Undocumented: Identity, Citizenship, and the Birth of the Administrative State

Endorsed by the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE) and the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS)

Sunday, April 18, 2021, 1:30 PM - 2:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; Legal and Constitutional; Native Americans and Indigenous Peoples


In the overlapping eras of the Gilded Age and Jim Crow, the twin capitulations to laissez-faire capitalism and the racial caste system have long signaled to historians a fundamental rejection of an activist state. Yet historians of the late nineteenth century United States have recently taken a renewed look at the productive powers of governance during this period, deployed in a staggering array of projects, from the dispossession and coerced assimilation of Native Americans in the trans-Mississippi West to the enforcement of immigration restrictions to the invasive policing of welfare recipients and impoverished communities. Indeed, the very idea of using the regulatory powers of the state to “document” its citizens’ lives came to be seen as a necessary function of a modern liberal state. In this light, the half century following the Civil War can be seen as a period of extensive state activity, one that worked to positively codify the inclusionary hierarchies that defined cultural and legal others, privileging the white, able-bodied, property-owning male as the ideal independent citizen, that class least in need of the state’s punitive “protection.” Nineteenth-century conflicts over these “borders of belonging,” in the words of legal historian Barbara Young Welke, forged the administrative state at all levels of government, precipitating enduring struggles over the meanings of democratic citizenship in America. Accordingly, this panel explores the ways in which the federal state intervened in the affairs of marginalized groups to document, regulate, and control. Focusing on the Indian Territory after the Civil War, Alaina Roberts explores the ways in which African American and Native peoples engaged an activist federal government as it imposed a rigorous system of documentation to sanction select Native lineages and appropriate Native lands. Dale Kretz investigates the struggles of formerly enslaved men and women to document their lives and identities in order to legitimize their federal welfare claims. Susan Pearson examines how birth registration served to fix one’s racial identity and enforce normative nuclear family structure on Native peoples, facilitating the larger project of white supremacy. Together, the panelists suggest the need for renewed attention to the fraught politics of documentation in the making of the modern American administrative state.

Papers Presented

Freedpeople as Undocumented Citizens

Historians of emancipation in America have long paid homage to the documentary record produced by federal officials during and after the Civil War. Foremost in the historical canon are the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, comprising nearly 1,500 linear feet at the National Archives. A welter of official reports of political mobilization and struggles over labor, healthcare, education, and family consolidation have all provided historians with invaluable evidence of the lives and aspirations of erstwhile slaves at the dawn of a new era. Yet the “testimony” recovered from freedpeople in these documents rarely comes to us directly but is rather filtered through a dense sieve of bureaucratic prerogatives imperfectly designed to make the postbellum South more “legible” to its federal overseers. Despite a renewed sensitivity among historians to the problematic transmutation of these bureau-created documents, for the most part the focus remains outside the circumstances of their creation—in other words, what the documents reveal about other dimensions of black politics and social relations. This paper reverses the valence and asks what the very process of federal documentation “told” the former slaves themselves about their new government. Emerging from their legal status as chattel, freedpeople were, in a very real sense, undocumented. This paper focuses on the thousands of previously undocumented freedpeople who pursued claims for federal military benefits and investigates what it took to prove their “identity.” How freedpeople confronted the very paperwork facilitating, regulating, and legitimizing their welfare claims reveals a great deal about how they understood their new and beleaguered relationship to the dramatically modernizing federal administrative state.

Presented By
Dale Kretz, Texas Tech University

The Joys and Pains of American Documentation in a Black and Native Space

The late nineteenth century saw the U.S. Federal Government intervene in Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma) in two different ways, proving that an American activist state was willing to interfere in the affairs of both Black and Native people to certain ends. White politicians and reformers forced Native people to change their ideas of identity and nationhood through the 1887 Dawes Act, which divided communally held Indian land into private allotments and racialized Indian citizenship. The introduction of American-style documentation of one’s lineage and supposed “blood” was weaponized to lessen the population of persons considered to be Native American—the fewer Native Americans, the more land that was open to white settlement. The repercussions of the Dawes Act can still be seen today in Native communities. On the other hand, American intervention also allowed the Black former slaves of Native Americans and African Americans from the United States to access land, arguably the most valuable possession in this time period. People of African descent solicited foreign interference in the social and political practices of tribal governments, and it was through the same Dawes legislation that Americans established a system of documentation that proved one’s history of enslavement by a tribal citizen, and thus, one’s eligibility for a portion of tribal land and a form of Indian citizenship. This land allowed for a degree of Black prosperity in the region, resulting, in part, in the famed Black Wall Street of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Presented By
Alaina E. Roberts, University of Pittsburgh

