Child Care in Black and White: Working Parents and the History of Orphanages

Child Care in Black and White: Working Parents and the History of Orphanages

by Jessie B. Ramey

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Reconceptualizing the orphanage as day careSee more details below


Reconceptualizing the orphanage as day care

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"An important book that will appeal to all scholars interested in the histories of child welfare, the working class, or social welfare.  Highly recommended."—Choice

"Jessie B. Ramey demonstrates why she is both a first-rate historian and writer."—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"This book is an important contribution to the history of child welfare policy. Jessie B. Ramey's research illustrates the role racial segregation played in a northern industrialized city in child welfare policies for dependent children whose parents turned to orphanages for help."—Kriste Lindenmeyer, author of The Greatest Generation Grows Up: American Childhood in the 1930s

"Child Care in Black and White is part of the University of Illinois Press’s superb ‘‘The Working Class in American History’’ series, and it effectively ties orphanages into a broad array of historical literatures, including but not limited to working-class life, African American life, and arguments about both motherhood and women’s work. . . . valuable to readers interested in families, children, poverty, labor, race, gender, and class in turn of the century America."—Journal of Family History

"Ramey's research contributes to greater understanding of working-class families in the early twentieth century and the flexibility and adaptability of child care institutions in response to the communities they serve."—Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography

"Child Care in Black and White, Jessie B. Ramey’s study of two Pittsburgh orphanages, the United Presbyterian Orphan’s Home UPOH and the Home for Colored Children HCC, during the years 1878–1929, is an extraordinary contribution to the history of US orphanages and child care institutions. . . . a valuable resource in advanced child and family policy courses in social work. Students will learn from its complexity, its attention to both micro and macro issues, and its unusually strong example of mixed-method, historical research."—Social Service Review

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University of Illinois Press
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The Working Class in American History
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Working Parents and the History of Orphanages


Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03690-3


Constructing Orphans

I don't know too much about [Mama's] early life except that her Mother ... died in 1891 when Mama was five years old. I don't know why Grandpa ... didn't keep the family together, but I suspect it was a matter of where he worked and people available to keep the children.... For a while they were all in a Methodist Orphanage on the North Side in Pittsburgh. —"Roberta Caldwell Snyder," in Gertrude Geisler's unpublished book, "Getting to Know Grandma"

The idea for this book began with these words, written by my grandmother about her own mother's childhood in an orphanage. In thinking about her experience one day, it occurred to me that my great-grandmother was not an orphan at all—her mother had died, but her father was living—and it suddenly seemed strange to me that she and her siblings had been placed in an institution for parentless children. But it turns out that the vast majority of "orphans" in orphanages at the turn of the last century actually had one or even two living parents, often struggling through a family and financial crisis. Some historians have characterized the decision to institutionalize children as a family survival strategy, which resonated with my great grandmother's story: the orphanage allowed her to stay together with her siblings and eventually to be reunited with her father. But as I thought about this story some more, it seemed to me that my great-great grandfather had been using the orphanage as a form of child care. He had lost the mothering and housekeeping labor his wife contributed to the family economy and was not able to perform her work on top of his own wage-earning work.

This book reconceptualizes orphanages as child care, exploring the development of institutional child care from 1878 to 1929 through a comparison of the United Presbyterian Orphan's Home and the Home for Colored Children. Founded in Pittsburgh by the same person, these "sister" agencies permit the first full-length comparative study of black and white child care in the United States. I am particularly interested in the ways in which working families shaped the institutions through their use of them as child care: this study emphasizes the historical agency of parents and even the children themselves in that process. That is, it demonstrates the ways in which families were active participants in the history of institutional child care, making decisions and choices that affected the development of early social welfare. Working parents and their children continually negotiated and cooperated with orphanage managers, who also had to bargain with progressive reformers, staff members, and the broader community over the future of their organizations.

Indeed, these actors constantly negotiated over child care practice and policy, and the choices they made together ultimately rested on deeply held assumptions of gender, race, and class. For instance, who should be caring for children (mothers but not fathers?), which parents should perform wage labor and which were deserving of assistance (should white women work? should black women receive support?), would children work or go to school (should poor children attend nursery schools or high schools?), and what would they grow up to become (manual or skilled laborers? domestic workers or wives and mothers?). I argue that the development of institutional child care at the turn of the last century was premised upon and rife with gender, race, and class inequities. Further, I suggest these persistent ideologies had consequences for the evolution of social welfare and modern child care. Finally, this book raises questions about the role of child care itself in constructing and perpetuating these social inequalities.

In modern usage, the term "child care" brings to mind "day care," perhaps provided at centers where parents drop off their children each day while they are at work. But throughout this study, I use the term "child care" more broadly to mean assistance with the daily labor of caring for children; and specifically in the case of orphanages, parents' tactic of placing their children temporarily in institutions with the intention of retrieving them after a relatively short time. The comparison to modern day care is useful, however, as parents did not necessarily give up custody of their children and often maintained a degree of control over them while they were in the institutions. Some parents used orphanages interchangeably with day nurseries, a similar type of institutional care that developed at the same time but only operated during the day. Yet, based on the number of institutions and comparative enrollment, working parents appear to have far preferred orphanage care to the day nurseries. In 1907, for instance, six thousand Pittsburgh children were in institutions compared to three thousand in day nurseries. Indeed, while modern day care has multiple antecedents, orphanages arguably provided the most significant, and most highly utilized, precedent in the development of institutional child care.

