The only photo of Barbara Jean Haggerty as a child with her adoptive mother Alveretta (Riley) Childs – Photo of Barbara Jean Haggerty as a baby: used with permission
Barbara Jean Haggerty doesn’t know when to celebrate her birthday. She has no idea how many candles should be placed on her cake. Only one baby photograph of her exists. There are no momentoes, such as hospital records or newborn photographs. Barbara Jean was one of the thousands of children stolen and sold through the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, a black-market baby business operating from the 1920s to 1950 by Memphis murderer, child molester, and baby thief Georgia Tann.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia: Georgia Tann
Memphis, Tennessee, is famous for the music, the food, and the crime. In the last few years, FBI data has consistently placed Memphis in the top 20% in United States cities with the highest crime rates. Along with good barbeque, tours of Graceland, and Beale Street, murder, robbery, and gang activity have become a natural part of the scrappy city’s landscape, its history. In the late 1940s, crooked politicians and questionable law enforcement tactics greased the city’s financial wheels. It was a setting that welcomed someone like Georgia Tann. And Georgia Tann loved Memphis.
Beulah Georgia Tann (1891-1950) a matronly, smiling woman, created the unlicensed, Memphis-based Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Behind its facade, the Society was nothing more than a black-market baby operation. One of the babies who came through that door was Barbara Jean Haggerty. Like so many others, Tann stole the child when she was about two days old. Haggerty considers herself “a lucky baby” because she was sold quickly. Babies who did not sell were murdered.
The local newspapers were filled with adoption advertisements. People ordered children as if they were ordering furniture, and Tann gladly supplied the demands, charging astronomical figures.
“(We have) the merchandise in hand and in stock to deliver to you” a 1944 Tennessee Children’s Home Society letter read to a prospective client. “We can never tell when we can fill an order,” another letter explained to parents waiting to purchase a child.
Tann employed “spotters” to scout for children to steal and parents to scam. A Tann spotter walked into an elementary school, playground, or low socioeconomic neighborhood and would leave with a child, both never to be seen again. A Tann spotter, disguised as hospital staff or a visitor, would casually stroll into a maternity ward, scoop up a newborn, and disappear out a door. The spotter might visit an unwed mother to make a deal.
“We’ll take care of your baby for you, save you the expense and shame… and pay you.” In desperation, the women would allow the exchange. Barbara Jean Haggerty believes the latter scenario may have been her case.
Georgia Tann hired a crew for the children’s home, eschewing background checks, and any personnel paperwork. Molesters, parolees, and abusers were employed at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. Tann also sexually abused her charges; behind that matronly appearance laid an evil mind that was abusive and cold. Barbara Jean is thankful she did not stay at the children’s home for long.
The building that housed the Tennessee Children’s Home Society still stands today – onlyinyourstate.com
Tann sold or exchanged babies, as well as monetary gifts, between law enforcement, media, judges, movie and music stars, and elected officials for political favors and legal protection. Her political connections, including the Mayor of Memphis, assisted in skirting adoption laws or creating legal loopholes from which to operate. Tann’s lover, Judge Camille Kelly, was a high-ranking official of the Shelby County Family Court in Tennessee. Kelly looked like anyone’s kindly grandmother. Both Georgia Tann and Judge Kelly were well known in the Memphis area. Tann was a national figure. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt publically praised her. Tann sold children to mobsters, child molesters, abusers, and for hard labor (one child toiled in a field at 18 hour days, eventually running away from the adoptive family). The repercussions of her work have caused a ripple effect lasting decades.
Besides high ranking officials and the wealthy, Georgia Tann assisted private clientele who wanted children, married couples desperate to adopt who scraped together the funds to do so. One of those families was Alveretta (Riley) and Jesse Aubrey Childs, both in their late twenties and living in Shelby County, Tennessee. Barbara Jean (Haggerty) was sold to the Childs family.
Alveretta and Jesse owned a popular diner called “Mamma Child’s.” This restaurant was one of the favorites of Judge Kelly; “I can remember, as a little girl, seeing Judge Kelly at the restaurant, laughing and talking and visiting with my mother,” Barbara Jean recalls. Even at that age, she has no doubt who Judge Kelly was; everyone knew.
