Unearthed: Memphis

Unearthed: Memphis

Episode One: Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society

July 19, 2020

“Yours for the asking! George wants to play catch but needs a Daddy to complete Team "Catch this ball, Daddy!" How would YOU like to have this handsome five-year-old play "catch" with you? How would you like his chubby arms to slip around your neck and give you a bearlike hug? His name is George and he may be yours for the asking, if you hurry along your request to the Christmas Baby Editor of the Press-Scimitar. In co-operation with Miss Georgia Tann of the Tennessee Children's Home Society, The Press-Scimitar will place 25 babies for adoption this Christmas.” 

Our first story takes us back to the early 1920s. 
Adoption was not terribly common in the US prior to the 1920s, but a lady by the name of Georgia Tann moved to Memphis and brought with her ideas that would change the world of adoption forever.
Now, a story about adoption may not seem too scandalous of a tale, but just wait…
Beulah George “Georgia” Tann was born in 1891 in Philadelphia, MS. Her father was a district court judge with a “domineering” personality. As a child, she was a tomboy in every sense of the word. Her father thought his daughter was too masculine, wearing pants and flannel shirts.  To try to curtail those tomboy tendencies, he had her studying piano since age five. 

As a teenager, she was sent to attend Martha Washington College and she graduated with a degree in music. Unfortunately for him, Tann didn’t want to play music, she wanted to find a way to follow her true passion, the law. She was able to take summer courses at Columbia University so that she could become a lawyer. She studied hard and passed the bar exam in MS. But sadly for women at that time, becoming a lawyer was uncommon. She settled for becoming something acceptable for an unwed woman… a social worker. 
Her first social work job was at the Mississippi Children’s Home Finding Society. Working with the public in a poor state such as MS, she began to develop theories on the difference between classes. She saw the poverty stricken as breeders, incapable of proper parenting, and the wealthy were “of higher type” and could rear children well.  During her time in MS, her job was to place orphans for adoption, but she soon realized she could capitalize on this idea and charge desperate couples a hefty fee to become parents.   
In the 1920s, regulations on adoption were lacking, a fact that Tann began to exploit. Children of poor families, who couldn’t afford to keep them, were acquired and sold to wealthy families. This began Tann’s descent into the underworld of less-than-legal adoptions. It was also when she decided MS was not the place for baby resale, so her father used his connections to move his daughter, first briefly to Texas, but then on to Memphis. 
Before her move to Memphis, Tann began a relationship with Ann Atwood, a childhood friend and coworker from a children’s home in Jackson, MS.  At one time, cohabitation between two independent women was socially acceptable, but as time went by, it began to be seen as homosexual, something that was looked down upon. 

Shortly before they moved to Memphis, Atwood was pregnant with a child she named George, whom she would call Jack. She took Jack’s father’s last name, Hollinsworth, so that people would think she was a widow, instead of having had a child out of wedlock. 

In 1922, Tann adopted a daughter, June. She was apparently not the greatest mother though. In an interview with June’s daughter, she said that Tann was a “cold fish” and that she gave her material things, but nothing else. These actions would later be reflected on the children in her care.
With two children in tow, in 1924, Georgia and Ann arrived in Memphis and began to use their home as a makeshift adoption agency, and thus began the Shelby Co chapter of the TN Children’s Home Society. 

Eventually, they acquired a building at 1556 Poplar Ave.