A Socio-Historical Overview of Black Youth Development in the United States for Leisure Studies

  • Daniel Theriault
Original Paper


African American voices are absent from many histories of the youth development movement in the United States. This article explores contexts for African American youth development in three historical phases: 1790–1840, 1860–1877, and 1890–1920. Each phase includes a description of the family, neighborhood, education, religion, and leisure as interconnected developmental contexts. Each historical period was characterized by a dynamic of oppression and resistance through which African Americans carved out youth development opportunities for and with their children. Coming to terms with this legacy of oppression underscores the imperative to challenge injustice in the present. Further disruption of leisure history with nuanced perspectives from people of color may provide a more complete portrait of where we, as a field, have been and options for where we might go in the future.


The veil Resistance Oppression Social justice 

The movement to use organized recreation as a context for youth development in the progressive era (hereafter the youth development movement) is a touchstone moment for the leisure studies field in the United States (Hunnicutt 2000). Histories of the youth development movement (e.g., Cavallo 1981; Kleiber and Powell 2005; Le Menestrel and Lauxman 2011; Witt 2005) are generally silent on the ways structural racism shaped the paths to adulthood for African American youth. The principal phase in the youth development movement, 1890–1920, coincided with Jim Crow, a system of laws, customs, and social norms designed to reinforce White Supremacy (Cole and Ring 2012). Even before Plessy v. Ferguson legalized segregation at the state level, African American youth faced violence, harassment, informal social norms, and separate but unequal facilities in their efforts to engage with youth development services (Foner 1990; Mjagkij 1994). Few African American youth participated in youth services provided by Government, non-profit, or private sectors controlled by members of the dominant culture (Halpern 2002) due to these oppressions.

However, African Americans have created youth development opportunities independent of the dominant culture for centuries. For example, African American churches often became the hub of community activity in the mid nineteenth century, with some churches hosting recreation activities (Foner 1990). Furthermore, African American churches provided African American youth with the opportunity to socialize with other youth and acquire adult mentors (Lincoln and Mamiya 2003). Churches and other institutions which served African Americans became targets themselves for violence from the Klu Klux Klan and other hate groups (Foner 1990).

African Americans’ transgressions of White oppression were not limited to the progressive era. Structural racism has been an unbroken, yet evolving force on African American youth development for centuries. If African American youth development history were confined to the progressive era, racism would be presented as a temporary limitation and institutional domination of African Americans would be reified (Mowatt 2017a). Therefore, this article provides an overview of African American youth development in three interconnected phases: 1790–1840, 1860–1877, and 1890–1920. These dates originate with Mintz’s (2006) argument that the youth development movement originated in 1790 with congregate institutions which sought to promote discipline and limit risk. The Civil War prompted a second phase in the youth development organized around societies which sought to protect children from risks of the era, such as child prostitution (Mintz 2006).

This paper contributes an exploration of the impacts of structural racism to youth development history. Although past youth development histories have noted the existence of racism, there have not been any explorations into how that racism shaped pathways or opportunities for African American youth development within leisure studies. This paper also expands the traditional focus of youth development histories from recreation organizations to a social ecology of support necessitated by structural racism. Inquiry into developmental contexts outside of recreation organizations may offer a more complete understanding of supports and risks for youth development in a given time period.

The article opens with an overview of the history of African American youth development in three phases, 1790–1840, 1860–1877, 1890–1920 is provided. Family, community, religion, education, and leisure are discussed as interconnected developmental contexts. Each context is characterized by a dynamic of oppression and resistance in which African Americans carved out spaces and resources for youth development. Next, a brief overview of the youth development movement is provided. The article concludes with implications for present day youth development research, education, and practice.

1 Conceptual Framework

Youth development here is conceptualized as person-environment interactions which either promote or forestall growth (e.g., Bronfrenbrenner 1977; Spencer et al. 2006). Youth development is further conceived as occurring through W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of The Veil (1903/2003; which describes the causes and consequences of societies’ fracture along racial lines. The Veil is used in the present study to create an era-specific description of structural racism. Through The Veil, Du Bois sought to “transform the black-white racial dynamic that had been historically and socially dominant in the United States” (Winant 2004, p. 25) from Enslavement to the early twentieth century.

The Veil was deployed in an effort to eliminate discrimination by awakening African Americans and Whites to the horrors of racism through facts and imagery (Brodwin 1972). In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Du Bois (1903/2003) wrote

he felt his poverty; without a cent, without a home, without land, tools or savings, he had entered into competition with rich, landed, skilled neighbors. To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships. (p. 12)

Perhaps through the exposure of diverse audiences to the depths of oppression, racism could be transcended (Blau and Brown 2001).

Racism could be transcended because present experience is the result of historically and culturally situated interaction (England and Warner 2013). African Americans’ present day interactions with organized recreation may be shaped by centuries of law, policy, and social custom which excluded them (Holland 2002). However, African Americans were never passive recipients of either history or racism. Indeed, African Americans built opportunities to teach youth identity through family interaction (Mintz 1999) and morals through religious services (Raboteau 2004), despite intense restrictions on everyday existence during Enslavement.