Birth Registration and the Administration of White Supremacy

This paper examines the relationship between quotidian forms of state identification and the administration of policies of white supremacy in the years between the Civil War and World War II. Specifically, I show how birth registration served an important ideological and administrative function in the allotment of Native American lands and the enforcement of de jure segregation by states. Because allotment policy combined property transmission with family reorganization, it made population registration and documentation of identity more important to the federal Indian Office than it had been under previous policies. The Office sought to impose nuclear family structures on complex kin networks in order to establish access to land and title, and it used documentation to fix family relationships in ways that fit with American property law. Registering the births of children was essential to this process since it both determined rights of inheritance and established the “blood quantum” of Indian children, according to which they would later be eligible (or not) to alienate their land. At the same time as the federal government sought to use birth registration to restructure Indian families and dissolve tribal relations, southern state registrars used birth registration to fix racial identity in order to determine access to school, marriage, hospitals, cemeteries, public welfare assistance, and a host of other benefits. This is best illustrated by the career of Virginia’s State Registrar Walter Plecker, who helped write and enforce the notorious Racial Integrity Act of 1924 through his control over all vital registration documents in the state.

Presented By
Susan J. Pearson, Northwestern University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Barbara Young Welke, University of Minnesota
Barbara Young Welke is Professor of History and Law, Distinguished McKnight University Professor at the University of Minnesota. She holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago and a J. D. from the University of Michigan Law School. She teaches and writes in the fields of 19th and 20th century U. S. history and American legal history and is the author of two books: Recasting American Liberty: Gender, Race, Law and the Railroad Revolution, 1865-1920 (Cambridge University Press 2001) and Law and the Borders of Belonging in the Long Nineteenth Century United States (Cambridge University Press 2010) and a number of articles including “When All the Women Were White, and All the Blacks Were Men: Gender, Class, Race, and the Road to Plessy” published in Law & History Review. She is currently working on a book titled The Course of a Life. Earlier publications from her current research include the article “The Cowboy Suit Tragedy: Spreading Risk, Owning Hazard in the Modern American Consumer Economy,” Journal of American History (June 2014) and a play “Owning Hazard: A Tragedy,” University of California Irvine Law Review (March 2011).

Presenter: Dale Kretz, Texas Tech University
Dale Kretz is an assistant professor of African American history at Texas Tech University. His research focuses on nineteenth-century black history with an emphasis on emancipation, Reconstruction, and the state. He is especially interested in uncovering the ways in which freedpeople encountered and shaped federal institutions in the decades after the Civil War. Kretz is completing his book manuscript, After the Freedmen’s Bureau: Administering Freedom in the Age of Emancipation, which offers the first full accounting of how formerly enslaved men and women maintained their wartime foothold in the federal government from the Civil War until the New Deal. While claiming military benefits in extraordinary numbers, freedpeople negotiated issues of slavery, identity, loyalty, dependency, and disability, all within an increasingly complex and rapidly expanding federal administrative state.

Presenter: Susan J. Pearson, Northwestern University
Susan J. Pearson is an historian of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States. She is particularly interested in the cultural politics of reform, the expansion of the state and forms of governance, and the development of American liberalism.

Pearson is the author of the prize-winning book, The Rights of the Defenseless: Protecting Animals and Children in Gilded Age America (University of Chicago Press, 2011) and essays and articles in The Journal of American History, History and Theory, Labor, Journal of Social History, and the Journal of the Civil War Era.

Pearson is now finishing a book that examines the spread of compulsory and universal birth registration in the United States. This research details how a once-locally and unevenly-practiced form of recordkeeping became the most essential mechanism for recording and establishing individual identity. Registering Birth: Population and Personhood in United States History will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2021.

Presenter: Alaina E. Roberts, University of Pittsburgh
Dr. Alaina E. Roberts is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work examines African Americans’ and Native Americans’ relationships to land and identity from the nineteenth century to the modern day. Her research has been funded by the Richards Civil War Era Center, the Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society, the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. Dr. Roberts’ first book, I've Been Here All the While: Settler Colonialism and Black Reconstruction, will be published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in Spring 2021.