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Thomas Harriot College of Arts & Sciences
Department of History


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On an autumn day in 1866, Wiley Ambrose and Hepsey Saunders, two former slaves who lived as husband and wife, received a knock at their door. Three men from a plantation in Brunswick County, North Carolina, presented court-ordered apprenticeship papers authorizing the immediate seizure of the couple's daughters, fifteen-year-old Harriet and thirteen-year-old Eliza. After a brief stay in jail with other children, the sisters were sent to work as plantation servants and field hands until age twenty-one.

With that startling example, Karin L. Zipf begins Labor of Innocents, the first comprehensive exploration of forced apprenticeship in North Carolina. Zipf refuses to nostalgically view apprenticeship as a benign form of vocational training for children and instead presents irrefutable evidence that the institution existed as a means to control the composition and character of families, to provide alternate sources of cheap labor, and to ensure a white patriarchal social order. Codified by law, involuntary apprenticeship allowed courts not only to define who was an unacceptable parent but also to indenture their children. Disproportionately affected were the poor.

Zipf details the continual fluidity of the institution from its colonial origins to its twentieth-century demise. Over two hundred years, the definition of an unfit head of household variously included black men, any woman, and widowed or unmarried white women, depending upon the current social and political agenda of authorities. Parents of both races and sexes challenged the laws vigorously and repeatedly to no effect until progressive reforms ended apprenticeship in 1919 with passage of the Child Welfare Act.

An impressive blend of legal, social, and labor history, Labor of Innocents illuminates past concepts of family and the realities families endured.