Historians who have examined orphanages have typically focused on what the institutions reveal about class relations, largely overlooking their racial and gender dimensions. In the 1960s, historians began suggesting that middle-class charitable institutions were not strictly benevolent undertakings and that motivations of "social control" were at play: a conservative middle class built social institutions to control the teeming, urban working class and as insurance against revolution from below. By the 1980s and '90s, the historiographic pendulum had swung again, with much of the social welfare literature preoccupied with countering the social control theory, or at least complicating it. The orphanage literature followed suit. As the century closed, most historians seemed to agree on a middle-of-the-road interpretation, acknowledging elements of both benevolence and social control on the part of the middle class but also stressing the agency of the working class in using institutions for their own purposes and shaping them to their own needs.

In a parallel trend, historians began pushing back the timeline of social welfare in the United States, tracing the roots of 1930s New Deal and later policies to earlier efforts such as the mother's pension movement. Women's historians in particular have demonstrated the critical role that women played in this development, with their focus on programs for mothers and children. This historiography offered a key insight, illustrating the ways in which both gender and racial assumptions molded those programs and thus later social welfare policies as well. These historians argue that institution builders and progressive reformers did not challenge traditional gender roles—the primacy of motherhood for women and breadwinning for men—while creating programs that excluded many people of color from channels of support altogether. This book builds on these observations, exposing the ways in which poor families used orphanages to meet their own child care needs, and through negotiation with the managers, shaped the institutional basis of the nascent welfare state. Furthermore, it centers child care in the historiographic conversation about the long-term gender and racial implications of our social welfare system.

Child care itself has received scant attention from historians. The literature has focused mainly on the day nursery, a substantially less popular child care option among poor families at the turn of the last century than the orphanage. Meanwhile, the historiography of orphanages virtually ignores the African American experience, largely overlooking orphanages, built by either whites or blacks, intended for black children. In addition, the issue of child care, both historically and in modern times, lies squarely at the intersection of gender and labor. Yet histories of labor often overlook the centrality of child care obligations in the lives of both women and men. Histories of family life, on the other hand, tend to focus on women's reproductive labor, failing to account for the child care responsibilities of fathers.

Ironically, historians of child welfare have reinforced the idea that child care is solely a "women's issue," replicating the historical invisibility of fathers with child care responsibilities, by narrowly focusing on single women with children. Despite the large number of fathers, both white and black, using orphanages at the turn of the century, the historiography of child welfare has avoided serious attention to the care-giving responsibilities of men. Furthermore, the scholarship on fatherhood is still in its infancy and has given almost no attention to working-class or African American fathers. This is not to suggest that a focus on women is misplaced, as they were indeed the primary child care providers, and even today they bear the disproportionate burden of child care responsibility. However, the historiographic construction and reconstruction of orphans as specifically fatherless children does more than merely overlook a group of men: it reproduces the assumption that child care is women's work.

This project mines new sources not previously available to scholars, through the privately held collections of the two orphanages at the center of the study. Both institutions—still extant and now serving troubled teens in Southwest Pennsylvania—preserved unusually comprehensive documents that reveal the intersection of families' child care needs with other central concerns we are more familiar with, such as wage labor and housing. I was the first scholar granted access to the archives of the Mars Home for Youth in Butler County, Pennsylvania (formerly the United Presbyterian Orphan's Home). Three Rivers Youth (formerly the Home for Colored Children) recently donated its records to the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, though the unprocessed collection remains closed to the public for the foreseeable future. The latter is a particularly significant collection, as there are so few extant records of similar institutions for African American children. The documents of these two institutions permit both rigorous quantitative and qualitative analysis, setting black and white child care for the first time in comparative context. They also provide new insight into the lives of working-class families struggling with the modernizing industrial economy and the ways in which marginalized populations used institutions for their own purposes.

Using original admissions and dismissal records, cross-referenced with notes kept by the managers, meeting minutes, and other sources, I created a relational database capturing over fifty variables for 1,597 children who lived at the two orphanages from 1878 to 1929. (See appendix A for a detailed discussion of the database and statistical methodology.) This kind of granular detail allowed me to recreate "case histories," tracing individuals over time, and in some instances, as they entered and left the institutions multiple times. The large, and unprecedented, size of this sample also yielded important statistical results, including a uniquely detailed portrait of working families and the specific ways in which they used the orphanages. For instance, multivariable analysis revealed the placement pattern of children in the orphanages by age, sex, and sibling cohort as well as by sex, race, and widowed status of the admitting parent. This quantitative investigation highlighted significant racial and gender differences in the way that poor families used the orphanages. Sources such as census records, social reformers' reports, and city directories support the statistical findings. In addition, the methodological insights of feminist and African American scholars have inspired my close reading of the evidence: looking for "gaps" and reading documents such as meeting minutes and personal correspondence "against the grain" expose the actions and voices of people often hidden because of their gender, race, or class.

