A black crow is in the foreground, with symbolic illustrations of American institutions as part of the pink and orange background. Artwork by Lyne Lucien.

Kidada speaks with professor Paula Austin about the shift in American society to protect childhood innocence in the early 1900s, and how that concept doesn’t apply to—or help us understand—the experiences of Black children who grew up during the early days of Jim Crow. 

Despite only white children being recognized as “properly innocent” and deserving of protection, Paula shares that Black children generally had a strong sense of self and were proud of their community and history. 

They also look to survey responses from Black youth in the nation’s capital in the 1930s to reveal a clear sense of resistance and activism against racist restrictions that foreshadow the Civil Rights Movement.

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Kidada E. Williams: This is Seizing Freedom. I’m Kidada Williams. In the companion episode to today’s interview, we talked about growing up Black at the turn into the 20th century, and about the parents, caregivers, and social scientists who were invested in raising what they called “race-loving men and women.” 

In the white supremacist framework of the Jim Crow era, who got counted as a “child” – what rights and responsibilities they had, and what protections they deserved – was shifting. This was a time when American society began to think: maybe we shouldn’t rely so heavily on child labor. Maybe children should be removed from worldly concerns – free to enjoy school and to grow up as ‘innocent’ as possible. 

Paula Austin, assistant professor of History and African American Studies at Boston University, has spent a long time in the archives. She draws on contemporary, multidisciplinary scholarship about how we understand youth and children. 

She told me that one of the first things we need to question when thinking about childhood during early Jim Crow is the notion that childhood has a natural kind of innocence to it that needs to be protected.

Paula Austin: No children, certainly not in U.S. history, have had this thing called childhood innocence. The concept was constructed and then protected in the communities where something like childhood innocence could be protected, which was predominantly white and elite communities where you could have a childhood that looked a certain way. 

I mean, It often meant that you were not working. It often meant that you were getting some kind of education. But it didn’t always mean that you were quote unquote protected from something like sexual violence or other kinds of violence in the home. So I think many of the scholars are really trying to disabuse us of childhood innocence as natural.

KEW: While Black children experienced the same harsh forces of the world that white children did, the violence of Jim Crow racism exposed Black children to a different side of the world’s wickedness. But as Paula mentioned, the idea of childhood innocence was fraught. In this new social construction, only white children were recognized as ‘properly innocent’ and deserving of protection. 

That meant that the children of lynching victims, or the children being lynched – children denied access to education or who went hungry because their parents were paid so little – these children were purposefully written out of the efforts to protect childhood innocence. 

We see this today with the white moral panic about the teaching of Black history because it might make white students “uncomfortable.” Those who would ban Black history have no consideration for how uncomfortable and how unsafe Black children are in many whitewashed K-12 classrooms. 

So, scholars like Paula believe that this notion of “childhood innocence” doesn’t help us understand Black childhoods, or the experiences of Black kids themselves. Instead of sifting through the archives to find instances of that magical, constructed childhood innocence, Paula took a different approach in her research by going to the source: the kids themselves.

PA: What I want to focus on is the agency of children, the ways in which listening to children’s experiences and understanding children’s experiences will actually help us figure out what childhoods could look like with an understanding of the kind of structural violences that are in place for many children—and I think for all children—because, you know, even children who might be having a relatively privileged childhood experience are still not able to make some decisions for themselves because of age, right? And there are all kinds of legal things in place that kind of tell us about what kids can and can’t do before a certain age. 

But I think we…also have ideas about brain development, some of which is based in science. But I think even a sort of not fully developed brain doesn’t mean that you should be losing agency. Listening to experiences and understanding experiences will help us understand what childhood could look like. And I think certainly we have a lot of examples of what childhood should not look like, right? What are the experiences children should not be having?

KEW: In her book, Coming of Age in Jim Crow D.C., Paula illustrates how growing up in urban environments restricted or fostered Black children’s development. 

PA: D.C., of course, is an interesting city because it is the capital of the U.S., right, so it’s supposed to be the seat of democracy. But it is also a racially segregated city; it’s a small city. And it’s a growing company town at the…in the early 20th century to the mid-20th century because the federal government is growing because of the two world wars. 

