At the age of 9 years old Betty Fitzgerald-Griffith and four of her siblings, along with one nephew, found themselves ripped from the care of her mother and living at Hillcrest Children’s Home. Having never left Portsmouth before, the children were uncertain of what was to come next for them. After adjusting to life at the Children’s Home, Fitzgerald-Griffith began to feel safe and secure. With 70 years passing since she first entered Hillcrest Children’s Home, Betty Fitzgerald-Griffith shares her story of her time spent there.
“January 14, 1949. I was nine years old and lived in a shack on 14th St. in West Portsmouth. My mother had eleven children at the time and only four of us remained at home. My sister Lois was 13, my brother Emory Jr. was 11, I was 9, and my baby sister Judy was 4 ½ or 5. Also living with us was my older sister’s son, Jimmy, who was also 4 ½,” said Fitzgerald-Griffith.
“My mom did everything she could to keep us altogether with her. There was very little to eat and we children all slept on pallets on the floor. Our shack did not have running water, a toilet or electric. We had a cistern for water and an outhouse in the backyard and coal oil Lamps to see by.”
Fitzgerald-Griffith stated the family lived in fear of an abusive father, who would be gone for months at a time.
“One night when dad had been gone for a year or more, mom had a male visitor at our house. My sister Mary decided she wanted to come and get her son, and mom tried to reason with her to come back instead the next day. Mary left and came back with a few friends, and when mom opened the door Mary’s friends pulled the man out and beat him with a board,” said Fitzgerald-Griffith.
It was after this altercation, according to Fitzgerald-Griffith, that her mother was taken to jail. “The next day they took us children to jail where they had mom. Mommy braided my long hair as we sat in the cell with her. We were waiting for a social worker to take us to Hillcrest Children’s Home,” said Fitzgerald-Griffith. “The judge had made us a ward of the court and we were placed in the back seat of a large black car and taken away. We were not told where they were taking us.”
Fitzgerald-Griffith recounts the uncertainty of not knowing exactly where they were being taken, and being separated from the younger children.
“I had never been out of Portsmouth before and it seemed a long way up to Wheelersburg where Hillcrest was. We all cried all the way there. Lois held tight to both of the babies that were scared to death. The car stopped in front of a very large brick building with steep stairs up to the door. Our babies were both taken to the nursery. We had only seen them in the cafeteria. We could see them but not go to them when they cried for us,” said Fitzgerald-Griffith.
As time passed, things became more normal for Betty at Hillcrest.
“Hillcrest children’s home wasn’t bad after you stayed for a while. We each were in a different dorm and had a small bed of our own. There were showers and toilets and the first toothbrush I had ever seen. They had to tell me how to use it. I was in the little girl’s dorm, Lois in the middle girl’s dorm, brother Junior in the little boys dorm on the other side of the building and the little ones both in the nursery,” said Fitzgerald-Griffith.
“We lived by the ringing of the ding-dong bell. It rang at about 6 a.m. to get everyone awakened. We made our bed and went to the bathroom. When the next bell rang you went to the cafeteria and stood behind your chair waiting on the blessing to be said. I sat in that same chair all the time I was there. We worked as teams to get our dorm cleaned every Saturday. We girls swept, scrubbed, rinsed and dried the floor. Then the beds were put back where they belonged. There were a few girls who polished our black and white shoes. Every once in a while shoes would be taken to a shoe shop to have soled. The older girls had jobs also working in the cafeteria, nursery or kitchen helping cook,” said Fitzgerald-Griffith. “We all left for school when a bell dinged and lined up at the foot of the steps, then in a small asphalt walkway that we all walked to school on. It was wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side. We walked in groups sort of like family. We talked all the way to school. It was maybe a mile into town. I had caught up with Brother Junior so we were in the same class. I cried and the teacher let me sit with him.”
Fitzgerald-Griffith recalled that while at Hillcrest she began biting her fingernails, and was stuck with the bad habit until well into her 60’s. “There were lots of children there at Hillcrest, our home on the hill. It was as if we had 200 brothers and sisters. There was discipline there, they used a wooden paddle if you did something wrong.”
Over the next few months, things within the family shifted and Betty found herself the only one left at Hillcrest.
“My sister was able to get her son after a few months, and then she took my baby sister out too. My brother ran away crossing the train trestle, close to the school, over to Kentucky to our grandmother’s. Mom came to see us as much as she could, but she had to ride a bus and it made it hard on her. Sister Lois ran off also, and at that time mom was divorced from dad and lived in Kentucky so Lois got a job babysitting for people back in the hills while brother Junior went on a train to Baltimore to one of our older sisters. They never found Junior or Lois to return them to the home,” said Fitzgerald-Griffith. “I was there the last year alone to finish the fifth grade. I was told that if I passed I would be able to leave.”
Fitzgerald-Griffith recalls some fond memories of lessons learned and playtime at Hillcrest.
“’The Home’” as we all called it, was a disciplined place but also a good home. We were fed well and had pretty good clothes to wear and plenty of people to be friends with. On weekends we cleaned our dorm, but we also had time to play. Back to the dorm, when we arrived at Hillcrest we were taught to make our small cots (bed). We tucked the sheets in and made it the first thing when we got out of it, something I still do today. We had a grassy hill that the home sat upon. We played house there for hours in the summertime and we listened for the bell to dong meaning playtime was over.”
“There might be a baseball game going on with the older boys playing. There was a swingset to swing on, which had several swings and no danger of turning it over. There were windows where the supervisors could watch out from, and they did. One of the only spankings I received while there was for walking with my shoes on in a puddle of water. That was seen from the office window. I was reading and walking. I never did that again.”
Fitzgerald-Griffith said as young girls the children in the home were taught to peel bushel baskets full of potatoes, and it was quickly learned that when they sent you to do something you did it the very best you could. She also remembers trips into town to be measured by a seamstress for an Easter dress, and recalls that many of the girls received dressed in the same material and style, made well by the talented woman.
By May 19, 1950, Betty was able to return to the care of her mother, but upon reflection wishes she had been able to grow up at Hillcrest.
“I felt more secure at Hillcrest than I ever did once I left there,” said Fitzgerald-Griffith. “It wasn’t that mom didn’t love us, it was that we all had changed after that. I felt rejected after being left there and wished they had of left me there.”