In Before We Were Yours, the Stafford family is among the wealthiest and most well-respected families in South Carolina—they are a political dynasty with a sterling reputation. The Foss family, on the other hand, belongs to the lower classes and struggles to make ends meet. The two families are separated by time and place, but Avery Stafford stumbles upon a connection that changes the course of her life—her grandmother, Judy Stafford, was born to Queenie and Briny Foss, but was kidnapped and sold to a wealthy family as a newborn. In fact, Judy is just one of thousands of lower-class children, including the other six Foss children, that were kidnapped and sold to wealthy families by the nefarious Georgia Tann, head of the Memphis branch of the infamous Tennessee Children’s Home Society. The longevity of Tann’s career as a child trafficker (she operated the TCHS from 1924 to 1950) sheds a light on a dark period in America’s history when helpless children of the lower classes were quite literally treated as objects to be sold to American elites for their enjoyment. However, this practice also calls into question how “pure” some of the most well-respected bloodlines in America are. Through the stories of the Foss children, Judy Stafford, and Trent Turner Sr., Wingate exposes a horrible wrong that was done to America’s lower classes and illustrates how America’s upper classes directly benefitted from this injustice.
For the Stafford family, reputation is everything, and part of their reputation involves the uniform respectability of every member of the family—even those who just marry into it. In fact, Avery initially struggles to conceive of a scandal more serious than the possibility of lower-class relatives threatening to step into the spotlight. Avery recounts her mother Honeybee’s story of meeting Wells Stafford (Avery’s father), saying that “When she learned that [Wells] was a Stafford, she set her cap.” This highlights the fact that many people desire to be a Stafford—Honeybee resolves to marry Wells simply for his family name, even before she knows him personally. However, Avery believes they must have “woodpile relatives”—in other words, distant relatives that belong to the lower classes—after learning that there is someone named “Queenie” that Judy doesn’t want her to know about. Avery’s concern highlights just how distant her upper-class family is from the lower classes, and their opinion of poverty as somehow scandalous and shameful, something that would threaten their family’s reputation.
The children Georgia Tann preyed upon were uniformly poor—they belonged to shanty towns or impoverished single mothers. When Tann gets hold of them, they are immediately treated as objects to be molded and sold, highlighting the perception of lower-class people as subhuman. When Trent Turner III learns that his grandfather was also one of the children Tann kidnapped, he wonders how things might have been different “if his [grandfather’s] parents hadn’t been poor.” This emphasizes the fact that it was poor children who were targeted, not middle- or upper-class children. Notably, Tann would habitually tell potential adoptive parents (who were typically wealthy and well-respected) that the children’s biological parents were college graduates, professors, or other members of the educated classes. This means that Tann also recognized the stigma attached to poverty and sought to hide the truth, knowing upper-class Americans would never risk their family’s reputation by adopting children born to poor parents.
Because Tann is only interested in profit, she doesn’t evaluate the families who want to adopt children—if a person has money, Tann will sell them a child. In other words, Tann’s fraudulent adoption service caters to the desires of the upper classes at the expense of the lower. The Seviers adopt Rill and Fern to fill the void that several miscarriages and stillborn children have left, shown by Rill’s observation that Victoria Sevier “only wants the dead.” The irony is that the wealthy Seviers filled that empty space with children who were kidnapped from their loving parents; in other words, Tann created a void in Queenie and Briny Foss’s lives in order to provide the means for an upper-class family to fill the empty space in theirs. Furthermore, the Sevier family’s maid Zuma tells Rill and Fern that they will be sent back to the orphanage once Victoria conceives again, saying she’s “seen it all befo’” already. This reinforces the idea that Rill, Fern, and the other children in the TCHS are seen as little more than tools to be used and possibly discarded by the upper classes for their own gratification.
In the written account of her early life, Judy also shares that she was purchased by a wealthy man to give his daughter after her biological child is stillborn. This means that even though Judy went on to have a happy life, she was originally only an object meant to bring comfort to a grieving upper-class family—and this was only accomplished through the victimization of her lower-class biological parents.