So Black young people are living in certain segregated communities, sometimes with poor and working class immigrant…white ethnic immigrants, sometimes not. Usually with other middle and aspiring class Black people. So they’re relatively mixed communities, but mostly they’re being kept out of a bunch of spaces that are sort of right next to them. And they are, in a lot of cases, being kept out of spaces that we think about as public.

KEW: In 1937, a federal agency called the American Youth Commission and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Foundation conducted a study of Black youth development around the country. Anthropologists and sociologists did interviews with young people and psychologists conducted IQ and developmental tests. 

Paula dug into those published studies to learn about how Black youth saw themselves and the environments they grew up in—and how they resisted racist Jim Crow restrictions, acting as youth activists in their own right. She told me about a few of the kids who participated in those interviews.

PA: So Myron Ross is a really great example, and Myron was 17 when he was being interviewed for E. Franklin Frazier’s sociological study. Frazier was writing a book about Black adolescent personality development, and interviews a bunch of Black families in D.C. So Myron is interviewed. He lives in southwest D.C. He’s got a lot of siblings, as his parents do. But he tells a story about participating in the Boy Scouts jamboree, which is kind of this national thing that happens. And it happens in D.C. in 1937, and some 500 Boy Scouts sort of come to D.C. from all over the world, really. 

And Myron talks about these segregated camp units on the, you know, on the National Mall. Myron also talks about the kind of self segregation that happens specifically with white Boy Scouts who are from southern states. But he talks about being able to meet boys from around the world, and it also is one of the first opportunities he has to go to other places in the city that he doesn’t have access to on a regular basis. 

And so we think about some of these spaces, like the National Mall, as public, right, for American citizens, but also as a tourist attraction for people who are coming to the seat of democracy, the capital. But here is a young Black kid who’s from the city, who is traversing the city, but tells these stories of being kept out of certain spaces that we would think of as spaces that are public and are for everybody. But they were not.

KEW: So what does this do to them, to their sense of themselves, their understandings—his understanding—of how his experience participating in the jamboree was very different from what he would normally experience in his everyday life in the city?

PA: Well, I think this is one of the examples of the ways in which Black young people do not have that experience of childhood innocence—this constructed childhood innocence—and the ways that their parents, and especially parents in a segregated city at this particular moment, are not really able to protect their kids from the experiences of racism and of racial segregation. 

So many of their parents had come to D.C. to be in sort of closer proximity to the flag—as some of them said—to get away from the violence of the South and the deep south. I mean, many of the young people who are interviewed in this study talk about these experiences and they know because their parents have told them that it’s better than being in the south, in the deep south. But they also want to experience other places where they might not have these experiences. 

So they talk about wanting to travel, they talk about wanting to leave D.C. And many of the young people think about themselves as, to some extent, proud Black young people. One of the questions that they’re asked is would they rather be white, or would they want to be lighter? And many of them talk about how they know that white skin, white complexion, white identity might get them access to things—like maybe better schools, maybe better jobs—but many of them say no, that they would not choose to be white or they would not choose to be light skinned. 

And so, you know, here they are in the late 1930s with a very clear understanding. I mean, kids—like Myron, who’s 17—but younger kids…nine, 10…who understand the restrictions and the constructs of the racism that are keeping them in certain places, but also have pride…have a clear sense of their identity, both as kids, but as Black kids in a city, and then also take some liberties. 

And Myron talks about these risks of going into spaces where he knows he might be in danger, but he’s willing to prioritize his desire to be a Boy Scout or some of the other things that some of the young people are doing. They are willing to identify in a certain way and then find those spaces where they can do that, even though some of those spaces do put them in danger. 

KEW: And one would imagine that with…even like Myron’s decision to go in places where he knows he’s not supposed to go, simply because he just wants to be a boy, and he knows that these restrictions are problematic, if not BS…And, you know, but he’s aware of that, and he’s aware of the risks, and he calculates them in terms of where he goes, even while potentially putting himself in danger.