England and Warner (2013) argued that The Veil created two interacting social systems (one White, one non-White) which were characterized by antagonism and interdependence. African Americans were forced to create their own social systems: churches, families, and recreation which were often dominated by White institutions (England and Warner 2013). For example, Mjagkij (1994) argued that the YMCA supported Jim Crow in the nineteenth century by advising African Americans to develop segregated associations. While these associations offered the prospect of racial advancement, they were ultimately dependent on the largely White YMCA confederation for financial support. In absence of this support, many early African American YMCAs were short lived (Mjagkij 1994).

However, the relative separation of the White and Non-White social systems facilitated the growth of unique forms of resistance to oppression among African Americans (England and Warner 2013). For example, African Americans challenged the separation of family during Enslavement by developing extended kinship networks on plantations to both teach and care for Enslaved African youth (Kaye 2007). These transgressions force The Veil to evolve over time (Winant 2004). As resistance exposes limitations in The Veil, racism and racial relationships were modified to maintain White supremacy. For example, the legally sanctioned racial violence of Enslavement evolved into racism based on social custom during the progressive era. The evolution of The Veil requires that African American youth development is placed into historical context.

2 Historical Phases for African American Youth Development

Each historical period below opens with historical context to provide background for subsequent discussion of contexts for African American youth development. Following the context, a discussion of how an ongoing dynamic of oppression and resistance played out within five developmental settings (family, neighborhood, education, religion, and leisure) is provided.

2.1 1790–1840

The first period in the history of African American youth development is marked by Enslavement (Berlin 1998). King (2011) argued that children were often preferred by slaveholders because they could benefit from the Enslaved child’s labor longer. However, the tasks performed by Enslaved children and the age at which they began work varied according to their physical condition, the owner, and household needs. Specific tasks included fanning flies away from owners, chopping weeds, carrying wood, milking cows, cleaning, washing clothes and calling others to meals. Children often transitioned from these odd jobs to field labor between 10 and 12 years of age. The age at which Enslaved children were forced to begin labor was also important because it exposed them to the same harsh punishments for deviating from prescribed rules or expectations (King 2011). Despite the differences in labor between children and adults, all Enslaved Africans were viewed as property. Slave codes were developed in many states which outlawed property ownership, education, and leaving plantations without permission (Franklin and Moss 1994). Families were an important context for Enslaved African youth development in spite of legal and extra-legal sanctions on their ability to support their children.

Kinship Networks on Plantations

Enslavement was also characterized by the intentional separation of families and linguistic groups (Raboteau 2004). Even in cases where children were enslaved with one or more family members, parents were often forced to labor up to 20 h per day. Parents had therefore few opportunities to serve as an example to their children over much of the year (Illick 2005). As such, children often found themselves cared for by whichever adults they were Enslaved with (Chudacoff 2008). Hahn (2003) explained that these kinship networks played a crucial role in the everyday lives of Enslaved Africans:

The obligations and responsibilities of kinship were crucial to the achievement of the slaves’ short-term political objectives: to protect themselves and each other from the worst of the regime’s violence and exploitation, to carve out spheres of activity in which they could provide for themselves and establish relations and values suitable to a world without enslavement…(p. 19)

Kinship networks and family units also passed on craft skills, folklore, religion, history, morality, and identity (Gutman 1987; Mintz and Kellog 1988). For example, Enslaved African children were often taught by kin to refer to non-kin as “aunt” or “uncle”. This practice taught children respect for others, community (the ability to recognize Enslaved Africans outside of kinship groups) and status (Gutman 1987). Similarly, Enslaved children were often named after ancestors or relatives to preserve identity in the event they were separated from their families (Mintz 1999). Kinship networks thus created the prospect of a more whole existence possible, a goal perhaps enhanced by neighborhoods.

Kinship Networks Outside of Plantations

At least two distinct forces allowed kinship networks to develop across the boundaries of individual plantations. First, Enslaved Africans were sometimes forced to work on adjoining plantations and therefore had some opportunity to socialize with other Enslaved persons. Second, law dictated that children born belonged to the mother’s owner. Visitation may have facilitated the growth of individual labor forces (Kaye 2002). These networks developed on adjoining plantations and were often referred to as neighborhoods. However, neighborhoods were also tenuous due to the potential sale of members and the illegality of leaving plantations without the owners’ permission (Painter 2006).

Although it is unclear the extent to which children participated in neighborhoods, the outcomes of neighborhood socialization may have contributed to positive youth development. Kaye (2007) argued that Enslaved Africans “pooled intelligence, synthesized and reformulated all the talk as common knowledge and common sense” (p. 41). Neighborhoods allowed information from adjoining plantations as well as current events to circulate among Enslaved Africans, facilitating a sense of place. Furthermore, the social ties developed in neighborhoods may have created a network of care for some Enslaved African children. Some Enslaved Africans specifically entered the neighborhood and beyond in order to visit their children. The neighborhood also protected children born by Whites by teaching them to hide their paternity from White women (Kaye 2007).


