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ECU historian examines child apprenticeship laws

(June 17, 2005)   —   Apprentice labor laws in North Carolina existed as a means to control the composition and character of families, to provide sources of cheap labor and to ensure a white patriarchal social order, an East Carolina University historian contends. In her new book, “Labor of Innocents: Forced Apprenticeship in North Carolina, 1715-1919,” (Louisiana State University Press) Karin L. Zipf examines the era of state-sanctioned apprenticeship programs and their effects on families.

“My interest focuses on the apprentice law, its evolution and its effects on families,” Zipf said. “The courts didn’t really consider the rights of the child or the parent, but more often that of the local landowner who needed labor.”

North Carolina’s apprenticeship laws enabled any local magistrate to claim guardianship of children whom they believed lived in “unfit” families and would contract children into the care of farmers, artisans, blacksmiths or members of the upper class who needed domestic servants, Zipf said. The law defined “unfit” heads of household to include black men and women, or any widowed or unmarried white woman. Women did not have full rights to their children during this era. Drawing from more than 1,000 court and Freedmen’s Bureau records from Brunswick, Dublin, Robeson, Guilford, Wake, Mecklenberg and Wilkes counties, Zipf reconstructs the state apprenticeship process and the family circumstances that led to the placement.

Among the estimated 100,000 children affected by the law was Andrew Johnson, who, as a teenager, fled a tailoring apprenticeship with his brother to be reunited in Tennessee with their estranged mother. While he went on to become president of the United States, some children never saw their parents again. After the Civil War, former slaves who lived like husband and wife and had children, found their families under threat by the apprenticeship law.

“We are dealing with a whole population of people who are not officially married, all their children are considered illegitimate,” Zipf said. “There are some really difficult and confounding legal contradictions that the state faced.”

Eventually, attitudes about laws governing families shifted in courtrooms and in the legislature. The apprenticeship law was replaced in 1919 by the Child Welfare Act.

“The change happened because of shifting perceptions about what was best for children and who has rights to a child. Judicial interpretations of the laws also played key roles in making the change, which then enabled legislators to eventually abolish the apprentice law in favor of the Child Welfare Act,” Zipf said.

Zipf, a Durham native who grew up in Rocky Mount, is now working on the next leg of her project: North Carolina’s Child Welfare Act from 1919 to 1996. She received an ECU Research Development Grant award for $5,093 for her project, “Buked and Scorned: Gender, Race and the Welfare State in North Carolina.”


Contact: ECU News Bureau | 252-328-6481