Names and labels are powerful symbols, and the process of naming can itself be an exercise of power, an act of exposure. Throughout the study, I use the current cultural labels of "African American," "white," and "black" in my own analysis, recognizing that these are problematic constructions that only exist in relationship to each other. I have preserved other contemporary labels, such as "Negro" and "colored," when quoting primary sources. Likewise, I have maintained original spelling, grammar, and punctuation in all quotations, not only to avoid distracting correction marks, but also to preserve the speaker's "voice." Letting these historical actors speak for themselves, I reclaim many of these lost stories, especially those of the poor families who used the two orphanages to care for their children.

Yet these parents and children did not anticipate having the intimate details of their family lives ever made public, especially when they include sometimes painful or even confidential information such as desertion, unintended pregnancy, or adoption. Therefore, to protect anonymity, I have substituted names for all but a few of the orphanage clients, the only exceptions being Isabella Nelson Longmore and Nellie Grant Earley—both recognized and celebrated by the two institutions today in their founding stories and through named buildings and award programs—and James Caldwell, my own great-great grandfather, whose legacy and story I claim as part of my own. This project did not attempt to trace the lives of children after their stay in the orphanages, for reasons both legal and methodological: because of the sensitive nature of some of the records at one of the orphanages, including legally sealed adoption information, I agreed to keep identities confidential, which prevents any attempt to contact descendents. This type of genealogical digging also yields very scattered fruit, and while I frequently yearned to know "what happened to the children," a longitudinal study of orphans awaits future research. Instead, I am satisfied here to let the stories of orphanage families speak for themselves, narrating a tale of despair and hope: working parents struggled with the horrible reality of having to institutionalize their children, but ultimately, most succeeded in reuniting their families and brought their children home.

Turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh provides an ideal location for this study, as it embodied the intense, simultaneous processes of industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and migration that set the stage for child care crises in many families. Historian Roy Lubove has suggested, "Pittsburgh is ... a prime exhibit ... illustrating the social and civic consequences" of these urban processes. For instance, factories not only changed the nature of work and the workday, but also were dangerous places that killed and maimed, leaving families without a breadwinner. The crowding of workers in cities gave rise to tenement housing, abysmal sanitation, polluted water, and epidemics. And waves of immigration and migration dramatically increased the city's population, changing its racial and ethnic composition and isolating some families from extended networks of support. Pittsburgh's infamous reputation as "hell with the lid off"—a reference to the omnipresent smoke- and fire-belching factories—reflected both the city's typicality and distinctiveness: it possessed all the urban ills of a typical, industrial northern city, but in a concentration unlike most others. In choosing the city as the site of extensive investigation for the six-volume Pittsburgh Survey, turn-of-the-century social reformers recognized that it served as a veritable Petri dish for the problems they wished to address. Indeed, many working families were just one mill accident or tuberculosis case away from a child care crisis.

The Steel City's preponderance of heavy industry created a somewhat unusual labor environment for women and children, which also had a direct impact on child care for struggling families. Because many factories hired only men, women and children could not find jobs as easily as in other cities. 19 While some poor families did depend on income from their children's labor, their options were curtailed. In fact, historian S. J. Kleinberg argues that in the late nineteenth century, mothers increasingly went out to work in place of their children as a family survival strategy. Concurrently, between 1880 and 1900, the percentage of six- to fourteen-year-olds attending school in Pittsburgh rose, including the children of widowed parents. These were the parents often thrust into financial crisis with the loss of a spouse who might have previously turned to their children's labor to supplement family income; but during this period, children's workforce participation went down, and Pittsburgh children stayed in school longer than in comparable urban centers. The city's poor families turned less often to child labor, but the corresponding increase in maternal employment also created a child care crisis for many.

While Pittsburgh's economic base made it distinctive, its institutional child care response was fairly typical of other cities, both in terms of the number and type of institutions that were founded. The city may have actually been somewhat more generous to the poor than other towns, especially since elites could not promote wage labor as the sole solution to widows' financial troubles in an area with few jobs for women. Yet, as in other cities at the time, poor parents could not count on direct assistance from government sources—mainly limited "outdoor relief" programs such as coal and food distribution—to sufficiently meet their needs, and turned instead to private charities. During the period of this study, at least fifty-two child-caring institutions operated in the city, excluding day nurseries, and most were founded by religious associations. This included a handful of reform schools and homes for children with special needs, or in the parlance of the day, institutions for "delinquent" and "defective" children. But the vast majority of homes served "dependent" children: those who had lost the protection and care of one or both parents. These homes mushroomed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a crucial period of institution building that laid the groundwork for later development of social welfare policies. Thus, both the turn-of-the-century period and the Pittsburgh location provide a highly relevant and representative setting for a study of child care.


Excerpted from CHILD CARE IN BLACK AND WHITE by JESSIE B. RAMEY Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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