African American Children: Some of the Last Recipients of Emancipation

Guest blog post by Crystal Lynn Webster, author of Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood: African American Children in the Antebellum North

This author’s book was also featured in part one of our JuneTeenth recommended reading list.

Juneteenth is day in which we celebrate freedom. But it is also a recognition that for many African Americans freedom was delayed and unfulfilled. This is especially true for Black children—a group that whites often did not emancipated and continued in systems akin to slavery for many years to come. Yet Black children’s unique experiences with slavery and freedom are often unrecognized. 

In the North and the South, African Americans children were some of the last recipients of emancipation. In both settings, the legal, economic, and social process of emancipation delayed freedom for Black children. Many places used age (adulthood) is a marker for freedom. In the North, the first emancipation law, Pennsylvania’s gradual emancipation law of 1780 freed African Americans after age twenty-eight. Other northern states enacted similar measures using age and entrance into adulthood as a marker for freedom including Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. These measures prolonged legal slavery in the North, especially for Black children, until the end of the Civil War. Northern Black children were also vulnerable to kidnapping and sale into southern Slavery. 

Black children’s lives existed at the boundaries between slavery and freedom as they were considered dependents and appropriate subjects of adult intervention in ways that intervened on full emancipation. The first orphanages which admitted Black children began in the antebellum North in cities of Philadelphia and New York. These orphanages were part of reform movements led by white women who sought to care and educate Black children in ways that were often paternalistic and racialized. White reformers admitted African American children even if they had living parents because they believed their parents were unable to care for them. While these spaces were sometimes sites of care and refuge, they also impeded upon the full experiences of freedom that many African Americans sought— reuniting with family in the wake of slavery and emancipation. Orphanages and reform schools indentured Black children to perform labor akin to slavery. These experiences were precursors to the end of slavery in the South. 

In both the North and the South, whites indentured Black children for decades after emancipation and into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Following the Civil War, southern Black children were also categorized as dependents, vagrants, convicts, or orphans.

Sometimes they labored for their former enslavers, at other times they were separated from their families and sold into “apprentices,” but deprived them of learning any skilled trades. In the North and South, Black children were also criminalized and imprisoned in adult penitentiaries. Black children were kidnapped and sold into the convict leasing systems which simultaneously criminalized them and exploited their labor into the twentieth century. 

Black children’s historical experiences challenge the ways we define and celebrate emancipation. When we remember Juneteenth this year we should pay special attention to the historical conditions of slavery and freedom for African American children. Age and freedom were bound together and African American children did not experience full emancipation for decades after that significant day on June 19th, 1865. 

Crystal Lynn Webster is assistant professor of history at The University of Texas, San Antonio.