Literacy was another significant avenue for Enslaved African youth development. Literacy promoted self-esteem to counter deeply held White assumptions about Enslaved Africans as subhuman. Literacy facilitated transcendence of the physical space of plantations by allowing Enslaved African youth to serve as conduits of information. Literacy also allowed a small number of Enslaved Africans to publish accounts of their childhood in Enslavement (King 2011). More than historical records, “these narratives comprised a pedagogy of transformation, showing how the new futures of a few could be become the destiny of the many through the engines of hope, moral indignation, and concerted action” (Gundaker 2007, p. 1601). The few children who were able to become literate also taught friends and family (Cornelius 1983).

However, many slaveowners reasoned that education would incite resistance and actively sought to limit Enslaved African children’s exposure to books or newspapers (Franklin and Moss 1994). Many children were thus forced to seek literacy in secret. For example, some children concealed their education by “playing school” with White children, where literacy lessons were exchanged for fruit or small toys (Gundaker 2007). Others were taught in secret by family or kin. In these instances, children were instructed to hide their education from enslavers by family in order to violent reprisals, which sometimes included limb amputation (Cornelius 1983). However, some Whites purposely educated Enslaved Africans out of adherence to religious beliefs or their belief in the value of a literate workforce (Williams 2005). Therefore, children were challenged at an early age to balance enslavers’ need for control with the myriad freedoms provided by literacy (Cornelius 1983).

Religion as a Source of Hope and Socialization

Confrontations between Enslaved Africans’ desire for freedom and enslavers’ need for control also characterized religion. Bailey (2016) argued that few enslavers sought to convert Enslaved Africans due to fears of insurrection. Even after conversion efforts grew in the nineteenth century, many Enslaved Africans rejected Christianity as it was deployed to justify their subjugation. However, African traditions melded with Christian practices to create uniquely Enslaved African religious practices, which were often held in secret to avoid reprisals (Bailey 2016).

Religion may have been an opportunity to supplement the socialization provided by family and kin, especially in terms of teaching values and moral lessons (Raboteau 2004). In particular, religious faith was a significant source of internal resistance to the horrors of Enslavement. Moreover, Enslaved African youth were inculcated in a narrative of Exodus which was used to draw parallels to their suffering as God’s chosen people (Raboteau 1995). Religious narrative thus provided one of the few positive messages about Enslaved Africans as a people during this era. Ceremonies, which were often held in wooded areas to avoid detection were further sources of resistance, which may have allowed Enslaved African youth to “forget all his sufferings, except to remind others of the trials during the past week” (Randolph 1893, p. 67). Furthermore, spirituals provided Enslaved African youth with a source of relaxation, courage, and occasionally faith in the possibility of escape (Higginson 1867).

Use of Free Time

Franklin and Moss (1994) contended that Enslaved African children were free to play with White children and wander the plantation grounds at will until they were physically able to begin outdoor labor (see also Chudacoff 2008). Lunsford Lane, a former Enslaved African, recounted: “my early boyhood in playing with the other boys and girls, colored and white, in the yard…I knew no difference between myself and the white children; nor did they seem to know any in turn” (as cited in Mintz 1999, p. 110). Franklin and Moss (1994) reported that United States Work Projects Administration narratives list enslaved children engaging in a variety of leisure activities including playing marbles, tag, sports, swimming, and hide and seek—all of which were generally unstructured and unsupervised. Play may have performed a variety of positive functions at this age, including coping with stress and learning. However, when children reached the age of hard labor, children had little time at their discretion to devote to leisure activities (Franklin and Moss 1994). Play did not cease after Enslaved children were forced to begin working in the fields, but then had to be stolen away and undertaken with greater risk. Indeed, Enslaved children “hunted for food to eat and skins to drape around their bodies for warmth, hid in dark and high places as runaways, searched for resources from medicinal plants, sought places to rest in the shade of the trees…” (Glave 2011, p. 94). Leisure may thus have also been used to address immediate survival needs and for respite from the terrors of Enslavement.

2.2 1860–1877

The second phase of the youth development movement coincided roughly with the Reconstruction, which occurred from 1865 to 1877. Opportunities for African American youth development expanded through the establishment of school systems. Racial violence became a way of life for African Americans during this period (Floyd and Mowatt 2014). Lynching, the murder of African Americans by mobs (Foner 2011) was undertaken to both enforce segregation and incite terror. The Equal Justice Initiative (2015) found that over 4000 lynchings occurred between the Civil War and World War 2, sometimes in front of picnicking spectators (Mowatt 2012). Freed African Americans sought work in Southern cities but were frequently denied and forced to live in shantytowns (Foner 1990). Many newly freed children were “apprenticed” into forced labor by court systems or the Freedman’s Bureau. Apprenticeships not only denied children the prospect of reuniting with family, but also denied their families a potentially vital source of income (King 2005). Faced with a lack of money and laws which looked suspiciously like Enslavement (Franklin and Moss 1994), African Americans were forced to continue to carve out their own spaces for positive youth development.