Injustice and Class Divisions ThemeTracker
Injustice and Class Divisions Quotes in Before We Were Yours
The nursing home director walks by and frowns, probably wondering why I’m still here. If I weren’t a Stafford, she’d undoubtedly stop and ask questions. As it is, she pointedly looks away and moves on. Even after two months back in South Carolina, it’s still strange, getting the rock-star treatment just because of my family name. In Maryland, I often knew people for months before they even realized my father was a senator. It was nice having the chance to prove myself as myself.
I scroll to the photo, look into the face of the young woman who reminds me even more of my grandmother now that I’m right across the table from her. “She had this picture. Do you know the person in it?” Maybe these are woodpile relatives? People my grandmother doesn’t want to acknowledge as part of the family tree? Every clan must have a few of those. Perhaps there was a cousin who ran off with the wrong sort of man and got pregnant?
“I’m sure you’re used to getting what you want.”
His insinuation burns. I’ve been fighting it all my life—the idea that my only qualifications are a cute blond head and the Stafford name. Now, with the speculation heating up about my political future, I’m incredibly sick of hearing it. The family name didn’t get me through Columbia Law School with honors.
“Poor little waifs,” she says to the man. “We take them in when they are unwanted and unloved. We provide them with all that their parents cannot or will not give them.”
I bolt my eyes to the ground and make fists behind my back. It’s a lie, I wish I could scream at the man. My mama and daddy want us. They love us. So did the father who came to see his little boy, Lonnie, and ended up broke down on the porch crying like a baby when they said Lonnie’d been adopted.
I come from a world where we would never openly admit to such things, certainly not to someone who’s practically a stranger. In the world I know, a polished exterior and an unblemished reputation are paramount. Trent makes me wonder if I’ve become too accustomed to the constraints that go with upholding public appearances.
I crave a simple answer to all of this. One I can live with. I don’t want to find out that my grandmother was somehow paying penance for our family’s involvement with the Tennessee Children’s Home Society—that my grandfathers were among the many politicians who protected Georgia Tann and her network, who turned a blind eye to atrocities because powerful families did not want her crimes revealed or their own adoptions nullified.
I try to imagine having a history like hers, having lived two lives, having been, effectively, two different people. I can’t. I’ve never known anything but the stalwart stronghold of the Stafford name and a family who supported me, nurtured me, loved me.
In the end, I’m a Stafford through and through. I tend to assume that I’ll get what I want.
Which, I realize with a shiver, makes me eerily like the adoptive parents who inadvertently funded Georgia Tann’s business. No doubt some were well-meaning people and some of the children really did need homes, but others, especially those who knew that exorbitant fees were being forked over for made-to-order sons and daughters, must have had some idea of what was happening. They just assumed that money, power, and social position gave them the right.
Maybe I never realized how much being a Stafford is an all-consuming thing, especially here in our native territory. The collective identity is so overwhelming, there’s no room for an individual one.
Once upon a time, I liked that… didn’t I? I enjoyed the perks that came with it. Every path I stepped on was instantly smoothed down before me.
But now I’ve had a taste of climbing my own mountains my own way.
Have I grown beyond this life?
The idea splits me down the middle, leaving half of my identity on each side of the divide. Am I my father’s daughter, or am I just me? Do I have to sacrifice one to be the other?
So this was my grandmother’s destination. It’s easy to imagine that she enjoyed coming here. This would’ve been a place where she could leave behind her obligations, her cares, her duties, the family reputation, the public eye—everything that filled those carefully managed appointment books.
I think of the way May explained their choices: We were young women with lives and husbands and children by the time we were brought together again. We chose not to interfere with one another. It was enough for each of us to know that the others were well…
But the truth is, it wasn’t enough. Even the ramparts of reputation, and ambition, and social position couldn’t erase the love of sisters, their bond with one another. Suddenly, the barriers that created their need for hidden lives and secret meeting places seem almost as cruel as those of brokered adoptions, altered paperwork, and forced separations.