Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood

African American Children in the Antebellum North

By Crystal Lynn Webster

208 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 10 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-6323-4
    Published: June 2021
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-6322-7
    Published: June 2021
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-6324-1
    Published: April 2021
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-5101-7
    Published: April 2021

John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture

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Awards & distinctions

2022 First Book Award, The Library Company of Philadelphia

For all that is known about the depth and breadth of African American history, we still understand surprisingly little about the lives of African American children, particularly those affected by northern emancipation. But hidden in institutional records, school primers and penmanship books, biographical sketches, and unpublished documents is a rich archive that reveals the social and affective worlds of northern Black children. Drawing evidence from the urban centers of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, Crystal Webster's innovative research yields a powerful new history of African American childhood before the Civil War. Webster argues that young African Americans were frequently left outside the nineteenth century's emerging constructions of both race and childhood. They were marginalized in the development of schooling, ignored in debates over child labor, and presumed to lack the inherent innocence ascribed to white children. But Webster shows that Black children nevertheless carved out physical and social space for play, for learning, and for their own aspirations.

Reading her sources against the grain, Webster reveals a complex reality for antebellum Black children. Lacking societal status, they nevertheless found meaningful agency as historical actors, making the most of the limited freedoms and possibilities they enjoyed.

About the Author

Crystal Lynn Webster is assistant professor of history at the University of British Columbia.
For more information about Crystal Lynn Webster, visit the Author Page.


"In this engaging and innovative work, Dr. Crystal Lynn Webster begins the crucial work of filling the gaps in knowledge about Black children in the antebellum era."—Ms. Magazine

“Webster offers glimpses of children who are rarely featured in histories of the Civil War era . . . It is certain that this book will inspire many scholars in African American and Childhood Studies to continue down the path that Webster illuminates so creatively.”—Civil War Book Review

“This concise, gracefully written book, with its tight temporal and geographic focus, is an essential historical contribution and an invitation to future research about northern Black children and the states of unfreedom that shaped their reality.”—Early American Literature

“An engaging study. . . . a welcomed addition to the literature calling attention to advancements in Black childhood studies and the need to explore the lives of Black children . . . in the antebellum North.”—Historical Studies in Education

"With a novel and important focus on the construction of Black childhood in the antebellum North, Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood prompts us to rethink the construction of childhood and the experiences of Black children and their parents in northern cities."--Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Rutgers University

“A remarkable book that speaks to some of the most enduring questions in African American history and politics: what is the meaning of freedom? Is ‘free’ really free? How have Black families navigated institutionalized racism that seeks to undermine their intimate ties? By placing Black children and mothers at the center of her work, Crystal Webster unearths histories that too often have remained invisible.”--LaKisha Michelle Simmons, University of Michigan