cost of $12,000 and was dedicated on April 27, 1947. It had a basketball court, dormitory room for twelve children, living quarters for a supervisor, and showers.

A story from The Wichita Beacon on September 11 1965 depicts life in the home like this;

“I know a secret,” the first little girl whispered into one end of a long rubber tube. Eight feet away her playmate nodded excitedly, and then gravely moved her end of their make-believe telephone toward her mouth and yelled “what is it?”- in a voice that would have carried blocks without the slightest aid from any sound conductor. Inside a red brick building only a few feet away, a four-year-old boy was completely absorbed in dribbling brightly colored sand on a shirt board smeared with glue. Noting the attention his efforts were receiving, the little boy looked up. “A painting for Mama,” he announced with pride. In a two-story building on the same grounds, an eleven-year-old boy sat happily poring over a book about the life of George Washington Carver. These three scenes are typical of those glimpsed by visitors touring Wichita’s Phyllis Wheatley Children’s Home. “So many visitors here for the first time expect to feel so sorry for the children,” commented Mrs. Alyce Christopher, acting director of the home. “And then they notice that everyone has a smile.”

But in the 1970s the home experienced a trough of financial troughs after county funding was cut. The capacity of the facility that could once hold dozens of kids decreased drastically housing only 13 in 1978. It also underwent a lot of changes under new Director Frank Warthan, instead of just being an emergency shelter and overnight stop for orphaned and troubled children, Warthan wanted to create a loving structure. Individualized programs for delinquent children were put in place to help discipline and teach, wake up and sleep times enforced, with 24-hour supervision. Responsibility was taught through a points system where youth could earn rewards.

Tragically the home that had helped thousands of children over the decades announced that it would be closing on October 15, 1980. State officials stated the cause for closing was because the facility was not being run economically and was not up to state-building requirements for live-in childcare facilities. “The Phyllis Wheatley Children’s Home has had a long and glorious life. We feel it has provided a needed service throughout its history,” said Don Anderson, the president of the home’s board of directors. The three children left in the home were moved to different facilities where they would be cared for.

After closure, the building sat unoccupied for what has turned into decades. Briefly, the Sedgwick County community corrections program considered housing itself in the building in the mid-1980s.  This was met with lots of backlash from the surrounding neighbors, they made it very clear they did not want to live next to convicts. A petition of over a hundred names was presented to the county outlining their opposition. So the building has continued to sit abandoned, with the exception of one of the additions behind the main building that was restored and used for events by the Ninth Street Church. The owner says the church plans to eventually restore the main building as well through donations.

Article by AKS Photojournalist Emily Cowan




Bibliography

“10 Oct 1953, 11 – The Wichita Eagle at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/720161913/?terms=phyllis%20wheatley%20children&match=1.

“11 Sep 1965, 3 – The Wichita Beacon at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/694474112/?terms=phyllis%20wheatley%20children&match=1.

“13 Apr 1943, 9 – The Wichita Beacon at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/718950885/?terms=phyllis%20wheatley%20children&match=1.

“14 Feb 1984, 11 – The Wichita Eagle at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/698374551/?terms=phyllis%20wheatley%20children&match=1.

“14 Oct 1951, 16 – The Wichita Eagle at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/719804635/?terms=phyllis%20wheatley%20children&match=1.

“15 Oct 1980, 53 – The Wichita Eagle at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/697933906/?terms=phyllis%20wheatley%20children&match=1.

“15 Oct 1980, 72 – The Wichita Eagle at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/697934155.

“17 Dec 1963, 10 – The Wichita Eagle at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/718599830/?terms=phyllis%20wheatley%20children&match=1.

“2 Mar 1937, 13 – The Wichita Beacon at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/718867976/?terms=phyllis%20wheatley%20children&match=1.

“20 Apr 1947, 3 – The Wichita Eagle at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/718435073/?terms=phyllis%20wheatley&match=1.

“21 Feb 1984, 46 – The Wichita Eagle at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/698412452/?terms=phyllis%20wheatley%20children&match=1.

“23 Dec 1973, 54 – The Wichita Beacon at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/701586399/?terms=phyllis%20wheatley%20children&match=1.

“23 Oct 1967, 3 – The Wichita Beacon at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/694489995/?terms=phyllis%20wheatley%20children&match=1.

“27 Apr 1947, 7 – The Wichita Eagle at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/718437033/?terms=phyllis%20wheatley&match=1.

“3 May 1942, 23 – The Wichita Eagle at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/718654785/?terms=phyllis%20wheatley%20children&match=1.

“3 Oct 1948, 16 – The Wichita Eagle at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/718419721/?terms=phyllis%20wheatley%20children&match=1.

“4 May 1942, 2 – The Wichita Beacon at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/718954335/?terms=phyllis%20wheatley%20children&match=1.

“9 Jan 1978, 9 – The Wichita Eagle at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/696089343/?terms=phyllis%20wheatley%20children&match=1.

“9 Oct 1968, 13 – The Wichita Beacon at Newspapers.com.” Newspapers.com, www.newspapers.com/image/694126187/?terms=phyllis%20wheatley%20children&match=1.

Special Collections – LibGuides at Wichita State University, specialcollections.wichita.edu/collections/local_history/tihen/pdf/People&Places/Phyllis_Wheatley_Childrens_Home.PDF.

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Emily Cowan

Emily is a two-time published author of "Abandoned Oklahoma: Vanishing History of the Sooner State" and "Abandoned Topeka: Psychiatric Capital of the World". With over two hundred published articles on our websites. Exploring since 2018 every aspect of this has become a passion for her. From educating, fighting to preserve, writing, and learning about history there is nothing she would rather do.

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