Riding the Orphan Train: What we can learn about modern slavery from our own history

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Katie wrote, “I hope you will write to me and let me know if you see any of my family…I would give one hundred worlds like this, if I could see my mother.”

Katie had been sent far from home to live with and work for another family because her own mother had difficulty caring for her. Things did not go well with this new family, though.

“They whipped me till I was all black and blue,” Katie said. “I told the lady I did not like to stay there, so she told me I could leave.” And she did just that.

This is not a story about Haiti, or about a Haitian child. Like many children in Haiti, Katie had been trapped in domestic servitude, but she was an American girl who wrote these words from Elkhart, Indiana on May 28, 1865. She was writing to the people in New York City who had put her on the “orphan train.”

Between 1853 and 1929 roughly a quarter million American children were swept off the streets of New York and other east coast cities and sent westward on trains to live with and work for farm families. Some were true orphans. Many others were not. Many landed in loving homes and were cared for and sent to school. Many others were not and essentially became child slaves.

In fact, before the civil war opponents of this practice in the south argued that the real purpose of the orphan trains was to reduce demand for slavery in midwestern states. Then, after slavery had been outlawed, abolitionists in the north opposed the practice, arguing that many families were now using the free labor of these children in place of slaves they had lost or could never afford.

Trains would stop in midwestern and southern towns, and the children would file off and parade before the assembled townspeople, often on hastily constructed stages. Locals would inspect the children, feel their muscles, look at their teeth, and question them. Contact between the children and their families back east was strongly discouraged. Many of these children ran away from the abusive new homes they were placed in, and a few even found their way back to their families in the east.

I share Katie’s story because it is good to remember that not so long ago the U.S. faced its own kind of restavèk system. Of course, there are important differences. For example, the children in the U.S. were flowing from the cities to the countryside, while in Haiti children generally flow from the country to the city. Still, similarities with the restavèk practice are striking:

  • A clear economic interest was the chief motivation for many families taking these kids in.
  • The children generally lost contact with their biological families.
  • Many children were treated as inferior to other children in the family and community.
  • Abuse of these children was common.
  • Those sending these children away from home almost always intended the best for them.

This last similarity deserves an explanation. Haitian parents do not sell their children into restavèk slavery. They send their children away freely, hoping their chances for an education and for other basics will improve in the city. Likewise, Charles Brace, the young Presbyterian minister who started the orphan train practice, was initially responding to the desperate condition of an estimated 30,000 street children in New York City in 1853.

Historically in the U.S. and today in Haiti, those sending children away can identify success stories to justify continuing the practice. Some children are lucky to land in good homes.

But sending children off into the hands of distant and unknown families without any meaningful oversight is a huge gamble. Many children aren’t lucky and end up being exploited and abused. Based on one recent study, at least half of the children in Haiti sent to live with other families become trapped in servitude.

The good news for children in the U.S. is that a social movement grew and gained force here, winning significant protections for American children. This same movement led to the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which outlawed employing young children in sweatshops and mines. This movement allied with the Sunday School movement also led to American children being given the legal right to a publicly supported primary education.

These movements for children grew from small groups acting locally to protect children separated from their parents. Local movements coalesced into a national movement. The foster care system we have in the U.S. today (with all its flaws) is largely the fruit of the collective response to the orphan trains.

While Katie Murphy did find a better family after running away, we don’t know if she ever made contact with her mother again. In the enclosed newsletter we share stories of children in restavèk being reunited with their families through local child protection groups we organize and train.

Just like the national movement to protect children in the U.S. grew up out of local groups, Beyond Borders is nurturing a strong national movement to end child slavery in Haiti. We do this by organizing and training local child rights groups in urban neighborhoods and rural communities.

After months of training, these Child Rights Activists come together to form neighborhood Child Protection Committees. They are the first line of defense for rescuing children from restavèk and advocating for policies and practices that protect the rights of these children.

We are so grateful for the support of people like you who care about Haiti’s children and invest in the capacity of Haiti’s people to build their own movement to protect their most vulnerable citizens.

Through the month of April, we’re raising funds for 10 Port-au-Prince neighborhoods that are trying to train and launch their Child Protection Committees.

Click here to learn more or donate. We also have the option to partner with a particular neighborhood or fundraise on our behalf.
Sincerely,
David Diggs,
Director, Beyond Borders