I recently received the complete contents of my father’s sealed adoption file following a court order of Judge Eugene Reese of the Circuit Court of Montgomery County, Alabama. This is what I received.
The “Petition of Mrs. Carrie Elizabeth Henderson and Roabie Wesley Henderson to Adopt Tommie Robert Brooks” begins with a three sentence statement attributed to Miss Glendora Brooks in which she says it’s her “desire” that her four month old child be adopted by the Hendersons, and that the child is illegitimate. The statement is dated October 14, 1941 – making it the first official record pertaining to my father. Her name is type-written – not signed.
The following month temporary custody of the child was awarded to the Hendersons. In 1942 the court accepted their petition and finalized the adoption and made the five following points:
– The Hendersons were morally and financially fit to take care of the child.
– Glendora Brooks signed a consent agreement for the child to be adopted by the Hendersons.
– The child was illegitimate.
– The child had no property.
– The Hendersons wished to change the child’s name to Tommie Robert Henderson.
I’ve read so so much about the impact of sealed birth records in the lives of adoptees. They’ve taken on a near mythical quality in my mind and I was curious to know what the actual physical sealed file looked like. I couldn’t find any pictures online so when I sent away for my father’s information I asked them send me a copy of the sealed envelope. Here’s what my father’s looks like:
“Original” birth record
This “Special Certificate of Birth” was not filed out until February, 1944 – some three years after my father’s birth. Apparently no certificate was filed out at the time of his birth. Despite the court order, which lists his birth name as Tommie Robert Brooks, the person filling out this form (presumably my adoptive grandfather) took it upon himself to record his birth name as Donald Wesley Brooks.
While there is no mention of the father there is a little bit of information about the mother. Her name is listed as Peggy Brooks. She was born in Missouri and was 17 at the time she gave birth to my father.
Amended birth record
The amended record is intended to replace the original birth record. My father’s name is listed as Donald Wesley Henderson and his adoptive parents, Roabie and Carrie Henderson, are listed as parents. Their place of residence is listed as Smiths Station, Alabama. This record wasn’t filled out until July, 1946 – two years after the original birth record and five years after my father’s birth.
The most interesting thing about this record is a mysterious witness signature. Someone named “Mrs. Michael Voytovich” declared under oath that they had “known the child since birth.” I wonder who this person was and what their connection was to my father. Perhaps a relative or a social worker.
Baptismal dedicational record
According to this document my father was dedicated as a member of the Eighth Street Assembly of God in Columbus, Georgia on May 15, 1942 under the name Donald Wesley Henderson although the document wasn’t filled out until May 8, 1943. This is the earliest record of the name “Donald Wesley Henderson”.
In his early life my father used the names Tommie Robert Henderson and Donald Wesley Henderson. I figured one was his adopted name and the other was one his birth mother chose. I could never figure out which was which as they both appeared on different legal forms. His birth certificate and school records, for instance, are under Tommie Robert but in his father’s will and family correspondence he is Donald Wesley.
His adoptive family his parents named him Donald . In one dramatic story a relative described how he ripped up his birth certificate, told the Hendersons they were not his parents and renamed himself Tommie Robert.
The adoption petition, however, seems to debunk this theory.
According to the petition he was named Tommie Robert Brooks, presumably by his biological mother shortly after birth. The Hendersons initially intended to retain the name Tommie Robert, changing only the last name as per the court order.
By mid-1942, however, they dedicated (baptised) him under the name Donald Wesley Henderson. They used this name again on both his amended and “original” birth certificate.
I can understand why they would use Donald Wesley on his amended birth certificate – that was he name they wanted to use going forward– but I don’t understand why the Hendersons chose to list his birth name as Donald Wesley Brooks. It suggest that they were anxious to eliminate any trace of his origins.
The State of Alabama, however, denied the Hendersons’ request and stuck to the letter of the law. When they issued my father’s birth certificate in 1946 they did so under his legal name: Tommie Robert Henderson.
I find it ironic, and immensely gratifying, that the agency which kept my father’s birth records sealed for nearly 70 years also ensured that his original name would remain intact.
I was hoping this file would have information on my grandmother but sadly there wasn’t. It troubles me that her voice seems to be completely absent from this process. The petition says that she agreed to give up her son for adoption, but the words are clearly written by some lawyer and her “signature” is typewritten which makes me wonder if she was even a party to this process.
It’s my understanding that adoptions in that region were often conducted through an agency that would keep the identities of the birth parents from the adoptive parents and vice versa. In my father’s case, however, it appears that the Hendersons knew Glendora Brooks making this something of an open adoption.
Overall I am a little dissapointed. I was hoping for more information – something that made my grandmother a little more human. Something that could link me to a living relative somewhere out there. More than anything, these documents provide a hearty dose of 1940s stigma, shame and dishonesty. It’s a lot of bullshit to unravel.
I do take comfort in learning that his name – his honest to god legal name – was the one his elusive birth mother intended for him.
My search for the truth continues!