Old Stafford’s Kate Waller Barrett

By Nancy Bruns, CRRL Volunteer

Kate Waller Barrett (1857-1925), gently raised daughter of a prominent Stafford County family, was confronted as a young woman by a heart-wrenching scene that played out before her in her home. It stirred her heart and propelled her into a public life. The humanitarian work inspired by Kate Waller Barrett’s experience led eventually to established shelters and services across this country and abroad known generally as the Florence Crittenton Mission.

The story began one winter night when the doorbell rang in the Richmond home young wife Kate shared with her minister-husband, Robert South Barrett. A girl carrying a baby was shown in, and soon Kate was hurrying to help them. In the room was the Barretts’ own young child. Looking upon her son and seeing the bright future open to him, Kate was moved by the girl’s plight and that of the infant. It was only luck, she noted, that made the difference between her own life and that of the girl. She had married a good man, and the young girl had been misled by a bad man. At the same time, Kate recognized society’s failure to assist and accept the young girl and her infant.

In a published account she wrote about the experience, Dr. Barrett said, “I heard with startling distinctness our Savior’s question to Simon, ‘Seest thou this woman?’

"Almost unknown to myself there entered into my heart at that moment a Covenant with God that so long as I lived my voice would always be lifted in behalf of this outcast class and my hand held out to aid them.”

Today the initial work of the Crittenton shelters and homes for unwed girls and mothers may seem out of date, but there was a time during the 19th and 20th century when society scorned unwed mothers and their babies. Kate Waller Barrett, the gentlewoman from Stafford, mentions that at one time she knew little of “scarlet women” and “social evil.” In the 21stcentury, there are still Crittenton facilities across the country and Crittenton service agencies which assist young people.

Katherine Waller, daughter of Ann Eliza Stribling Waller and Withers Waller, was born January 24, 1857, at a large estate at Widewater. Her father became an officer with the Confederate army, and her mother recalled Union forces shelling Clifton, the family home, which had been misidentified as a military target. Mrs. Waller is said to have hidden in a ditch with her young daughter throughout that day.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, Kate Waller was carefully educated at home with a tutor and later at the Arlington Institute for Girls. Kate was the eldest daughter of a large family. Some of her kin still reside in Stafford today.

Kate was nineteen when she married Robert South Barrett, a young minister then serving at nearby Aquia Church, Stafford County. Robert’s profession soon took the couple to a parish in a seamy section of Richmond. It was there that Kate had the experience that determined the course of her life—practical social reform aimed mainly at girls, women, and children needing help.   

During the next years, the Barretts moved from Richmond to Kentucky where Kate opened her first mission. Then, moving to Atlanta, Kate established another shelter for young girls and women and also prepared herself by earning a medical degree from the Women’s Medical College of Georgia. She was class valedictorian.

Later accompanying her husband to England, she studied at the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing. She had recognized the need to bolster her inspiration—her covenant to assist women and girls in need—with academic and practical knowledge in the medical and nursing fields.

Seeking financial assistance for her project in Atlanta, Dr. Barrett wrote to Charles Nelson Crittenton, a wealthy New Yorker who since 1882 had been using his money to help girls and women. Crittenton had been the father of a child, Florence Crittenton, who died of a childhood disease. At least one historian who studied Crittenton’s life believes the little girl’s death was a life-changing event for him. Crittenton had directed his early efforts towards assisting women who were victims of prostitution. When Crittenton saw Kate Barrett’s work with the Atlanta shelter for unwed mothers, he gave her a $5,000 donation.

In 1894, the Rev. Mr. Barrett was assigned to a new job in Washington, D.C., and he and his wife moved to Alexandria, Virginia. A victim of ill health, Mr. Barrett died in 1896 leaving six children and Dr. Kate Barrett, a young widow of 35. Charles N. Crittenton had meanwhile relocated to Washington, D.C.  Dr. Barrett was asked to join him in a widespread effort to assist girls, infants, and unmarried mothers. Eventually, there were 78 Florence Crittenton Homes for unwed mothers and their children in this country and abroad.  But her efforts went beyond providing havens for women and children. Dr. Barrett’s work had evolved to demonstrate that she believed in empowering women to succeed in taking care of themselves and their families by offering education as well as skills training.     

Dr. Barrett was named vice president and general superintendent for the Crittenton organization and director for Crittenton services in 1897 and, in 1898, organized the Crittenton Mission Training School. After the death of Mr. Crittenton, Dr. Barrett headed the organization from 1909 until her death in 1925. Now called the National Crittenton Foundation, the group still provides services to unwed mothers.

A feature article in the Town and County section of the Free Lance-Star in June of 2001 mentioned that Dr. Barrett was active in several other organizations. She is credited with founding the American Legion Auxiliary and serving as its second president in 1922—a year in which membership grew to nearly 200,000 members.

She was also state regent of the Daughters of the American Revolution and helped found chapters in both Fredericksburg and Stafford.

Dr. Barrett was recognized in many other ways. She was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson to attend the Versailles Conference after World War I, she gave a nominating speech at a Democratic political convention, and she was nominated at the same convention to be vice president. Upon her death, the flag over the Virginia Capitol was flown at half staff. She was the first woman to be so honored. In 2001, Stafford County voted to name an elementary school in her honor.

According to Lee Woolf who wrote the Free Lance-Star’s 2001 feature, Dr. Barrett never forgot where she came from. Woolf said family members delight in repeating a story Dr. Barrett told of attending a formal party in Rome and, amidst considerable ceremony, saying to herself, “Old Stafford what are you doing here?”

Her son Robert remembered also that Dr. Barrett never “permitted to lapse her close association with her sisters and their progeny and with her girlhood neighbors and friends back in Old Stafford… there was no shade of difference in her attitude towards the people who had chosen the quiet road instead of the exciting one.” 

This article is based on a feature article by Lee Woolf in the June 23, 2001 Town and County section of the Free Lance-Star and on comment from Katherine Aiken, a historian who wrote about Dr. Barrett.