The Search for Family

Williams (2012) estimated that 1 in every 3 African American children was separated from their family during the course of Enslavement. Many, parents and children alike, used the chaos of the Civil War to escape their owners and search for their families (King 2005). However, frequent sales and name changes as well as the fact that most people of African descent were destitute made locating family members very difficult. Moreover, the Emancipation Proclamation prompted nearly 140,000 African American males to conscript in the Union Army by 1865—further complicating the search for family members (Williams 2012). Countless Enslaved Africans spent years looking for family and kin (often unsuccessfully, c.f., Painter 2006). Reunions were rare and those that did locate their children often found themselves adjusting to the intense separation (Williams 2012). However, the time and resources devoted to searching for lost family underscores the importance of family members: “it is only barely conceivable that people who had experienced so much loss could continue to care about their family members…” (Williams 2012, p. 156).

Gutman (1987) suggested that kinship groups continued to exert tremendous influence on the development of African American youth during the reconstruction, particularly in the absence of family. Extended family members not only provided care for children, but also continued many of the functions established during Enslavement: identity development, morality, and education (Gutman 1987). Those families which were able to stay together or came together after Enslavement now had much more freedom to attend to familial duties (Mintz and Kellog 1988), responsibilities which were often shared by members of their neighborhood.

Community Support for Youth Development

Neighborhoods developed during Enslavement expanded after the Civil War (Kaye 2002). Newly able to travel outside of a narrow geographic area, people of African descent were now able to extend neighborhood boundaries outside of the plantation grounds (Kaye 2007). These expanded communities were important sites for youth development in the absence of family or kin. Gutman (1987) noted that after the civil war, “Northern soldiers and missionaries found very few orphan children among the slaves and ex-slaves.

Given that Jim Crow shut out African Americans from most basic social institutions, they were forced to carry on the tradition of community support from Enslavement to create youth development spaces including schools, churches, and childcare (Jackson Jr. 2005). African American controlled institutions may have offered a space for young people to develop a positive self-identity, leadership skills, and foster community, benefits unavailable in many White controlled institutions (Jackson Jr. 2005). For example, community members frequently donated time and resources to build schools for African American children. Community members also donated their time as teachers and even provided financial support to develop many schools (Mitchell 2008). Butchart (2010) estimated that approximately one quarter of teachers in early African American schools were African Americans. Therefore, neighborhoods made youth development possible within an otherwise hostile environment.

Education, Status, and Freedom

However, a parallel white supremacy movement began almost immediately in response to the push for African American education. Schools, teachers, and students became regular targets of violence and terror (Foner 1990). After the reconstruction collapsed, southern leaders and planters diverted funds and suppressed African American youth education (Anderson 2014).

Education was viewed by many African Americans as a method to cement both status and freedom (Neumann 2008). The ability to read and write offered children of African descent new opportunities to stay informed on current events and the political process. Education also offered the prospect of new avenues for employment for individual children. Literate children also offered their parents some protection against exploitative labor contracts. As such, many African American children who were not working were in school while others attended school at night (King 2005). However, the developmental significance of education is also emphasized in the connection between education and ideological battles over equality and civil rights. Mitchell (2008) chronicled political debates in Louisiana over fears that educated African American children would overtake uneducated White children. These debates revolved around concerns that organized, large-scale efforts to educate African Americans would undermine White supremacy (Mitchell 2008). Education thus may have been a tool to threaten the existing social order as well as a context for youth development.

Churches, the Center of African American Communities

Emancipation prompted many African Americans to withdraw from White churches and develop their own congregations (Woodward 1974). The African Methodist Episcopal Church grew from 75,000 members in 1866 to 200,000 members in 1876. Membership in Southern Baptist churches increased from 150,000 in 1850 to 500,000 by 1870 (Franklin and Moss 1994).

Churches indirectly contributed to youth development by facilitating the growth of social cohesion among newly formed African American communities. Frazier (1974) argued that cohesion developed in the midst of building the church, attending church services together and participating in church-sponsored social events. The cohesion developed during religious involvement may have made community support for youth development emphasized above possible. Churches also directly contributed to youth development by providing youth development services as diverse as education, social events, dispute mediation, discipline, and moral guidance commonly being offered (Foner 1990). Religious organizations permeated other areas of youth development, particularly education. Frazier (1974) argued that the push to develop institutes of higher education was motivated in part by the need for educated ministers. Churches also operated as a haven, a place free of white oppression and a place where African American voices were both heard and respected (Lincoln 1974). The developmental significance of having spaces free of White supremacy during the era of Jim Crow is impossible to quantify.

