Author Interview--Crystal L. Webster (Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with Crystal L. Webster to talk about her new book, Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood; African American Children in the Antebellum North, published by the University of North Carolina Press in June 2021.

Part 1

You already used orphanage a few times, but I was curious how is that defined since you have a few cases where parents give their children up to orphanages. Why would parents do that? And, could they eventually retrieve their children?

CLW: Orphanages were largely established in the early nineteenth century North. They became important spaces for adults to develop new ideas of childhood and treatment of children. At this period of time as the orphanage movement emerged, the category of orphan was malleable. Some considered children orphans if one or both of their parents died. A child could also be orphaned if their parents lived in poverty, were criminals, or were otherwise unable to care for them. Black children’s experiences with orphanages were unique as they were sent to institutions while their parents and families experienced the tumultuous process of transitioning from slavery to freedom. Some African American parents put their children in orphanages while they attempted to find work, places to live, or as they reconstituted their families. When they left their children, Black parents often surrendered guardianship. If they returned to retrieve them, their ability to have their guardianship restored was at the decision of the white orphanage administrators and it was sometimes denied. For these reasons, orphanages were complicated sites for Black children. White reformers provided them with protection, while at the same time the administrators enforced racialized judgements on their behavior and that of their families.

You also describe a process of indenture for these children. How did children get paired with individuals holding an indenture? Obviously, there is a time limit, but how similar was such a system to slavery?

CLW: Indenture was essential to the process of gradual emancipation as Black children were indentured until a certain age before they were emancipated.  Pennsylvania was the first to begin the process of emancipating its enslaved population with its gradual emancipation law of 1780. The law freed children born of enslaved parents after they turned twenty-eight. Rhode Island and Connecticut followed in 1784, granting emancipation at age twenty-five. And finally New York (1799) and New Jersey (1804) issued gradual emancipation and indentured Black children until age twenty-one for women and twenty-five for men. These age-based systems of indenture extended both unfree labor of Black children and their placement in the category of childhood dependency. Further, Black children were often indentured to their former enslavers, a process which allowed elements of northern slavery to remain intact.

In other cases, institutions which provided care and aid for Black children including orphanages and reformatories indentured Black children, often as domestics or to perform manual labor in rural settings away from their families. Anti-slavery activists and some African Americans were directly involved in the indenture of Black children and saw the process as providing a path towards economic success. However, reformers and activists rarely indentured Black children to perform skilled labor. Black children were also punished harshly by their employers if they fled indentures, which they often did in order to return to their families or to escape violence. When they did, they were imprisoned or sent to juvenile houses of refuge. This process continued throughout the nineteenth century.

Even worse, if that is even possible, the orphanages were often targets for white mobs. Why would the community attack the homes of children? What impact did such violence have on the children residents?

CLW: White mobs attacked Black children at the Shelter for Colored Orphans in Philadelphia and at the New York Colored Orphan Asylum at the same time they burned Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Hall and during New York Draft Riots. However, my research also reveals that orphanages documented multiple instances of attacks beyond those led by large-scale, organized mobs. Instances of violence also included harassing Black children on the streets and throwing bricks into the windows of the orphanages. In their planning and structural design, it appears as though orphanage administrators recognized that the buildings and the children were under constant threat of violence—they changed locations and created recreational spaces that weren’t visible to the outside observers. Racist whites often targeted buildings that represented Black progress, and orphanages were no different. Black children were not spared because they were children and in fact, it was their newly recognized ability to access sites of childhood protection and care—and their vulnerability as children—that provoked whites’ fury. As the children witnessed and experienced these and other forms of violence inside orphanages and schools, some fled in order to pursue different forms of protection from their families or even from other institutions. After one undoubtedly violent event, a Black girl left a school for a house of refuge for juvenile offenders. Other children became involved in political movements as young adults including abolitionism, citing racial trauma in childhood as an event which motivated them into action.

It seems black children often had a rather harsh upbringing in these environments and you are pointing in your book to some long-term implications—how do these childhood experiences and stereotyping craft modern images of African Americans?

CLW: Many ideas of childhood were developed in relation to constructions of the modern child which emerged in the nineteenth century. Modern constructions of children as innocent and in need of adult intervention produced contemporary systems and treatment of children including child-labor laws, foster-care, public schooling, and the category of the juvenile delinquent. Black children were neglected in all of these systems beginning in the nineteenth century and in my book. Black children’s increasing and continuous indenture throughout the nineteenth century challenged evolving limitations on the use of children’s labor. The paternalistic and racialized judgements on Black families as part of the orphanage movement set the terms for their discrimination and disproportionate representation in the current foster care system. After emancipation, Black children were deprived of equal schooling and in spite of the activism and gains made by African American children and adults in the nineteenth century, the U.S. education system is still segregated and unequal on racial lines in many places. And in the nineteenth century and today, Black children are overrepresented as juvenile offenders and adultified criminal courts—sentenced as adults. In these ways, dominant society has systematically barred Black children from social protections of childhood, impacting their ability to be fully recognized as children.

To draw to a close, this was a fascinating study, what are your future plans?

CLW: When researching, Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood, I uncovered the virtually unacknowledged yet shocking phenomenon of the imprisonment of Black children in adult penitentiaries. I began to trace the treatment of Black women and children in early prisons and discovered that Black children, especially Black girls, experienced extremely harsh punishments including lifetime sentences and even execution. This is the subject of my next book—the criminalization of Black women and children in the criminal reform movement of early America, tentatively titled, Criminalizing Freedom.