Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood: African American Children in the Antebellum North
By: Crystal Lynn Webster
Crystal Lynn Webster discusses her book, Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood: African American Children in the Antebellum North (UNC Press, 2021), with Crystal Donkor. Listen here. Other episodes of the SHCY podcast are available at our podcast website, or you can subscribe on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.
Crystal Lynn Webster is Assistant Professor of History at the University of British Columbia. Crystal Donkor is Assistant Professor of English at SUNY New Paltz.
This review was originally published in the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Volume 119, Number 3, (Summer 2021), pp. 324-326:
Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood: African American Children in the Antebellum North.
By Crystal Lynn Webster.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021.
Until recently, the experiences of antebellum Black children, especially in the North, have received little scholarly attention. There were a few important studies, such as Wilma King’s 1995 Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America and Lois Brown’s scholarly edition of Susan Paul’s 1835 Memoir of James Jackson, The Attentive and Obedient Scholar in 2000, but these were the exception. In the past few years, however, there has been an efflorescence of work on early nineteenth-century Black children’s lives: Anna Mae Duane and Katharine Capshaw’s splendid edited volume, Who Writes for Black Children?; Duane’s Educated for Freedom, which follows Henry Highland Garnet and James McCune Smith from their youth in the African Free School into their adult lives; and excellent scholarship by Brigitte Fielder, Lucia Hodgson, and Nazera Sadiq Wright, among others. With Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood, Crystal Lynn Webster adds significantly to this archive.
Webster’s focus is “illustrating the ways in which conflict over the treatment and exploitation of Black children altered the course of . . . prominent nineteenth century movements” (p. 2). In her account, Webster shows how Black children participated in what she calls the “political process of freedom-making” around crucial issues such as educational segregation, incarceration, child labor, and abolition. And they achieved this at a historical moment in which their very status as children risked erasure. Northern Black children in the years before the Civil War grew up in a world in which hostility towards African Americans was on the rise, and their civil rights were steadily being eroded. White Americans rampaged through Black neighborhoods, wreaking destruction, on a regular basis—in Philadelphia alone, anti-Black mobs looted and burned in 1834, 1835, 1838, 1842, and 1849. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, Black children were vulnerable to being plucked off the street and shunted down into slavery, whether they were born enslaved or free. Even the establishment of gradual emancipation in northern states relegated Black children to years of indenture. And, while some Black children had access to schools, many were precluded from education by a variety of obstacles, from insufficient family funds to their obligation to care for younger children to violent attacks from white children.
Webster opens up these children’s experiences through careful attention to contemporaneous sources: the periodical press, the reports of Black institutions like the Colored Orphans Asylum in New York and the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth, children’s drawings, and school records. At the heart of the book is Webster’s archival exploration into the lives of children. This is a real contribution: one of the challenges of childhood studies more generally is that it is very difficult to hear the voices of children in history than it is to read what adults believed and hoped about them. Along with Patricia Crain and Karen Sánchez-Eppler (to name just two) Webster is part of a cohort of scholars who are unearthing the subjectivity of historical children through their own words and pictures.
If the archive is comparatively sparse for everyday white children, it is even more difficult to excavate for children of color. This is evident in Webster’s book, which will occasionally founder on a lack of primary evidence for the claims it makes. In one chapter, for example, Webster argues that for Black children, play operated as resistance to the strictures of enslavement and indenture, but then provides little in the way of examples of this. I would have loved to have seen how children deployed play as a kind of sabotage in the same way that their adult counterparts waged clandestine slowdowns to resist the cruelties of slavery. Similarly, elsewhere Webster claims that white reformers wanted to move orphanages for Black children away from their communities but does not quote any documents to support this. Given how crucial primary documents are for this project, omissions like this are conspicuous and undermine the otherwise authoritative arguments Webster makes.
Despite these lacunae, Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood is an ambitious and timely study that should find its way onto the shelves of any scholar of nineteenth-century Black life, childhood studies, or urban studies.
Sarah Chinn, Hunter College
About Crystal Lynn Webster
Crystal Lynn Webster is Assistant Professor of History at the University of British Columbia with a research focus on Black children in early America. Her book, Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood: African American Children in the Antebellum North (UNC Press, 2021), is a social history of African American children and foregrounds their lives as fundamental to the process of the North’s prolonged transition from slavery to freedom. She received first place writing awards from the National Council for Black Studies and the Association of Black Women Historians, and most recently, was the recipient of the 2022 Maria Stewart Award for best article in African American Intellectual History. Webster is currently writing her second book, Condemned: How American Criminal Justice was Built on the Punishment of Black Children. Additionally, her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Black Perspectives.
This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, which provides conversations about important contributions to the history of childhood and youth.