Summary and Keywords
Boys and girls of European and African descent in Colonial America shared commonalities initially as unfree laborers, with promises of emancipation for all. However, as labor costs and demands changed, white servitude disappeared and slavery in perpetuity prevailed for the majority of blacks in the South following the American Revolution. Children were aware of differences in their legal status, social positions, life changing opportunities, and vulnerabilities within an environment where blackness signaled slavery or the absence of liberty, and whiteness garnered license or freedom.
Slavery and freedom existed concomitantly, and relationships among children, even black ones, in North America were affected by time and place. Slave societies and societies with slaves determined the nature of interactions among enslaved and emancipated children. To be sure, few, if any, freed or free-born blacks did not have a relative or friend who was not or had never been enslaved, especially in states when gradual emancipation laws liberated family members born after a specific date and left older relatives in thralldom. As a result, free blacks were never completely aloof from their enslaved contemporaries. And, freedom was more meaningful if and when enjoyed by all.
Just as interactions among enslaved and free black children varied, slaveholding children were sometimes benevolent and at other times brutal toward those they claimed as property. And, enslaved children did not always assume subservient positions under masters and mistresses in the making. Ultimately, fields of play rather than fields of labor fostered the most fair and enjoyable moments among slaveholding and enslaved children.
Play days for enslaved girls and boys ended when they were mature enough to work outside their own abodes. As enslaved children entered the workplace, white boys of means, often within slaveholding families, engaged in formal studies, while white girls across classes received less formal education but honed skills associated with domestic arts.
The paths of white and black children diverged as they reached adolescence, but there were instances when they shared facets of literacy, sometimes surreptitiously, and developed genuine friendships that mitigated the harshness of slavery. Even so, the majority of unfree children survived the furies of bondage by inculcating behavior that was acceptable for both a slave and a child.
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