- Child Care in Black and White: Working Parents and the History of Orphanages by Jessie B. Ramey
In Child Care in Black and White, Jessie B. Ramey uses the story of two orphanages in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to bring several new perspectives to the historiography of orphan homes. Ramey focuses her book on the United Presbyterian Orphan’s Home (UPOH) and the Home for Colored Children (HCC) between 1878 and 1929. Foremost among Ramey’s arguments is that parents used these two orphanages as a means of child care. Rather than being true orphans, most of the children admitted into these institutions had one or even two living parents, a common trait for many of the orphan homes in the United States. Ramey shows that parents tended to treat each of these institutions as a partner in an economic interaction. Approaching the story in this way grants agency to the families submitting children to the institution. Rather than completely relinquishing their rights over their children, parents stayed involved in their children’s lives. They frequently paid a fee for their children to live in the institution and, consequently, felt that the institution owed their children a certain level of care. Parents negotiated with the orphanages over several issues, including the clothes their children wore and the food they ate.
While both of these homes originated with the same group of Presbyterian founders, the UPOH accepted white children while the HCC accepted African American children. Ramey uses these two institutions to explore the complex role that race played in the care of children in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; “The HCC both reinforced and resisted racial segregation,” she writes (p. 161). One of the main reasons the HCC opened was that the managers of the UPOH discovered an African American girl named Nellie Grant who needed a home; they did not want to place her in the UPOH. By creating a separate institution for African American children, the managers continued the national trend of segregation. A few African American women served on the board of the HCC from its inception, but their presence was little more than tokenism and did not move the board towards a fully [End Page 528] integrated management. Overall, “the HCC board … largely functioned as a white institution in relationship to the black community,” a community with which the managers hesitated to interact beyond helping a few of the children (p. 181). It took time and persistent efforts from prominent local African Americans as well as state authorities for the board to begin cooperating with members of the black community outside the institution, as well as to start interacting with other African American homes for children. However, the board did—in some cases—challenge racial stereotypes, particularly in their treatment of the children. They considered African American children intellectually capable, and while they prepared them to be good citizens they also educated them and encouraged vocational pursuits just as they did for the children in the UPOH.
Another crucial component of Child Care in Black and White is the role of gender. Ramey spends some time on the ways gender affected the children living in the institutions as well as the power of maternalism in shaping the managers’ motivations, actions, and perceptions. The most innovative part of the book’s examination of gender, though, is the inclusion of fathers in the orphan story. As Ramey notes, orphan narratives tend to focus on the mother bringing her children to the institution, thus creating the image of the “fatherless orphan.” Ramey shows that fathers brought children both to the UPOH and the HCC and examines the circumstances which prompted them to do so. Fathers likely found it difficult to maintain an intact household without a wife to manage it and ended up bringing their children to the institutions sooner after the loss of a spouse than mothers did.
Child Care in Black and White successfully places the UPOH and the HCC in their historical context...