Barbara Jean believes Alveretta confided in Judge Kelly; unable to conceive, and she longed to be a parent. Arrangements were made. The $5,000 Tann charged Alveretta and Jesse to “adopt” Barbara is a low sum, considering her client list included Joan Crawford, Pearl Buck, and Lana Turner.
As in all the adoption cases, Judge Kelly forged legal paperwork for Barbara Jean’s transfer. Kelly also assisted by destroying legal documents and creating a new history for Barbara Jean. Barbara Jean now had a new birth certificate bearing Judge Kelly’s signature. (Some years ago, a private investigator “borrowed” the document for research and never returned it.)
Judge Camille Kelly: painting, Memphis TN courthouse
Alveretta and Jesse then adopted Barbara Jean. With the falsified birth certificate in hand, they strolled out cuddling their newly “adopted” child.
“I was a ‘bestseller’ because of my blonde hair and blue eyes. And (the Home Society) only dealt in white children.”
In her later years, Alveretta would admit to her family, “I purchased Barbara Jean for $5,000 off the black market.” In Barbara Jean’s early years, Alveretta would amend or outright lie about everything else in Barbara Jean’s past. “She didn’t want to hurt my feelings, so sometimes she lied, or changed the story a bit,” Barbara Jean explains. She is not angry with her parents, nor does she hold grudges against them for the lies and deception. Barbara knew she was loved.
“My mother was a wonderful woman,” Barbara explains. As a teen, she had suffered a stroke. The specialists told her “mother” that Barbara would never be able to walk again. Alveretta refused to believe them and set about rehabilitating the girl. Against the odds, and with her mother’s love and patience, Barbara Jean did regain the use of her limbs.
Barbara Jean Haggerty is one of the thousands of children from Tennessee Children’s Home Society who were stolen and sold. At least 40-50 children died in less than four months while housed in the illegally operated home in 1945 alone. Children were starved, beaten, molested, mentally abused, and never received medical attention. Unwanted babies were left outside on the lawn in their cribs in the hot Tennessee summers to wither away slowly.
Barbara’s granddaughter is assisting her with trying to unearth her past, but the digging is slow. There are names and dates, but little more:
Alveretta Riley (1917-1997) was born in Arkansas to Thomas O’Riley and Willie Rogers. Alveretta married several times:
She divorced her first husband (name unknown) and moved to the Shelbyville, Tennessee area in 1940 at 23 years of age.
Jesse Aubrey Childs (05-20-09 to 12-28-75), an electrician, was her second husband. Alveretta’s third husband was Dalton Marshal.
Besides Mama Child’s, Alveretta and Jesse owned “Top Hat” (which later became Sonic Drive-in), a third restaurant, and three nightclubs. Records indicate Alveretta also worked as a “caseworker.”
Barbara’s real name may be Belinda Diane Bullard, born October 2 or in July around 1945; she is now approximately 68 years old. Barbara was adopted after Alveretta’s first two babies died. One baby picture exists of Barbara (see above photo). Barbara may have three siblings: a sister who died in a car wreck and two brothers who were lost in the Vietnam War. Barbara’s siblings include Winnie Lee, Sidney F., and Thomas R.
Tann was never prosecuted and died a very wealthy woman. A plaque commemorating Judge Camille Kelly hangs in the Memphis courthouse. Their legacy continues. There’s corruption in the Memphis Youth Courts, laws created to protect wrongdoings, and people who have no idea of their true heritage like Barbara Jean Haggerty.
Photo of Barbara Jean Haggerty today: Judith a yates used by permission
“I’m not bitter or mad. I just want to know if I have brothers and sisters,” she says wistfully. “I want to know my real birthday and how old I am. I’d like to know about my blood relatives.” She shrugs. “I guess some people may think it’s silly, or too late. But I just want to know: who am I?”
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J. A. Yates is an award-winning author and criminologist who has appeared as a guest speaker, lecturer, and instructor for organizations across the United States for almost 30 years, to include Dallas Area Paralegal Association, PFLAG (Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians & Gays), Texas Association of Licensed Investigators, Tennessee Correction Association, Federal Bureau of Prisons, and many more.
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