The Slow Growth of Leisure Opportunities

Segregation was the norm throughout the reconstruction, including access to park and recreation venues (Woodward 1974). However, freed children did play with other African American children in their neighborhood. Chudacoff (2008) for example described a game called stray goose in which groups of children chased their fastest member. Some leisure time was also spent in political discussion at home (King 2005). Although children could not participate in the political process, these discussions clarified their responsibilities to the community and thus may have been a significant form of leisure (King 2005).

Furthermore, play began a long road toward organized recreation during the Reconstruction. Mjagkij (1994) noted that even though the YMCA generally supported Jim Crow during its’ early years, the first African American YMCA was founded in 1853 in Washington, D.C. by Anthony Bowen. Members met in Bowen’s home and activities were generally limited to bible study. Following the Civil War, the YMCA began to encourage African Americans to found their own segregated associations. Indeed, twenty-three African American branches of the YMCA were founded in the Southern States before 1875. YMCAs performed several significant functions during this period including education and a venue to promote racial solidarity. The lack of support from the YMCA confederation and minimal financial assistance from the African American community caused many early African American YMCAs to flounder (Mjagkij 1994).

2.3 1890–1920

Whether motivated by a lack of economic opportunity, Jim Crow, or persistent racial violence, over 1.5 million African Americans left the south for northern and Midwestern cities by 1920 (Hahn 2003). The majority of migrants were bound for large urban areas such as New York City or Detroit. 1890–1920 was also marked by the codification of Jim Crow with the Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896. Laws enforcing segregation followed at the state level “put the authority of the state in the voice of the street-car conductor, the railway brakeman, the bus driver, the theater usher, and also in the voice of the hoodlum of the public parks and playgrounds” (Woodward 1974, p. 91). However, segregation had been enforced by violence and custom throughout the United States for generations (Wolcott 2012). Furthermore, the pattern of violence established during the Reconstruction continued during this era. Franklin and Moss (1994) estimated that 2500 lynchings occurred between 1884 and 1920. Race riots in Statesboro, Georgia (1904), Atlanta, Georgia (1906), Brownsville, Texas (1906), Springfield, Ohio (1904), Springfiled, Illinois (1908), to name just a few (Franklin and Moss 1994) further exemplified racial violence in the progressive era.

Impacts of the Great Migration on Family Structure

Jim Crow forced many African American families to continue tenant farming in southern states, a system Du Bois (1908) described as halfway between slavery and free ownership…” (p. 105). However, this period was also marked by a resistance to this system, as seen in the great migration. Mintz and Kellog (1988) noted that families involved in the great migration separated for a time as the husband typically traveled north first to find work and then sent word when employment was secured. Travelers developed strong bonds with fellow migrants, boarders, and extended family to ease the transition. When families were reunited they often lived on little money which could only be counted sporadically. Families often moved. As such, children often had to work to help support their families, unless education opportunities were available. In a sense, the great migration may have only magnified two by now consistent trends: the salience of both immediate and extended family (Mintz and Kellog 1988). Ruggles (1994) analyzed the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series to assess the historical development of African American family structure. The vast majority of African American children were living with both parents during the progressive era with about 10% of children living with no biological parents. Furthermore, approximately 25% of African Americans were living with extended family during this period (Ruggles 1994). Despite the forces disrupting African American family life, Furstenberg (2007) noted, “we know that the Black family places a strong emphasis on protecting and caring for children, regardless of their parentage” (p. 432).

Settlement Houses and African American Neighborhoods

Most migrants settled within African American neighborhoods, with later migrants being directed by friends or family to safe neighborhoods. Economic status, racial violence, and segregation policies enacted in the early twentieth century further directed African Americans into particular neighborhoods (Woodward 1974). The large number of people in unsanitary living conditions contributed to both poor health and a high mortality rate among migrants. Juvenile delinquency was a particular problem in the growing slums because: “the parks and playgrounds movement that was developing throughout the country did little for blacks, and when they attempted to avail themselves of the opportunity to use public recreational facilities, violence and bloodshed frequently resulted” (Franklin and Moss 1994, p. 311).

Within this context, settlement houses became important contexts for African American youth development in Progressive Era America (Lasch-Quinn 1993). Segregated settlement houses offered African American youth a host of social services otherwise unavailable due to structural racism. The New York Colored Mission offered African American youth religious services and classes as well as a nursery and boys club. The Philadelphia College Settlement offered a more expansive list of services to African American youth, including a gymnasium, playground, library, and inexpensive meals (Luker 1984). Staffed by African Americans—often African American women—and relatively free of oppression, Hounmenou (2012) suggested that settlement houses fostered a spirit of resistance to later movements for social justice. Further, the space may have allowed youth to reflect on shared experiences of oppression and develop a collective identity organized around oppositional consciousness (Hounmenou 2012). O’Donnell (1996) commented that settlement house and mission workers “believed that, in helping the less fortunate, the entire race would be tangibly-socially and economically-elevated” (p. 17). Community development and youth development were therefore intimately linked in the effort to create a brighter future with all African Americans.

