Annual Meeting Preview: “Little Prospect for Freedom: Native, Black, and White Children as Servants, Slaves, and Boarding School Students in the U.S. Midwest"

This session takes place on Saturday, April 6, at the 2019 OAH Annual Meeting in Philadelphia and is endorsed by the OAH Committee on the Status of African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Historians and ALANA Histories, History of Education Society (HES), Western History Association, and the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA).

Chair: Hayley Negrin, University of Illinois-Chicago
Commentator: The Audience

Narrating Enslavement and Childhood in the Illinois Country
Sophie White, University of Notre Dame

Indentured, Enslaved, and Fostered Children in the Nineteenth-Century Midwest: Race, Law, and Labor
Lucy Eldersveld Murphy, The Ohio State University

Domesticated Learning: The Gendered Educational Experiences of Native American Girls at the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial School
Melissa Beard Jacob, George Mason University

See other sessions relating to this topic on the Theme Visualizer

Little Prospect for Freedom: Native, Black, and White Children as Servants, Slaves, and Boarding School Students in the U.S. Midwest

This panel examines the experiences of unfree young Midwesterners over three centuries, the institutions that constrained, coerced, and trained them, and the rare moments when their voices could be heard.

The scholars on this panel examine the experiences of the most vulnerable people in the Midwest, children. From the eighteenth-century to the present, this region has been home to a diverse array of American Indians, Europeans and Euro-Americans, African-Americans, mixed ancestry, and other residents. Waves of colonization by French, British, and American rulers brought warfare, economic change, land loss, and disease. Along with these came systems of dominance, control, and governance that damaged families, disempowered indigenous peoples, and established racialized patriarchal institutions. Freedom in the Midwest from the eighteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries existed as one end of a complex continuum of statuses that ranged far and wide.

In the midwestern hierarchies of more than three centuries, the most subordinate and unfree people were the Indian, black, and poor white boys and girls separated from their families of origin by personal disasters of many kinds, situated in schools and households dominated by others. Systems of slavery and servitude leveraged the labor of the young with the expectation that they would continue to serve others during their adulthoods.

Our reasons for proposing this panel are varied. Sophie White hopes to illustrate experiences of Native American and African slaves by presenting the words and actions of one enslaved girl in the northern French Mississippi Valley in the 1740s. She explains, “Voices of enslaved Native American children are extremely rare for the eighteenth century. From the testimony I present, I hope to lead to further interest in the subjectivity of enslaved children, including their labor relationships with other slaves.” An extraordinary archive can help us to recover voices and autobiographical narratives of some of these enslaved individuals.

By the early nineteenth century, the violence, disease, migration and political change disrupted families and communities, forcing many young people into various forms of servitude. Their labor sustained households and businesses around the region. For Lucy Eldersveld Murphy, this panel provides an opportunity to explore the lives of vulnerable children of color, orphans, and young paupers in this region, and the ways that new and old laws and institutions dominated their lives. Case studies of Osage Indian slaves in Michigan, Ho-Chunk and white indentured children in Wisconsin and Ohio, and kidnapped black girls in Illinois, provide opportunities to examine the both the children and the adults who wielded power over the very young in their midst.

Melissa Beard Jacob’s research into the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial School of Michigan in the twentieth century examines efforts to educate and assimilate Native American children into White Eurocentric society. The Native girls who attended Mt. Pleasant’s domestic science classes were forced into a system of servitude to support the day-to-day operations of the school. Melissa says the subject matter is very personal to her as her great-grandmother and grandmother attended Native American boarding schools. “I’m essentially working towards reclaiming our histories and familial stories,” she explains. “My research is not only a part of an academic exercise, but it is also a form of reclamation and ceremony.”

We hope that attendees will take away from our session a better understanding of Native and African child slavery and other servitude in the Midwest, and the institutions that controlled their lives and labor, such as Native American boarding schools. Recommended reading includes Brenda Child’s Holding Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of the Community ; Brett Rushforth’s, Bonds of Alliance; Sophie White’s forthcoming book Intimate Voices: Narrating Slavery in French America; and Ruth Wallis Herndon and John E. Murray, eds., Children Bound to Labor, The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America.


Lucy Eldersveld Murphy, The Ohio State University

Posted: March 27, 2019
Tagged: Conference, Previews