Black and "Dangerous"? African American Working Poor Perspectives on Juvenile Reform and Welfare in Victorian New York, 1840-1890

Article excerpt

By all accounts, New York City in the 1840s encompassed within its frenetic shores the best of worlds and the worst of worlds. Within sight of splendid Broadway lay what sensationalist reporters dramatized as the wretched "realm of Poverty," its features most grotesquely magnified in the notorious district of Five Points 'just back of City Hall, towards the East River. . . .' (1) It was into this latter world of crooked streets, foul air, slouching beggars, overcrowded cellars, predatory epidemics, and crime and prostitution that a thirteen-year old cabin boy of African descent named James Hubbard stepped off a Canadian ship on a frosty December day in 1840. Two months later this young native of Bermuda joined the inmate population of the first juvenile reformatory in the United States, known as the New York House of Refuge [hereafter NYHR]. Hubbard explained to his case recorder that he had jumped ship because he suspected that the captain intended to sell him into slavery in the American South. "A colored m an" brought him to the city almshouse, which in turn dispatched him to the Refuge. Subsequently, the youth was indentured to a farmer in New Jersey who sent glowing reports of the boy's work and conduct. James Hubbard had found in the Refuge a precarious haven against bondage, in part through the intercession of an informal web of "race kin" forged in the public spaces of New York's meanest streets. (2) A few months after Hubbard's introduction to New York, another young seafaring African American entered the Refuge under somewhat different circumstances. Fifteen year old William Groorsbeck, originally of Newark, New Jersey, was the son of a boot black and a domestic worker who lived in service in the Bowery. When Groorsbeck lost his job as a clerk on a steamboat -- and with it his board and lodging -- his parents took him to the Police and had him committed to the reformatory for vagrancy. The young man assured his new custodians that he "never stole anything." Evidently, for Groorsbeck and his parents, the Refuge was meaningful not as a vehicle of cultural uplift as much as a material resource to buttress a precarious family wage economy. (3)

The cases of James Hubbard and William Groorsbeck illustrate an important aspect of the urban black working poor's relationship with Victorian America's quasi-public "benevolent empire." They suggest the strategies of empowerment that some of the most marginalized members of the so-called "dangerous classes" used -- however informally or imperfectly -- in order to make reform institutions such as juvenile asylums, orphanages, and almshouses serve goals that they themselves defined. In an age of assault on outdoor relief, institutions designed as laboratories for reconstituting the character of the poor were themselves refashioned by the volition of their targets into agencies of relief. The New York House of Refuge was designed to socialize juvenile delinquents in the virtues of honesty, industry, order, obedience, punctuality, sobriety and thrift by removing them from the noxious influences of their allegedly unworthy families as well as the pernicious reach of hardened criminals in regular prisons. Yet, the reformers' inclusion of the nebulous category of "vagrants" as appropriate subjects for salvation provided a window of opportunity that African Americans seized to enlarge and tap the charitable potential of the reformatory in innumerable ways that undermined its primary purpose as an instrument, of cultural assimilation to bourgeois standards of behavior. Refracted through the prism of the laboring poor's material exigencies, the institution emerged instead as a multi-purpose relief institution -- as a long-term child care center for single mothers, a maternity home for pregnant teenagers, a hospital and insane asylum for sick children, a refuge for fugitive slaves and freed children, a schoolhouse for reluctant child laborers, an arbitrator in family conflicts, and of course, an orphanage for destitute minors. …

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