Master of Arts (MA)
First Committee Member
Elizabeth White Nelson
Second Committee Member
Third Committee Member
Fourth Committee Member
Gregory A. Borchard
Number of Pages
This thesis argues that child labor was one of the primary battlegrounds in the struggle over the freedom and economic autonomy of emancipated African Americans. It studies the role of children and child labor in the context of Reconstruction by employing Freedmen’s Bureau records, African-American newspapers, and the Federal Writers’ Project’s Slave Narratives. This study reveals that during the Reconstruction Era, emancipated African-American children’s lives revolved around the unpaid labor they were required to perform. Using a national lens to rediscover the neglected story of African-American children in the Postbellum Era, it demonstrates that child labor was a source of contention and controversy among freedpeople, the planter class, and the federal government.
The initial aftermath of emancipation witnessed a power struggle for the control of black child labor between parents and former slave masters. When African-American children were bound to white masters by restrictive apprenticeship contracts, their parents petitioned the federal government to regain custody. Freedchildren who worked alongside their parents in family farms often engaged in the same kinds of labor that they performed in slavery. Such labor demands on African-American children compromised their ability to attend school and created tension within the African-American community. The black press encouraged freedpeople to send their children to school and to create nurturing domestic environments in which to raise their children.
This thesis uses the concept of family labor to analyze African-American history and child labor history. It the weaves together the narratives of labor, childhood, and family to conclude that the previously ignored issue of African-American child labor was one of the defining questions of Reconstruction.
African-American history; American South; child labor; Civil War; Reconstruction; United States
African American Studies | American Studies | Race and Ethnicity | United States History
Mattay, Alan, "Cultivating Children: Continuity and Change in African-American Child Labor During the Reconstruction Era, 1863-1877" (2018). UNLV Theses, Dissertations, Professional Papers, and Capstones. 3369.
Available for download on Thursday, May 15, 2025