PA: Right. One of the questions that everybody was asked is, “Do you interact with the police a lot?” And so a 14 year-old named Suzy Morgan, answered this question and said, “Yes, actually, the police get after us a lot. But we’re so tight they can’t ever get us.” And then she proceeds to tell the story about how she and her friends go to the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool to swim. And it’s important that they’re going there to swim in August, because it’s hot in D.C., and actually in southwest—where Suzy lives—there were no public pools for Black people to access, so you either had to go all the way to northwest or to one of the public beaches—but only on certain days. 

And so Suzy tells the story about her and her friends swimming in the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool and being harassed and threatened with bodily harm by a Metropolitan Police Department cop. And she says that what they do is this kind of political theater, where they sort of congregate in the middle of the reflecting pool so that he can’t reach them. And then she says that they do this thing where one of them pretends to be Lincoln, and they all ask Lincoln for permission to swim in the pool, and then Lincoln responds and says that they can swim in the pool and stay as long as they want. 

And so part of what this story said to me was that, well, I mean, Suzy and her friends know the history of slavery, how the Civil War ends, Lincoln’s role in that—or at least are mobilizing the idea about Lincoln’s role in that as an emancipator and then as someone who could give them permission to be in that pool. And so they do this whole thing. And she, you know, the last thing she says in the end for this question is, “Of course, we know we have no business being in there, but that’s why we go in.” It was this one of the first things that I found in the archival material and it was why I stayed in there because I thought, well, I need to see what else is in here.

KEW: This is Seizing Freedom. I’m Kidada Williams. I’m speaking with historian Paula Austin about what it was like for Black children to grow up in D.C. in the 1930s. Despite living under Jim Crow law, Paula found that Black kids generally had a strong sense of self and were proud of their community and history. They were being raised as freedom-seizing kids, who resisted. 

What it suggests is that some of the work that parents had been trying to do from the turn of the century going forward was to instill in their kids this understanding of who they were and what the world was like. And even if their parents may not have cosigned going to these places where they weren’t supposed to go, they might have actually understood exactly why they did what they did, when they did. And so, yeah, it suggests, to me at least, that the work…the hard work that Black parents are trying to put into their children is paying off for some in some respects.

PA: So I think that…I think you’re absolutely right. I think many of the parents are afraid of what their kids are doing. And in most cases…most of the parents of the young people that I looked at were working a lot, were very rarely at home with their kids. Kids were at the southwest settlement house a lot or they hung out with each other, you know, at the reflecting pool or at the Union Station, Columbus Fountain or, you know, in doorways and on sidewalks and, you know, at community centers. 

And so I think parents were really concerned about where their kids were and about the harm that could come to them. But they also were very clear about the sort of the righteousness of…of being in these spaces where they were not allowed to be in because they were also opposed to racial segregation. 

KEW: So do we have a sense of where their sensibilities of their blackness comes from, like, you know, like there would be this perception that all of these kids would want to be white so that they can gain access to the privileges of society. But something must be going on in their homes, in their communities and their understandings of the world that is shaping their thinking. You know, their answers to this question. And do we have a sense of that? Of what that might be?  

PA: Well, you know, some of the questions that they get asked are about who they…do they know who Frederick Douglass is; do they know who Booker T. Washington is. So they are being asked about, sort of, what they know about…important Black leaders and Black history. And many of them know these folks. 

But I would say the other thing is that they…they also identify community leaders—folks in their communities—who they have a lot of respect for. Many of them talk about their parents in these ways, as people that they’ve learned from. You know, Myron’s dad, for example, is a part of one of the only Black fire stations in D.C. And he’s also a scout leader. 

The other thing that’s happening in the community are local protests. There is a…there’s a domestic trade union that’s forming. There is a “don’t buy where you can’t work” protest that’s happening of a local drug store. There’s an anti-business brutality campaign that’s been going on for at least a decade in the city. So they’re in the national capital where there is a lot of activity happening, a lot these things happening locally. And there are all of these other sort of social movements going on, racial justice movements that are going on, that they are living through and that they’re, you know, kind of espousing opinions about because they get asked by the…by the interviewers.  

KEW: One thing we do know about kids is that they pay attention. They absorb the world around them and they reflect the world back to itself.

