In 1994, over burgers and fries at the Ground Round in Crystal, my mother shared a secret she’d held close to her heart for the preceding 33 years: she had another daughter. She’d gotten pregnant after a brief but intense relationship in 1960, while she was a journalism student at the University of Minnesota. Her erstwhile boyfriend wanted nothing to do with the situation, so she faced an uncertain future on her own at a time when single pregnancy was cause for shame. She quit school, secreted herself away in her parents’ house for six months, then entered the Salvation Army Booth Memorial Hospital on Como Avenue in St. Paul. Booth was a home and hospital for unwed mothers. In January 1961, my mother gave birth to a baby girl and surrendered her for adoption. Thirty-three years later, that daughter had found and reunited with my mother.
I didn’t pay much attention to the historical dimensions of my mother’s story in 1994, or in the years following that. Mostly I focused on getting to know my (half) sister…and finishing graduate school, and writing my first book about women Vietnam veterans, and trying to start a family with my husband, and our struggles with infertility, and the adoption of our son from Vietnam, and a chronic illness of my own, and, and… there was always something demanding my time and attention. Throughout it all, and despite the fact that I was a historian of women in the postwar United States – and an oral historian to boot! – I never asked my mother to tell me her story of being one of the many young women who concealed their unmarried pregnancy in a maternity home at the peak of “baby scoop” era in the U.S.
And then it was too late. My mother died, from pancreatic cancer, in February 2009.
My first book was released in September 2011. Almost immediately thereafter, I decided I needed to investigate my mother’s experiences more fully, and the only way I knew how: as an historian. So I turned to the archives in search of everything and anything I could find about Booth. In 2014, I worked with the Minnesota Independent Scholars Forum on a Legacy grant-funded project that supported my research in archives both here and at the Salvation Army National Archives in Alexandria, Virginia. Although I amassed a great, if incomplete, record of Booth’s history, there was one critical element missing from the story: the voices of the women who had resided at Booth, many of whom also had surrendered their babies for adoption.
Now, with the continuing support of the Minnesota Independent Scholars Forum and the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage (Legacy) Fund, I’ll try to recover some of those voices. We’ve received enough funding to support oral history interviews with nine former “Booth girls” and Booth staff. I’m eager to get started on the project, and hope that hearing these women’s stories will help me understand my mother’s.
History is personal.