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  • Labor of Innocents: Forced Apprenticeship in North Carolina, 1715–1919
  • W. J. Rorabaugh
Labor of Innocents: Forced Apprenticeship in North Carolina, 1715–1919. By Karin L. Zipf ( Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005. xi plus 207 pp.).

Under colonial American custom and law, apprenticeship was both a means by which one generation passed skilled crafts to the next and a means by which court-approved parental substitutes raised poor, and especially fatherless, children. Each type of apprenticeship was distinct. Whereas parents privately contracted with masters for craft apprenticeships, which required that youths be given an education and taught a trade, poor children under court-ordered apprenticeships did not necessarily get an education and could be assigned to such "trades" as housewifery, which might qualify poor girls to become house servants. By the 1830s formal indented craft apprentices were increasingly rare in the United States, but the courts, often without regard to parental opinion, continued to bind poor free boys and girls as "apprentices." Not surprisingly, actual practices also often involved race and gender issues. In Maryland and Delaware "apprenticeship" had been used in conjunction with widespread voluntary manumission in the 1790s and early 1800s as a device to retain social control of young African Americans, and before the Civil War poor free black parents in the South often had their children bound without consent. When slavery ended in 1865, planters tried to impose a new system of apprenticeship on their youthful ex-slaves.

Most of Karin Zipf's study focuses on race-based "apprenticeship" in North Carolina during Reconstruction, especially from 1865 to 1867. The twists and turns in apprenticeship during this short period reveal much about shifting beliefs, practices, and policies concerning race, gender, and class, which are the author's greatest concerns. While Zipf makes ample use of the few scattered court-ordered indentures for poor children that have survived, it is sometimes difficult to judge the degree to which the surviving documents are representative. Except for heavily Quaker Guilford County (Greensboro), the number of cases in other counties is often too small to draw confident conclusions. Local customs varied considerably, and county judges sometimes acted contrary to law. To compensate for lack of local records, Zipf makes a fine use of the Freedmen's Bureau records for 1865 to 1867. However, what gives this book its punch is the excellent analysis of a handful of key North Carolina Supreme Court cases about apprenticeship and related matters extending from 1867 to 1924. These cases enable Zipf, who is both a lawyer and a historian, to show that the shifting legal results are derived from gradual widespread changes in social attitudes not only about apprenticeship but also about race, gender, and class.

In the aftermath of emancipation in 1865, North Carolina planters used local courts to indent to themselves their underage former slaves. State law did not require parental permission for such apprenticeships. It merely required the court to find that the parent or parents were not suitable persons to maintain and educate the children. Also, the state could apprentice any child who was born outside marriage, and in 1865 planters argued that anyone born a slave had been born outside marriage. The Freedmen's Bureau was uneasy about apprenticeships [End Page 531] that looked like slavery, and this concern increased after black parents complained in large numbers about children seized in midnight raids on their homes. While Freedmen had trouble reclaiming children, single Freedwomen were in a particularly poor legal position to regain custody, since both law and custom were based upon patriarchy.

In 1867 in the Ambrose case, the North Carolina Supreme Court, in an opinion written by a Republican justice, revoked court-ordered indentures that had been made without the apprentice being in court. Although the case was decided on narrow grounds, the decision nullified thousands of apprenticeships that had been created after the war. While some Freedmen's Bureau agents allowed local courts to re-indent apprentices with parental notification, other agents insisted on parental permission. The head of the Freedmen's Bureau in the state adopted this latter policy. It was common custom in North Carolina, although not found in any...


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pp. 531-532
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