Back in the Day:

A girl's journey through orphanages, reform schools


No one will ever know what was going through the mind of Clara May Broome nearly a century ago when she first stepped into the large, three-story Oaklawn School for Girls in Cranston. She was only a teenager, and yet this stint in the girls’ reform school was only another turbulent transition in an already tragic life.

Clara was born on Aug. 8, 1911, in Johnston. Her father, Thomas Broome, died just 10 days before Christmas of 1914 at the age of 39. Gertie (Broadfield) Broome, her mother, removed to Providence where she found work as a spinner in a mill. Clara’s oldest sister, 16-year-old Florie, helped out by working at a shoelace factory. Fourteen-year-old sister Carrie worked as a mill doffer. Additional siblings included 11-year-old Thomas, 9-year-old Martha and 5-year-old Isabelle.

Caring for six children on her own wasn’t easy for Gertie, and later that year, Isabelle and Clara were placed in a state orphanage. Within the next five years, the two girls were transferred to the RI State Home & School and 14-year-old Martha had now joined them.

Gertie had removed to Stewart Street in Providence and was still spinning in the mills. Florie, who was now 21, had gotten married to a Mr. Faulkner, and she and her infant son, Joseph Faulkner, were living with Gertie, apart from her husband.

Like her mother, Carrie was employed as a mill spinner and was boarding in Providence at the home of 37-year-old widow Aldier Angell.

By 1925, Clara and Isabelle were back at the orphanage, Clara residing in Cottage F and Isabelle in Cottage C. Gertie had remarried to a Mr. Smith, although he wasn’t living in the home, and was settled on Eagle Street in Providence with 22-year-old Thomas, 19-year-old Martha, Florie’s 6-year-old son Joseph and a 28-year-old boarder named Raymond Horton.

By the age of 20, Isabelle had become an inmate at the Exeter School for the Feeble-Minded. Around that same time, Clara was sentenced to the Oaklawn School for Girls. Gertie had married once again, this time to a Mr. Mothrom, who had already passed away. She was residing on Wolcott Street in Providence with Thomas, her daughter Martha and Martha’s 4-year-old son Thomas Horton. Martha had married Raymond Horton, Gertie’s previous boarder, in 1925, but he was not living with them. Gertie was employed as a private maid and Martha as a laundress.

Although Isabelle remained in the Exeter institution, Clara eventually gained her freedom from the reform school and moved to a home on Princess Avenue in Cranston, where she was employed as a companion to Annie Mitchell, an elderly widow from England. Later that year, she moved with Annie to West Palm Beach, Florida, and served as her private maid.

Clara never married. She died on June 4, 1965, and was laid to rest in Highland Memorial Park in Johnston. When Isabelle died in 1975, she was buried with her sister. The two little girls – who had suffered separation, confinement and probably great fear and sadness for most of their lives – were finally brought together again.


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