The Thompson Orphanage and Institute Statue ("On the Banks of Little Sugar Creek")
Backstory and Context
Edwin Augustus Osborne (1837-1926), founder of Thompson Orphanage, was born in Alabama as one of eleven children. After receiving his education and working various jobs, Osborne moved in with his widowed aunt, Margaret MacWhorter Davidson, a large plantation owner in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Here, he began attending Statesville Military Academy in 1859, and remained enrolled until the Civil War broke out in 1861. During his time in the army as a Confederate soldier, he was eventually promoted to colonel. He became known as a Civil War hero due to the courage he exemplified in a number of battles. After the war, Osborne taught in Statesville and Charlotte and became a lawyer. After serving as the appointed clerk of the superior court for ten years, he decided to become a member of the Protestant Episcopal church and enter the ministry.
This appointment and involvement with local episcopal churches would eventually lead to the foundation of Thompson Orphanage. In 1884, Osborne was appointed to the charge of St. Mark’s (in Mecklenburg County) and St. Paul’s (in Monroe, N.C.) missions, neither of which had a church building. Under Osborne’s leadership, two churches were constructed and their congregations prospered. Shortly after this, Osborne set his sights on another venture: establishing an orphanage in the Mecklenburg area. There were no public schools or resources of that sort in the state at this time. The rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Reverend Benjamin S. Bronson, had over 250 acres of land on the outskirts of Charlotte which had previously been used for a denominational academy. Osborne, in relentless pursuit of his dream, approached Bronson about using the abandoned school for his new venture. Bronson then donated the land to the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, on the terms that it be used for Osborne’s orphanage.
Serving as the orphanage’s first superintendent, Osborne immediately set to work preparing the orphanage. While he had been provided with the space for his dream, he still needed many resources in order to get the facility up and running. He had no money and the existing facilities were in poor condition. Due to the help of Mecklenburg, Co. residents, he eventually solicited enough food, used clothing, furniture, and money to start the orphanage. As a result, on May 10th, 1887, the Thompson Orphanage and Training Institute opened its doors. The orphanage was named for Lewis Thompson, who had provided the initial funds for the failed denominational academy. By 1888, the school sheltered 30 children; this number would double within 12 years.
In 1898, Osborne resigned from the superintendent position. After resigning, he served as the chaplain of the Second Regiment of North Carolina Volunteers in the Spanish-American War. After the war ended, he served in a number of different positions, including the archdeacon of the Diocese of North Carolina, the archdeacon of the Charlotte Convocation, deputy to the General Convention, and chaplain to the bishop. Throughout his life, Osborne was regarded as a gentle, brave, and idealistic man. He was well-known and loved throughout Charlotte, and continuously dedicated himself to bettering the community and helping those around him. Osborne passed away in 1926 at eighty-nine after a period of declining health. He was buried in Elmwood Cemetery of Charlotte, North Carolina.
Although Osborne retired from his superintendent position very early in the orphanage’s history, the facility went through a number of different administrative changes which have allowed it to remain a beacon for foster and child care in the Charlotte area. When Osborne resigned, he was replaced by a number of successive superintendents, including Walter J. Smith (1898-1922), William H. Wheeler (1922-40), and M.D. Whisnant (1940-65.) Under the leadership of Smith and Wheeler, the orphanage gained new sources of revenue and was extensively remodeled. However, by the 1950s, the number of children at Thompson was declining, due to federal and state agencies’ interventions in foster care. Under superintendent Robert Nobel (1965-78) and director John Powell, the mission of the institution underwent major changes: instead of concentrating upon orphans, the school would focus upon the treatment of emotionally disturbed children from that moment forward. With this new plan, children could come from places across the state, housed in specially-designed treatment cottages on Thompson’s grounds, and the centers were to be staffed 24 hours a day. Along with these major changes, the former orphanage's name was changed to Thompson Children’s Home to reflect its new mission. Thompson Children’s Home is still in operation today, with multiple branches throughout North Carolina, and provides developmental, behavioral, and health services to more than 300 children and families annually.
The statue honoring Thompson Children's Home, Edwin Osborne, and the children the home has helped throughout the years, was installed in December of 2018 along Charlotte's Little Sugar Creek Greenway as part of the city's Trail of History. It was established behind the Queen City's historic St. Mary's Chapel, and was created by the Colorado-based artist Jane DeDecker. The statue depicts Edwin Augustus Osborne, the orphanage's founder, surrounded by three children. Osborne and the children have their shoes off, and their pants rolled up as if they just waded in Little Sugar Creek. A boy depicted in the sculpture wears a watch, referencing the gold watch given to one child each year in the orphanage who was voted "Best Citizen" by his/her peers. The Little Sugar Creek stretches from Seventh Street to East Morehead Street. The Trail of History is funded by local historians in an effort to highlight Charlotte residents who have played significant roles in shaping the Queen City into the flourishing metropolis it is today.
Douglas, Anna. "Who's the Man With no Shoes in Charlotte's Newest Public Statue?" The Charlotte Observer, 18 December 2018,
https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article223103885.html. Accessed 21 March 2020.
Osborn, Dorothy H. "Osborne, Edwin Augustus." The Encyclopedia of North Carolina, 1991, https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/osborne-edwin-augustus. Accessed 21 March 2020.
Towles, Louis P. "Thompson Children's Home." The Encyclopedia of North Carolina, 2006, https://www.ncpedia.org/thompson-childrens-home. Accessed 21 March 2020.