Education for Community Youth Development

Young people of African descent who did not attend school often worked to support their families. Those families that lived near African American schools typically sacrificed their child’s wages so that they would have an opportunity to be educated. Du Bois (1911) estimated that 1.3 million African American children (between 5 and 18 years of age) were enrolled in school, which constituted about half of that segment of the population.

The Calhoun Colored School, though concerned with literacy, also promoted community youth development. Willis (2002) demonstrated that students were involved in community outreach programs which extended reading and writing lessons to older adults in the community. Holiday celebrations were often held on school campus which brought communities, families, and students together. Teachers were also instructed to make assignments relevant to students by getting to know them through homes visits. By demonstrating that concerns for students’ welfare transcended classroom walls, teachers perhaps further strengthened community youth development (Willis 2002). Community youth development may have buttressed students against White supremacy that characterized the Progressive era (Dennis 1998).

Church as the Social center of African American Life

Churches continued to be “the social centre of Negro life in the United States, and the most characteristic expression of African character” (Du Du Bois 1903/2003, p. 137) during the Progressive era. Churches provided African American youth with opportunities for achievement not present elsewhere. Mays and Nicholson (1933) commented, “a girl of little training and less opportunity for training gets the chance to become a leading soprano in the choir of a great church” (p. 340). Many African American churches of the era were financially supported, staffed, and governed by African Americans. African American preachers were often viewed as community leaders. The extent of African American control may have nurtured an oppositional consciousness to White supremacy among some young people which contributed to later movements for social justice (Lincoln and Mamiya 2003). African American control also promoted a spirit of welcome not often seen in White controlled spaces during the Progressive era. In addition, churches were also often used as venues for leisure.

Segregation in Leisure Contexts

The oppositional consciousness developed in church may have been an important counterpoint to the injustices which characterized much of African Americans’ leisure during the Progressive era. Segregation of African Americans was part of the basis of marketing many recreation facilities as safe, clean and family-friendly. Although some legal protection was offered in the Civil Rights Act of 1875, recreation business owners and managers deployed a variety of strategies to subvert the legislation, ranging from transferring ownership to private companies to developing “membership systems” which excluded African Americans. However, African Americans were also dissuaded by a legacy of violence which occurred during micro-level interactions with recreation facilities (Wolcott 2012). Holland (2002) added that there were few facilities for African Americans at this time and many of those in existence were of poor quality. The lack of access to wholesome free time activities may have contributed to juvenile delinquency (Holland 2002).

Some African Americans responded to these trends by using facilities despite the threat of violence or creating their own recreational opportunities (Fisher 2006). For example, recreation participation during this period was often characterized by “locals randomly organizing pickup games” (p. 134) in the absence of consistent, quality service from public recreation. Neumann (2008) argued that many African Americans rejected work first, leisure second white attitudes toward recreation and leisure characteristic of the period and passionately protected and advocated for their leisure.

3 A Brief History of the Youth Development Movement

The history of African American youth development described above contrasts markedly with many histories of the youth development movement. Given that several histories of the youth development movement have been written (e.g., Cavallo 1981; Kleiber and Powell 2005; Witt 2005), this section will provide a brief overview of several of those works.

These histories often argued that the movement was precipitated by macrosocial forces such as urbanization, industrialization, and immigration (Witt 2005). Drawn by the promise of factory work, millions flocked to major U.S. cities. Population growth far outpaced the capacity of urban cities to provide livable housing. As Pastorello (2014) noted:

garbage such as food waste, wood and coal ash, and horse manure littered the streets. Outdoor privies bordered almost every thoroughfare, and inadequate drainage systems failed to carry away the sewage effectively. (p. 21)

Most youth spent their free time in the streets and were exposed to drinking, gambling, animal fighting and a host of other unsavory activities (Kelly and Freysinger 2000).

Massive immigration only magnified the weaknesses of progressive era cities and inflamed pre-existing social tensions. Immigrant groups clashed not only with each other, but with reformers who sought to Americanize them (Pastorello 2014). Finally, the growth of factories led to concomitant concerns about child labor. Reformers successfully lobbied to remove children under 12 from the factories in the early twentieth century and significantly shorten the work days of children over 12 years of age. As work days were shortened, compulsory education laws were soon introduced. Children were organized into age-graded classrooms, which gave time for a youth culture to develop. Therefore, a critical mass of young people were lacking in safe, healthy ways to spend their free time (Kleiber and Powell 2005).

