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Author ORCID Identifier



Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

Afro-American Studies

Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Manisha Sinha

Second Advisor

James Smethurst

Third Advisor

Barbara Krauthamer

Fourth Advisor

Laura Lovett

Subject Categories

African American Studies | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | History


Notions of childhood as a distinct developmental period of life were concretized during the nineteenth century. Features of children’s lives including innocence, play, and exclusion from labor became markers of ideal childhoods as part of the racialized modernization of childhood. This dissertation uncovers the ways in which modern constructions of childhood attempted to subjugate northern African American children throughout the nineteenth century and highlights the means by which black children and conceptualizations of black childhood became agents and sites of resistance. In doing so, it demonstrates both how African American children experienced age-based forms of subjugation as well as their contribution to forms of activism that capitalized on the political power of black childhood. This dissertation focuses on constructions of black childhood in prominent anti-slavery texts as well as the daily lives of African American children living in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York from gradual emancipation to the Civil War. Through an interdisciplinary engagement with organizational documents, school records, and textual representations, this dissertation explores the ways in which black childhood was constructed, institutionalized, and made political. By examining expressions of black childhood and motherhood in black print culture, this study also demonstrates the connects the political discourse concerning black childhood with that of black womanhood and motherhood. As such, this study elucidates black children’s role within abolitionism, women’s rights, prison reform, and humanitarianism, thereby broadening the scope of relevant scholarship in African American history, the history of childhood and youth, and studies of political activism to include the oft-neglected subject of northern black children’s experiences.