Jerry Summers: The Tennessee Adoption Scandal

Wednesday, February 12, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

This article was initiated by a call and question from a listener on Judy O’Neal’s cable television show, Town Talk, in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, on January 16, 2020. 

The Tennessee Children’s Home Society, based in Memphis with branches in Jackson, Knoxville and Chattanooga, was created as a non-profit corporation in 1897.  Later its head was Georgia Tann, who with her political connections in the Tennessee General Assembly and the local Shelby County political head, Edmond Crump (The Red Snapper) and Shelby County Family Court Judge, Camille Kelley, operated a “baby for sale” adoption agency that became a national recognized organization that would later become a national scandal.

Misguided community organizations supported the concept of placing orphaned and unwanted children in homes of families desiring to adopt them.  This noble purpose quickly turned into a lucrative money-making scheme until 1950 following a state investigation into its illegal practices.

The Society, headed by Tann, was simply a black-market adoption scheme which sold babies to adopting parents throughout America that included movie stars in Hollywood.  Actresses Lana Turner and Joan Crawford adopted children through the agency and June Allison and her husband, Dick Powell, also adopted a child from Tann.  Professional wrestler Ric Flair, in his autobiography, claimed that he had been illegally taken form his natural mother and sold through the Society to his adoptive parents.

Up until 1966 when Tennessee instituted adoption laws that allowed adopted adults to search any remaining records in an effort to locate their parents, such attempts were futile.  Records were routinely destroyed and many of Tann infants to this day have not been able to identify their natural parents.

Even in 1941 when the Society lost its national endorsement from the Child Welfare League of America became of its practice of destroying adoption records Tann remained in the wealthy for profit business through her political connections with the Tennessee Legislature. 

It was not halted until after a 1950 state investigation of the Society initiated by Governor Gordon Browning, when he released a scalding report that implicated Judge Camille Kelley and Tann.  Kelley was never prosecuted although she lived a lifestyle well beyond the salary of a Family Court Judicial Officer.  She did resign shortly after the release of the 1950 report.

Tann allegedly made millions from the sale of babies and drove a Packard or Cadillac automobile, dressed in expensive clothes. 

Tann started at the Mississippi Children Home Funding Society around 1920 and initially placed orphans for adoption but quickly realized she could charge hefty fees placing children who had been kidnapped from poor women. 

In 1924 she started working at the Tennessee Children’s Home Society where she turned part-time baby snatching into a highly profitable business and, for about 30 years, she developed a network of corrupt judges and politicians, along with scouts who would help her, in essence, steal babies.  Youngsters on the way home from school would be kidnapped by offering children ice cream. 

Some victims were sold throughout the United States, Britain and other countries as underage farm hands.  Reports of the children being enslaved, beaten or raped by pedophiles were widespread.  Unfortunately, Tann’s phony credibility allowed her to be praised in the national press as “the foremost authority on its adoption laws.”

First lady Eleanor Roosevelt reached out to Tann for advice regarding child welfare and she was invited to President Truman’s 1948 inauguration.  Tann would die from cancer in 1950 before the circumstances of the scandal were fully disclosed to the public.

A “Report to Governor Gordon Browning on Shelby County Branch, Tennessee Children’s Home Society” 1951 [Nashville]: State of Tennessee, Department of Public Welfare contains the detailed history and details of the Tennessee Adoption Scandal.

In 1991 CBS’s 60 Minutes reported on the scandal and it stimulated laws to open adoption records by both birth mothers and adoptees. 

The Tennessee Children’s Home Society was closed in 1950 and should not be confused with the modern-day ministry known as Tennessee Children’s Home, which is accredited by the State of Tennessee.

* * *

Jerry Summers can be reached at jsummers@summersfirm.com


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