The Playground Association of America (PAA) arose in 1906 to fill this need. PAA advocates created nearly 4000 parks eleven years after its founding. Cavallo (1981) estimated that less than 20% of immigrant regularly used playgrounds and that these figures were likely lower in the Southern and Western states. Differing cultural attitudes toward play, parents’ fears their children would be Americanized, school and work demands may partially explain the lack of use (Cavallo 1981). Playgrounds arose alongside the YMCA, Scouts, Camp Fire, and what is now known as the Boys and Girls Club (Witt 2005). These brick and mortar institutions sought to address the problems created by the Progressive era as well as to build positive outcomes such as teamwork (Le Menestrel and Lauxman 2011). Perhaps the most significant outcome of the youth development movement was that reformers were able to get play on the radar of state governments as a vital public service (Mintz 2006).

4 Discussion

Through The Veil, Du Du Bois (1903/2003) argued that racism reached down into all aspects of social life, from access to education to the psyche. Racism also contributed to the formal or informal segregation of traditional avenues for youth development, including recreation programs, parks, and playgrounds. Although segregated programs offered safety, segregated programs were often underfunded, understaffed, and generally of lower quality than recreation services available to White youth. The collective impact of centuries of racial domination may have created youth development avenues which are unique for African Americans (Floyd and Mowatt 2014). If youth development programs were sites of exclusion for nearly a century, it may be written on the collective memory of some African Americans that their input and presence are not valued (Olive 2002).

African American history is also characterized by individuals and communities transgressing oppression to develop their own youth development institutions (Olive 2002), of which Enslaved neighborhoods and African American Churches stand as prominent examples. Hine (2003) argued that these African American owned institutions created space for resistance to White supremacy. African Americans could not only celebrate their cultural patterns but advocate for access to White-controlled youth development spaces from these spaces. However, as African Americans gained access to White youth development institutions or developed their own institutions, these spaces became targets for further oppression and violence (Foner 1990).

This history of a dynamic relationship between oppression and resistance requires that we closely examine the identity of the field as it relates to equality, inclusion, and social justice. Coming to terms with this legacy of exclusion is significant because it may open up new possibilities for the present. In particular, it may highlight the role oppression has played in the past and underscore the need for concrete steps toward limiting oppression in the present. Coming to terms with the absence and exclusion of African Americans also opens up new possibilities for scholarly analysis which foreground African Americans as central actors in the history of youth development.

However, prominent theories in leisure studies, those often discussed in graduate seminars, rarely discuss oppression in historical context (Mowatt 2017a). Although Critical Race Theory runs counter to this trend, theories concerning race or ethnicity are likewise often not discussed within historical context (Kivel et al. 2009). This absence is troubling because future leisure professionals may be missing opportunities to confront oppression in classrooms and subsequently in scholarship and practice. The absence of culturally relevant frameworks may also dissuade undergraduate students of color from continuing their education as graduate students or considering a career as an academic (Mowatt et al. 2016).

Future researchers concerned with oppression and injustice might explore African American history with greater depth and nuance than space allowed for here. For example, the period of Enslavement focused on the experiences of Enslaved African youth as opposed to free youth of African descent. Moreover this paper focused on the southern United States, with few references to the context for African American youth development in the Northern United States. More in-depth study of the above historical phases, with attention to variation by region, social class, and other factors, will provide a more nuanced discussion of youth development history. Such studies stand to reveal a great deal about the field of youth development which currently remains obscured, such as the implications of African American history for youth development practice.

Contemporary recreation professionals must continue to consider the ways racism shapes youth development. Pinckney IV et al. (2011) argued that racism may contribute to an absence of culturally relevant recreation services. Racism may contribute to poverty, academic underachievement, and other risk factors which merit further attention from the recreation field. Racism may also shape harmful stereotypes among users and staff alike which must be challenged (Pinckney IV et al. 2011). Recreation professionals might also adapt programming strategies to unique elements of African American cultures.

More specifically, recreation professionals might celebrate the fundamental interconnectivity of African American youth development. Families often worked with friends and other community members to create youth development institutions which reinforced the very values families sought to inculcate. Therefore, successful youth development programs must not only focus on individual youth participants, but endeavor to connect young people and community members, churches, and families to provide a culturally relevant developmental experience. However, practitioners must also be sensitive to the ways that historical patterns of injustice may make some community members hesitant to trust members of the dominant culture. Recreation professionals who demonstrate an ongoing commitment to supporting developmental pathways already present in African American communities may begin to rebuild that trust (Floyd and Nicholas 2008).

Although this article focused on African American youth, The Veil underscores the imperative to examine the experiences of First Nations youth in Canada, Maori youth in New Zealand, and other oppressed people throughout the world using culturally relevant frameworks. These frameworks offer the promise of highlighting unique strengths and resiliencies which are often obscured through dominant narratives focused on risk among marginalized groups (Qvortup et al. 2009). However, The Veil may also illuminate connections between the experiences of many marginalized groups. As Raboteau (1995) argued, “the particular history of Black Americans represented the suffering of the poor and oppressed everywhere. The lesson of Black history for the world was that suffering could be redemptive” (p. 72). Culturally relevant frameworks may therefore celebrate uniqueness and reveal commonalities across cultural boundaries.

