Educational and Social Reforms for Africa American Juvenile Delinquents in 19th Century New York City and Philadelphia

By Span, Christopher M. | The Journal of Negro Education, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Educational and Social Reforms for Africa American Juvenile Delinquents in 19th Century New York City and Philadelphia


Span, Christopher M., The Journal of Negro Education


This article identifies some of the earliest known examples of juvenile justice for African American juvenile delinquents in 19th century New York City and Philadelphia. It extends our understanding and raises questions about the quality and type of reform African American youth accused of crime received in these cities and the early purposes of juvenile reformatories in urban American.

Warwick was a funny kind of place. It was a jail in disguise. (Brown, 1965, p. 138)

This passage is taken from the late Claude Brown's semiautobiographical classic, Manchild in the Promise Land (1965). It illustrates his perception of one of New York State's reform schools for juvenile delinquents. Growing up in slum Harlem during the 1940s and 1950s, Warwick was the third reform school Claude Brown entered before the age of 16. At age eight, Brown was first sent to the city's Youth House for stealing and gang activity. Three years later-and for the same reasons-he was ordered by a city court judge to attend Wiltwyck, a school for emotionally troubled boys cofounded by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. These schools had a specific purpose: they were part of a long history in New York to offer sanctuary, reform, and education to juvenile delinquents in the hope of transforming them from deviants into future productive citizens. Despite their intent, Brown believed that the reform schools he attended failed miserably in their mission. Instead of reforming juvenile offenders, they toughened and prepared them-especially its African American and Hispanic American offenders-for a life of continued delinquency and eventual prison.

Brown died on February 2, 2002 at the age of 64. His classic on the African American experience in post-Depression Harlem sold more than four million copies and served as one perspective of the high rates of juvenile delinquency in the most impoverished areas of Harlem. In the wake of his death, however, Brown's literary account has added significance. For researchers it provides a glimpse into the history and issues concerning juvenile justice for African American youth delinquents not just in New York, but also elsewhere in the nation. In an age where juvenile delinquency is disproportionately high among African American children, his account helps historicize the issue, and the types of social and educational reforms African American juvenile offenders were offered.

Juvenile delinquency is defined as the antisocial behavior of a minor, not more than 18 years of age, which is in violation of the general welfare of people in a larger society. Juvenile justice-state-sanctioned social reforms for children accused and found guilty of crime-seeks to address this antisocial behavior and has a long history in the United States. It owes much of its origin to concerned citizens of New York City. As early as 1825, juvenile reformatories, sometimes called "Houses of Refuge" or "Almshouses" were initially established in New York City (Pierce, 1969). They were founded, primarily, to avoid placing children accused and found guilty of crime in adult jails, and secondly, to provide a sanctuary for youth offenders to obtain the necessary skills for reform and selfsufficiency. Juvenile reformatories in 19' century urban America, however, appeared to be quite different from Brown's recollections and contemporary data. For instance, evidence indicates that they were not disproportionately populated with African American youth (Frey, 1981; Pierce, 1969). In fact, much of the evidence available on the earliest examples of juvenile delinquency and juvenile justice in the United States makes very little mention of African American children, or the course of action such reformatories took with regard to African American juvenile delinquents (Pierce, 1969). Conceptually, little is known of the types of social and educational reforms available to African American children accused and found guilty of crime in 191 century urban America, or whether juvenile justice measures applied to them in the same way as Whites, for example. …

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