Elevator operator Ruth Thomas found him.
The baby, covered by a pink blanket, was left on a chair in the women’s restroom at Chattanooga City Hall, according to an article in the Sept. 29, 1948, Chattanooga Times.
Whose baby was it?
That was the question then, and it’s still the question today for 62-year-old James Alfred “Al” Graham.
“I am that baby,” the Norman, Okla., equipment salesman said when he called the Times Free Press recently.
Graham, who said he grew up under the care of loving adoptive parents, has lived a good life and has raised a family of his own. He just wants to find out more about his biological family.
“I don’t want anything out of anybody,” he said. “This is something for my kids.”
Graham said his adoptive parents, Jess and Cile Graham, never hid from him the fact he was adopted. They adopted him from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society of Memphis, which employed a friend of his grandparents who alerted them to his availability. He’s not sure if his parents even knew he was a Chattanooga City Hall foundling.
“I was legally adopted, as far as I know,” Graham said.
That’s not the case for all children who were adopted from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. A 1950 state investigation revealed that operator Georgia Tann had arranged for thousands of adoptions under questionable means and that the Society was a front for a black-market adoption ring.
“Was [the quick placement] a set-up or legitimate?” Graham said, “I don’t know.”
Thomas, who was married at the time and listed as Ruth Prothro in the newspaper accounts, said when she found the bundle inside the restroom she pulled open the blanket and the baby began to cry.
“I went immediately and got some help,” she said.
Thomas, 86, who worked at City Hall from 1943 to 1987, said the city health department was then located on the building’s third floor, and that’s where she sought help.
“A nurse came down,” she said.
In the Times story following the baby’s location, it was reported he would be taken to Children’s Hospital and would become the responsibility of the Hamilton County Juvenile Court. If the parents weren’t found, the report said, arrangements would be made for adoption.
The afternoon Chattanooga News-Free Press of Sept. 29, 1948, reported that “countless persons called requesting possession of the child on an adoption basis” but that all requests were forward to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society.
It also mentioned that ads to locate the parents would be placed in local papers before the child — whose birth certificate reads Sept. 23, 1948 — became the responsibility of the Society.
Eventually, by Hamilton County Juvenile Court order number 2673, Graham said, he was made a ward of the state.
He is not sure when his adoptive parents, who lived in Memphis at the time, took possession of him because his adoption papers mention both Oct. 7, 1948, and Nov. 19, 1948. His parents also were apparently designated foster parents first before they were allowed to adopt him, he said.
Graham, who did not grow up with any siblings, was not officially adopted until 1953, he said. He and his parents moved to Oklahoma in 1962 when his father was transferred there. In 1970, after Graham was married, his parents moved to Chattanooga, where an aunt and a cousin live today.
His mother died in 2005, he said, and two years later his father asked him if he wanted to see his adoption papers. They added little to what he already knew — he did learn his adoption fee was $19. It made him want to find out more, he said.
“It made me start looking,” Graham said. “I didn’t want to get too deep into this until [his father, who died in 2010] was gone. They were the only parents I knew.”
He learned of his abandonment at City Hall in a packet he received in 2005 through the Tennesseeans Right To Know Act. The few other clues he has, including DNA testing that can identify possible branches of a family tree, link him to both the family name Lambert and the family name Slack.
Some of Graham’s papers from the Tennessee Children’s Home Society refer to him as Unnamed Baby Lambert, but he doesn’t know why. He said a 12-marker DNA test matched him with the Lambert name, but that name disappeared in testing with more DNA markers.
In a 67-marker test, he was from one to four markers off the name Slack on his paternal side, indicating he is “tightly related,” according to information on www.familytreedna.com.
If you have any information about Al Graham’s birth family, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Graham has since had a 111-marker test but does not have the results back.
Thomas said after the baby was placed in the care of the state, she never heard what happened to it.
“Nobody saw anybody come in with it,” she said. “I guess [whoever left it] was just hoping someone would find it.”
Present City Hall personnel aren’t familiar with the incident, said Richard J. Beeland, media relations director for Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield.
Graham, meanwhile, said not knowing his family has never held him back. He graduated from Central State College (now the University of Central Oklahoma) and has held a variety of sales jobs.
The Oklahoma resident has been married for 41 years, has three children and five grandchildren. They have lived in Alabama and Kansas but returned to live in Oklahoma about 20 years ago.
“I’ve had a wonderful life,” he said.
Yet, Graham said, he still wants to know more about the baby who was the subject of the headlines “Newborn Baby Is Left in City Hall Basement” and “Forsaken 2-Day-Old Baby Wails as Authorities Look for Parents.”
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...
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