Sherry Matthews uncovers painful Texas truths in We Were Not Orphans
Sherry Matthews’ book We Were Not Orphans: Stories from the Waco State Home was never supposed to be written.
First of all, no one imagined the stories of the alumni of the Waco State Home would have much of an audience. Second of all, a number of significant individuals made every attempt possible to stop the truth behind these stories from ever surfacing.
That’s because the stories hidden at the Waco State Home are largely filled with shocking incidents of abuse and neglect from superintendents, disciplinarians, teachers and even clergy members. Yet, through all the dark spots, another story of perseverance, refinement and fond family bonding also permeates this chorus of voices.
Matthews herself never intended to be a book author. As the director of a successful social advocacy marketing firm in town, Matthews barely has time to travel, much less research, write, edit and promote a book of oral histories spanning five decades.
“This book was an accident,” says Matthews during a weekday interview she manages to squeeze in between meetings. “But I know now I was meant to write it.”
Matthews’ relationship with the Waco State Home began when she was three years old, when her three older brothers went to live at the Home. It was six long years before Matthews saw her brothers again, and even then, none of them opened up about their experiences at the Home. “I think they were protecting us with their silence,” she says.
It wasn’t until Matthews agreed to attend a Waco State Home reunion with her brother that she understood why. Hearing the stories firsthand helped her to comprehend what may have happened during those six silent years. “It was incredibly emotional to hear these stories from strangers,” she says. “It made me wonder, Is this what happened to my brothers?”
After getting to know these men and women of the Waco State Home, Matthews’ background in social advocacy kicked in and she realized how powerful these stories could be in exposing the injustices that laid dormant for so many decades and finally granting them a space to share their unique experiences.
“I realized there’s a book here,” she remembers. “What was unique is that no one ever did a first person account of institutionalized children before, and now here was the opportunity to tell their story.”
Matthews and her oral history editor, Jesse Sublett, began interviewing interested alumni who wanted to share their experiences at the home. At first, the stories they collected showed the positive side of their experiences at the Home: the warm beds, the good friends, the opportunity for an education.
As one alumna, Oletha “Lee” Dorrough McConnell, who lived at the Home from 1937-1941, says in the book, “I was delighted to be at the Home. I had all of these schoolmates to play with. I just felt fortunate to have my needs met.” And for many, having food and shelter really was an improvement from the conditions they faced back home with their families.
Occasionally, however, folks would whisper secrets to the interviewers, hinting at darker memories lurking below the Home’s cheery surface. Sometimes, Matthews recalls, the storytellers would slip into childish voices, using old slang or acting out their stories, as if they were reliving those experiences.
Eventually, a collective story emerged documenting significant figures who denied the children of their rights and kept the children in line through regular verbal abuse, severe beatings and sexual assaults. In fact, Matthews points out, there is one notorious staffer, C.B. Whigham, who was mentioned 52 times in 56 different stories, remembered for his abject cruelty and unrelenting violence toward the children.
In the book, alumni Tommy Turner (1947-1957) recounts an uprising against Whigham after a particularly brutal encounter with a disabled student named David. “No one was seriously hurt, but we gave [Whigham] a good thrashing that night,” recalls Turner. “We were just tired of him and his brutality, for we’d all been on the receiving end.”
With more research, Matthews and researcher Beau LeBoeuf began chipping away at the buried infrastructure that reinforced this heinous treatment for half a century. At the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, they began uncovering doctored letters and case files that confirmed the darker side of the administration. Superintendents commended staff members for especially egregious acts and threatened any staff members that dared to stand up against the abuse.
“There are some especially terrible superintendents,” says Matthews solemnly. After Arthur Weibusch was fired, for example, the Board of Directors found he had embezzled money from the letters parents sent to their children. “He would take the money and burn the letters.”
A key piece of the puzzle for Matthews came in the form of the private collection of former Waco State Home archivist Harold Larson one month prior to the book’s publication. Before his death, Larson staunchly denied any wrongdoing at the Home and blasted Matthews for exposing secrets he didn’t want revealed to the public.
“A psychiatrist once told me that denial of a trauma can be so severe that the truth can be completely transformed,” says Matthews. “For some of these alumni, they really aren’t able to see what happened all around them.”
Larson’s files, which were opened to Matthews by Larson’s relatives, included files and documents from the Waco State Home’s first years without the tampering or legal protection of blacked-out names. Finally, the entire story could be pieced together. The names of alumni, many of whom had already been interviewed for the book, were revealed in the files. Revelations were even made about questions left unanswered sixty years ago. “People were able to find out where their siblings went after they disappeared from the State Home. People found letters their parents had sent that they never received,” says Matthews.
The story of the Waco State Home continues unfolding for Matthews and the alumni of the Home. Since publishing the book with The University of Texas Press in February of 2011, the alumni continue to find one another and share their stories on the We Were Not Orphans website.
“The book is just the beginning of a never-ending story,” Matthews reflects. “Because of this project, the alumni have become my family now, too.”
Corra Films has also made a short documentary with Matthews, depicting many of the alumni stories collected in the book. Matthews is now looking at optioning off a longer form of the documentary to premiere on cable networks as well.
“It’s important to get this story out. This is just one of thousands of these homes that existed—and still exist—around the country,” says Matthews. “Learning about what went on at these places helps us to understand a segment of our population as well as our own lasting prejudices against poverty.”
Matthews hopes We Were Not Orphans can further conversations on the sociological impacts of poverty, corporeal punishment and sustained personal trauma. “So many people have said, ‘Thank you for giving me a voice,’” says Matthews, “or ‘Thank you for helping me to understand my parents.’ That’s what it’s all about, I think.“
Although the institution closed in 1973, the surviving alumni still gather annually for reunions, a collection of affected individuals who emerged with various levels of tarnish. They now spend the shared times reliving the brighter moments from that time with the friends that became their makeshift family.
As for Matthews, she’s preparing to tell her own family’s story in a yet-untitled autobiography surrounding the circumstances leading up to her brothers’ departure to the Home as well as her mother’s shifting rights as a single mother in East Texas. “I guess my story’s not done yet,” she smiles.
Matthews will also be discussing her book at Barnes & Noble - Arboretum this Saturday at 2pm. Matthews will be discussing the book’s origin and answering audience questions before showing the We Were Not Orphans documentary.