The Orphan Chronicles

Dallas' own tribe of Oliver Twists can teach us much about the places they've been, and where we're all going

What was it like to be without parents or family when orphans were still called orphans? Established in 1879 by Robert Cooke Buckner, a legendary leader in the early Baptist Church, the Buckner orphanage was designed to provide a haven for white orphans of the Civil War. During the 1940s and '50s, it housed as many as 800 children at a time on 500 fenced and walled acres, a world apart from the universe of families and firesides.

In 1961 Buckner ceased to be racially segregated. Today most of the old orphanage has been razed to make room for a modern scheme of cottages and group homes on Buckner Road south of Interstate 30. Children stay there temporarily on a path back to what their guardians hope will be permanent homes with families. The Buckner orphanage has transmogrified into Buckner Baptist Benevolences, a major international charity.

There are kids in the foster-care system I could be talking to today, but somehow it was the adult perspective of the older Buckner alumni, looking back from the vantage point of long life, that I found especially fascinating and helpful during the difficult last weeks of my father's life. I kept trying not to be a tourist in the balcony with teary eyes and fried-chicken grease all over my lips. But in their resilience and in the good lives many of them have made, it was the Oliver Twists and the Annies who helped me through.

Top photo: Jerre Graves Simmons, far left, while at Buckner. Simmons, bottom, went on to become an English teacher in Duncanville.
Courtesy of Jerre Graves Simmons
Top photo: Jerre Graves Simmons, far left, while at Buckner. Simmons, bottom, went on to become an English teacher in Duncanville.
Sally Hawkins Bingham and her siblings were abandoned as children. Bingham, at Buckner in bottom photo, dealt with the sadness of her childhood by pouring herself into sports.
Mark Graham
Sally Hawkins Bingham and her siblings were abandoned as children. Bingham, at Buckner in bottom photo, dealt with the sadness of her childhood by pouring herself into sports.

One of the Buckner alumni Lillico steered me to was Jerre Graves Simmons, the editor of The Orphan Chronicles. A few weeks ago she served me coffee and chocolates at a table in the breakfast nook of her tidy brick home in Duncanville, where she told me her tale of becoming an orphan.

Her father was an alcoholic tenant farmer who beat his wife and children in drunken rages. She remembers cowering with her mother and siblings in a cotton field while he smashed every dish and shredded every article of clothing in their cabin. Later they moved to a tiny apartment on Ewing Avenue near the Dallas Zoo.

The children were washing their hair one day when their father walked in with a gun. Her mother said, "Oh, John, no, no." He shot her to death in front of them. Jerre was 11. As she and the other children fled the house, she heard a second shot and assumed he was finishing her off, but he had killed himself.

The front page of the next day's Dallas Times-Herald carried a photograph of five new orphans, Jerre and her younger brothers and sisters, under a headline: "Home Sought for Children After Slaying."

Simmons is now 70, long and happily married, a mother, famous in Duncanville for her years as an English teacher. (We figured out she had taught in-laws of mine, one of whom is now working on a late doctorate.) She told me about the moment when she and her siblings were taken into the Buckner Orphans Home, then a nation-state of stern brick barracks and vast farms separated from the outside world as if by a moat.

"We didn't have any idea what was happening. It looked to me like a fortified castle. And it was such a change. You understand that we lived in a two-room apartment with five children and a mother and father, and we children slept on quilts on the floor. We were very poor.

"It was such a shock. There were so many children. There were about 600 to 800 of them. It was like a city."

Simmons and her siblings spent two weeks in a special quarantine center with other newly arrived orphans and then were marched out into the orphanage.

"It was so overwhelming that all you could do, when a whistle blew or the bell rang, you looked to see what everyone else was doing, and you tried to follow them. It was a very regular schedule.

"At 6 o'clock in the morning you woke up, made your bed, washed your face, ran downstairs and got in line and marched to the Manna Hall. You got in line from the tallest to the smallest."

I asked her how long it took for the children to get themselves ordered and arranged in line according to height.

"Oh, it didn't take any time at all. The other girls did that. 'Hey, you belong here.' Most of our learning occurred like that. 'Hey, kid, breathe through your nose. Don't breathe through your mouth; you look like an idiot.' You did what the other kids said."

Unlike Simmons, many of the Buckner "orphans" had parents. Their parents were simply unable or unwilling to keep them, like parents of many children who become wards of the state today.

Sally Hawkins Bingham, president of the Buckner Alumni Association, graduated from Buckner in 1966, meaning that she finished high school and was old enough to leave. Now a mother of grown children, she is involved in church work. Her father abandoned her family when she was 5. They were his third family, she says, and leaving them was "easy to do" for him.

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I came to Buckner Jan 1958 and graduated May 1960.  Buckner was not an easy place to live, but it was certainly far better than what I had been doing for the last several months and that was being on my own, traveling around the country, trying to stay out of the way of the police since I was basically a vagrant.  I left my "family" in May 1956 and roamed from Kansas to Washington to Ohio to Texas.  I was picked up in west Texas for not being in school, and since the state didn't now what else to do with me, contacted Buckner Home and  they took me in.   In my situation, Buckner was a port in the storm.  It was a place to "relax" as I was able to sleep in the same bed for those years, got 3 meals a day, worked in the radio station, and finished my education... well, it put me on the track to go to college, which I had never dreamed possible for a kid like me.   Every kid who lived at the Home campus has a different story, but one thing is for sure... they all learned something while they were there.  Some of us learned quickly and others were slow to learn, but those lessons carried us forward into adulthood and I believe all of us became better people due to those lessons. 


I hv a friend of 25 years that has been searchn for her two smaller siblings since the 70s leslie porter johnson and shana marie johnson. My friend tobye johnson simmons, and five siblins were placed at bucknersbuckners