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First Public Orphan House (review)

When the orphanage was founded in 1790, there were 8,089 white persons in Charleston, and 8,270 black persons, and of the blacks 7,684 were slaves, and 586 were freed blacks. Complicating things was the revolution in Haiti the following year. The uneasy equilibrium in Charleston was overwhelmed by a wave Haitian émigrés, of the white elite, yes, but mostly by a new population of slaves, free blacks, and mulatto refugees. Complicating things further was that as the number of freed blacks in the city increased, so did the share that were mulatto. White anxiety about mulattoes would reach such a level by 1848 that Charleston would require by law that all freed people wear a tag identifying them as black, and carry proof of manumission, at risk being re-enslaved.

In this climate it will come as no surprise to learn that the Charleston Orphan House and the Free School associated with it admitted only white children; not just white but who, while certifiably poor, were not very poor, in fact whose homes were decent enough to pass an inspection. Thus defended, the orphanage played an important part in forging a race-based “alliance of whites” against blacks that cut across, was orthogonal to and subversive of the class-based alliance that a new industrial working class was trying to build against capital. “It is this link between civic society and racial unity that helps explain the puzzling question, why the first (and for many years the only) large-scale public orphanage in America should have been built in Charleston” (p. 199). “Charleston was unique in the early republic in creating the charitable orphan house because in no other city did the elite need to make common cause with the white poor and working class against the potential common black enemy” (p. 201). “Webs of white cooperation reached across class lines, as if the other half of Charleston’s population weren’t there at all” (p. 204).


18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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