PA: And, you know, a couple of young people talked about sexy magazines that their sister was reading and how they were concerned she was going to get in trouble and that she was hanging out with the wrong people and so…so they were also kind of integrating a lot of the kind of social reformers’ ideas about what kind of stuff they should be doing and what kind of stuff they should be reading.

They also had critiques of what some of the, you know, aspiring class adults in their communities were doing. And so there was one young person—who I think was 13 or 14—and he ended up talking about how his teachers were essentially hypocrites because, you know, they had all of these rules in place about whether or not students should be dancing close to each other, things that young people were wearing. And so he ends up telling this story about just hanging out one night and how he saw a couple of his teachers falling in and out of this club that was called Jerry’s Place in southwest D.C. And he said some were half high and some were damn near gone. 

And so I will read a little bit from his interview. He said “they stay up all hours of the night, drink, smoke, dance and have relations with men and come to school the next day and try to act hard boiled. I don’t see how they do it or how they expect us to have much respect for them. Disrespect is not the thing I’d ever want to extend to my teachers, but some of them deserve it.” So when I saw that, I thought, you know, this was certainly not an answer that the interviewer expected. But it said to me like, “Oh, Theodore Smith has opinions and is watching!”

KEW: And see because that’s what I was thinking, is that Theodore is paying attention, right? As most young people are in order to understand the world they live in. And this is why it is probably really important for us to take them seriously as thinkers and, you know, being willing and able to consider how they theorize their lives and what they want and need in them. 

Du Bois believed that children have the potential to transform and transcend the nation. Are there lessons we can learn from the past that will help us fuel a hunger for, and belief in, social change among young people today?  

PA: Du Bois’ idea—and I think this is true for many of the social scientists of the…the early and the mid and maybe contemporarily social scientists who think about training children in a particular way in order to transcend and transform the world. And I think what you said earlier about providing them with what they need in order to be their best and full selves, but also to have an opportunity to really be creative about thinking about transforming the world. 

So to me, it’s about listening, right, asking the right questions and listening to young people because I think that it is true, right, that they are going to inherit the world that we’re in right now and going to be leaders, right? All of the things that people say about young people are true, but they also are creators of that future world.

And I don’t know that they get enough opportunity to think about themselves in that way, and to then actually do some experimenting with some visions and some creative visions for what…for that future world. And so a lot of that, I think, is about figuring out what they need in order to be able to do some of that work that we are saying that they’re going to do just naturally. 

KEW: Right. So if parents and teachers are listening to this interview, what kinds of questions should we be asking kids?  

PA: Well, yeah, I mean, I think…So this makes me think about the debates that are going on about what kids should learn at certain ages. And I mean, this was a debate that was happening, you know, around sort of LGBTQ issues, right? What is it appropriate for kids to learn? And again, I think this goes back to this…this false…this sort of myth about childhood innocence. 

And one of the responses is always, you know, for the people who—for example—ask about what can kids learn about slavery? Or can kids learn about racism? And it’s always about, well, which kids are you talking about? Because some of them already know about…about that. Part of it is about providing information.

Now, certainly, it needs to be delivered in a particularly age-appropriate way, but I think some of this is about providing the sort of fullest amount of information—and of course, I’m biased—and that…that seems, I would say, the fullest amount of information about our history so that young people understand sort of what’s come before, what’s been tried already, kind of what the outcomes were. 

And then, and then also some strategies and skills for thinking about new visions for what is possible. I mean, the thing that’s really interesting about the Social Science Survey—the study that was done that I use—is that the interviewers, they seemed to assume that young people were going to have answers to these questions. I mean, some of the questions, you know, are really thoughtful questions about what they think about their political and their social surroundings. 

I mean, maybe they didn’t expect the answers they got, but they ask the questions that really took those young people seriously as thinkers. And so I think we have to take them seriously as thinkers first, and I’m not sure that we always do. We sort of think about them as vessels that we should fill with information, but not really thinkers who are then processing this information and maybe have responses and reflections.

KEW: That was Paula Austin, assistant professor of history and African American Studies at Boston University. Look for Coming of Age in Jim Crow DC: Navigating the Politics of Everyday Life wherever you find your books.

Episode Resources

The following resources were utilized in the research and creation of this episode:

Seizing Freedom is a co-production of VPM and Molten Heart