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Labor of Innocents: Forced Apprenticeship in North Carolina, 1715-1919

Author(s):Zipf, Karin L.
Reviewer(s):Whitman, T. Stephen

Published by EH.NET (September 2006)

Karin L. Zipf, Labor of Innocents: Forced Apprenticeship in North Carolina, 1715-1919. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005. xi + 207 pp. $43 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8071-3045-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by T. Stephen Whitman, Department of History, Mount St. Mary’s University.

Karin Zipf, of East Carolina University, provides in Labor of Innocents valuable insights into North Carolinians’ evolving views on the respective roles of the state and of women, African Americans, and poor whites in raising, educating, and controlling children and youth. Zipf focuses her attention on the social and political aspects of apprenticeship, surveying its trajectory from eighteenth-century origins to its eventual replacement in the early twentieth century by child welfare agencies and juvenile justice systems. She is not as concerned with apprenticeship as an economic or labor institution.

The greatest strength of this book lies in a meticulous and thoughtful appraisal of the legislative and judicial history of apprenticeship in North Carolina. Historians accustomed to thinking of apprenticeship as having died out in the Early Republic will profit from Zipf’s focus on the period between 1850 and 1919. She identifies four significant “period shifts” (p. 155). Initially used primarily to monitor poor women in single-parent households, North Carolinians began to apply court-ordered apprenticeship to free people of color in the 1850s. In the wake of the Civil War, former slaveholders attempted to use apprenticeship to control the children of ex-slaves. Struggles between planters and freedpeople, mediated by North Carolina’s Reconstruction governments, led to a second redefinition of apprenticeship. Up to this point, courts and legislators regarded parental rights to control children as inviolable, but had effectively excluded poor women and free blacks from recognition as legal parents. The 1867 reforms in apprenticeship law extended parental recognition to African-American men, and acknowledged somewhat wider rights of control for women, as well.

But in the 1890s, a third shift occurred, as appellate courts granted judges wider discretion to assess the fitness of parents to control their children, based on tests of “good character.” This tendency culminated in a fourth shift of policy with the passage of a Child Welfare Act ion 1919 and the statutory elimination of apprenticeship. Over the long run, the state switched from delegating control and surveillance of poor children to apprentice masters and private orphanages to assuming direct responsibility for children’s welfare via modern bureaucratic management.

The book’s focus on elites’ efforts to control socially marginal people and their children puts Zipf in the same part of the historiographical forest as Peter Bardaglio’s Reconstructing the Household, Victoria Bynum’s Unruly Women, and Laura Edwards’ Gendered Strife and Confusion. All of these authors insist that gender issues, as well as race, informed the laws and practices aimed at poor people in the nineteenth-century South. Zipf’s work, with its tight concentration on apprenticeship, operates more narrowly than Bardaglio et al., but does give us a deeper look at the institution, at least as a vehicle for social control.

Some readers will wish to know more about the labor aspects of apprenticeship in North Carolina. Zipf examined apprenticeship records from seven counties in the state, selected to provide a mix of urban and rural settings from the coastal plain, the piedmont, and the western hill country. She uses the data to demonstrate increasing and disproportionate apprenticing of free black children in the 1840s and 1850s, but might have analyzed these indentures more deeply. It would be useful to know in more detail the age distributions of children at time of indenture, the crafts to which they were bound, and the kinds of economic promises made to apprentices. The latter might include how much education the apprentice was to receive or what kinds of goods or amounts of cash were to be paid upon completion of the indenture, and the extent to which these promises varied over time, or according to the race, sex, and age of the apprentice. Providing such a detailed analysis would help determine the extent to which economic forces, as distinct from social control motives, entered into the binding of children, and how these forces interacted.

But one does not wish to commit the reviewer’s sin of wishing the author had written a different book. Karin Zipf set out to explain the form, content, and evolution of North Carolina elites’ impulses to control the poor around them, and she has accomplished her task ably. Anyone interested in the social and cultural history of childhood will profit from reading Labor of Innocents.

T. Stephen Whitman is an Associate Professor of History at Mount St. Mary’s University, Emmitsburg, Maryland, who writes about slavery and emancipation. He is the author of At Freedom’s Door: Challenging Slavery in the Chesapeake, forthcoming in 2007 from the Press at the Maryland Historical Society.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII