Virginia Thrall Smith

Virginia Thrall Smith
"The most hopeful of all charities are those which elevate the very young."
- Virginia Thrall Smith

Induction Category:
Reformers

Born: 1836

Died: 1903

Inducted: 1994

Town: Hartford

In her 1894 essay “The Kindergarten,” Virginia Thrall Smith insists that, “every community stands under a moral obligation to give every helpless child born within its border the best possible chance to grow into honesty and virtue.” She goes on to argue in favor of making quality education available to the youngest children. Her firm commitment to helping every child was a theme that resurfaced throughout her life. She was a devoted advocate for children’s education and an expansion of support services for women and children.

Virginia Thrall was born in 1836 in Bloomfield, Conn., and studied at the Suffield Institute, Catharine Beecher’s Hartford Female Seminary, and Mount Holyoke Seminary. At the age of 21, she married William B. Smith and the couple moved to Hartford. Here, Smith began her family and her career as an activist. The Smiths had six children, but three died from diphtheria in infancy. It was, perhaps, as a result of these personal tragedies that Smith became so passionate about fighting for the well-being of all children, whether rich or poor.

In 1876, Smith was appointed administrator of the Hartford City Mission, a position she approached with pride and diligence. In this role, she went above and beyond the expectations of the mission, particularly in terms of creating more educational opportunities. To make sure that all of the work could get done, Smith enlisted the help of devoted volunteers and, under her leadership, a free kindergarten was opened in 1881. Shortly thereafter, Smith and her volunteers pushed the Connecticut State Legislature to authorize kindergartens in public schools throughout the state.

During her time as Hartford’s City Missionary, Smith’s eyes were opened to the devastation that poverty could bring to a child’s life and she brought this knowledge to her new role as a member of the Connecticut State Board of Charities. In 1882, she began investigating the state’s poorhouses and, upon seeing thousands of children living in such grim conditions, the justice-oriented Smith knew something had to change. Though a law was passed in 1883 to give other means of shelter to abandoned children, the law only served to protect those who were otherwise considered healthy. This meant many other children, “the incurables,” were being neglected, and Smith continued to fight for their protection.

In 1892, Smith was forced to resign from her role with the Mission. Her friendships with unwed mothers led to rumors that she was involved in so-called “baby-farming.” The rumors were completely unsubstantiated and Smith’s supporters stayed by her side as she continued in the fight to protect every child and especially the sick or neglected. On June 15, 1898, after years of searching for permission from various towns throughout the state, Smith’s Home for the Incurables opened its doors in Newington, Conn. Today, this home still serves many children as the well-known Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. Smith also helped to establish the Sister Dora Society, now operating as the Women’s Exchange, and the Children’s Aid Society, now called the Village for Families and Children, Inc.

Virginia Thrall Smith died in Hartford in 1903 and is buried in Hartford’s historic Cedar Hill Cemetery.


During This Time
1800 - 1920: Industrialization & Reform