Thompson Orphans Now Grown Meet Up Like Family
Nearly every year for the past seven decades a family reunion of sorts has taken place on a patch of land just outside Charlotte's uptown. A group of orphans now in their 60s and 70s meet on the corner of Kings and Fourth Street at what's now known as the Historic St. Mary's Chapel. But for them it was home. Trudy Freeman looks out over the chapel and the yard surrounding it, the only remnants of what was once Thompson Orphanage. Freeman came here in 1952 when she was five. These reunions are a chance to reminisce. Some of the stories include just the kind of villains you might expect, right down to the Miss Hannigan-type matron. "We had to call her 'Sugar.' She was more like vinegar than sugar," remembers Freeman. Freeman had been living in a boarding house with her father, but during the day while he worked no one looked after her. She'd wander around town, until social services got wind of the set up and sent her to Thompson's. That first night Sugar gave her a beating for talking after lights-out. "I put my little hands on my hips, and me just barely five years old, and I looked at her and I said, 'You G-D S-O-B.' But I said the words," says Freeman. "She grabbed me by the hair and yanked me three doors down to the Whisnant's home. And Mrs. Whisnant told her, she said, 'You have to realize she's been living with men in boarding houses and it's going to take us awhile to clean her little mouth up.'" Pearl and Red Whisnant ran the place. They're a big part of the happy memories Freeman and other alumni from the Thompson Orphanage have. The Whisnants told the children to call them Mom and Pop and stressed that they were all a family. That was particularly true for Beverly Davis (pictured left) who came to the orphanage when she was five. Life at the orphanage was great for her in a lot of ways. "Christmas was fabulous. You couldn't ask for a better Christmas. That's the one thing I really missed when I left the orphanage," laughs Davis. "My very first Christmas I thought, 'Where in the hell's all the presents?' I don't get presents like that anymore." At the orphanage all the churches and local auxiliaries made holidays special for the kids and paid for trips to the fair and the Ice Capades. The kids often went fishing and played baseball on the grounds. But many of the orphans tried to run away. Davis did at least twice. Once in high school, the orphanage refused to take her back. So she turned to the only family she had. "We found her a bed and kept her because she didn't have any place to go," says Freeman matter-of-factly. By then she was married and on her own and she tried her best not to be like Sugar. "These are like brothers and sisters to us. I mean, you know you could call on one of them and they'd come and help you," says Freeman. The orphanage was run by the Episcopal Church. At one time six cottages housed about 70 children. The chapel where they worshipped is the only building that now stands on the property. Most days the boys were expected to help out on the farm on the orphanage grounds and the girls worked in the kitchen and laundry. The kids attended nearby public schools. Davis and another alum Buddy Gray (pictured right) say no one ever gave them a hard time for being orphans. "I found out in my latter years what kids really thought about us in school," says Gray. "What did they say?" asked Davis. "He said there's two things that everybody used to say about the orphanage children in school. I said, 'What was that? You know, I hope it ain't nothing bad.' He said, 'The first thing was the boys that went to school, they worked hard, they were tough, stay out of their way." "You all were strong as oxes," nods Davis. "And the second thing was, the girls were the prettiest ones." They laugh. "I'm serious." "That's what Pop told me at my graduation. He told me he said, 'You have turned into one beautiful lady,'" Davis says proudly. It was Pop Whisnant's idea to form an alumni association. A hundred of them used to show up at reunions. But now the orphans are almost all gone. This year only 24 came, but still they say they'll keep meeting as long as they can.