In conclusion, history sends explicit messages about whose perspectives are valued and who is welcome. History is also a tool which can be used to reinforce or challenge stereotypes, to justify racism or disrupt its’ foundations. For these reasons, it is important to rephrase a question which W.E.B Du Bois (1935/1998) asked over 80 years ago: can someone complete their education without any idea of the historical foundations of African American youth development? Further disruption of leisure history with nuanced perspectives from people of color may provide a more complete portrait of where we, as a field, have been and options for where we might go in the future (Mowatt 2017b).


  1. Anderson, J. D. (2014). The education of blacks in the south, 1860–1935. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.Google Scholar
  2. Bailey, J. H. (2016). Down in the valley: An introduction to African American religious history. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Berlin, I. (1998). Many thousands gone: The first two centuries of slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Blau, J. R., & Brown, E. S. (2001). Du bois and diasporic identity: The veil and the unveiling project. Sociological Theory, 19(2), 219–233. Scholar
  5. Brodwin, S. (1972). The veil transcended: Form and meaning in W.E.B. DuBois’ “the souls of black folk”. Journal of Black Studies, 2(3), 303–321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bronfrenbrenner, U. (1977). Toward an experimental ecology of human development. The American Psychologist, 32(7), 513–531.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Butchart, R. E. (2010). Schooling the freed people: Teaching, learning, and the struggle for Black freedom, 1861–1870. Chapel Hill, NC: The. University of North Carolina Press.Google Scholar
  8. Cavallo, D. (1981). Muscles and morals: Organized playgrounds and urban reform, 1880–1920. Philadelphia, PA: University of Philadelphia Press.Google Scholar
  9. Chudacoff, H. P. (2008). Children at play: An American history. New York, NY: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Cole, S., & Ring, N. J. (2012). Folly of Jim crow: Rethinking the segregated south. Arlington, TX: University of Texas at Arlington Press.Google Scholar
  11. Cornelius, J. (1983). “We slipped and learned to read:” slave accounts of the literacy process, 1830-1865. Phylon, 44(3), 171–186 Scholar
  12. Dennis, M. (1998). Schooling along the color line: Progressives and the education of blacks in the new south. The Journal of Negro Education, 67(2), 142–156.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Du Bois. (1903/2003). The souls of black folk. New York, NY: Barnes and Noble Classics.Google Scholar
  14. Du Bois, W. E. B. (1908). The Negro American family: report of a social study made by Atlanta University under the patronage of the Trustees of the John F. Slater Fund, with the proceedings of the 16th annual Conference for the Study of the Negro Problems, held at Atlanta University, on Tuesday, May 26th, 1908. Atlanta, Ga.: Atlanta University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Du Bois, W. E. B. (1911). The common school and the Negro American: report of a social study made by Atlanta University under the patronage of the Trustees of the John F. Slater Fund, with the proceedings of the 16th annual Conference for the Study of the Negro Problems, held at Atlanta University, on Tuesday, May 30th, 1911. Atlanta, Ga.: Atlanta. University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Du Bois, W. E. B. (1935/1998). Black reconstruction in America: 1860–1880. New York, NY: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  17. England, L., & Warner, W. K. (2013). W.E.B. Du bois: Reform, will, and the veil. Social Forces, 91(3), 955–973. Scholar
  18. Equal Justice Initiative. (2015). Lynching in America: Confronting the legacy of racial terror. Montgomery, AL: Equal Justice Initiative Retrieved from Scholar
  19. Fisher, C. (2006). African Americans, outdoor recreation, and the 1919 Chicago race riot. In D. D. Glave & M. Stoll (Eds.), “To love the wind and the rain”: African Americans and environmental history (pp. 63–76). Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.Google Scholar
  20. Floyd, M. F., & Mowatt, R. A. (2014). Leisure among African Americans. In M. Stodoloska, K. J. Shinew, M. F. Floyd, & G. J. Walker (Eds.), Leisure, ethnicity, and race: Perspectives on theory, research, and practice (pp. 53–74). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.Google Scholar
  21. Floyd, M. F., & Nicholas, L. (2008). Trends and research on race, ethnicity, and leisure: Implications for management. In M. T. Allison & I. E. Schneider (Eds.), Diversity and the recreation profession: Organizational perspectives (pp. 189–209). Venture: State College, PA.Google Scholar
  22. Foner, E. (1990). A short history of the reconstruction, 1863–1877. New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers.Google Scholar
  23. Foner, E. (2011). Voices of freedom: A documentary history: Volume 2 (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Norton.Google Scholar
  24. Franklin, J. H., & Moss, A. A. (1994). From slavery to freedom: A history of African Americans (7th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.Google Scholar
  25. Frazier, E. F. (1974). The negro church in America. New York, NY: Random House.Google Scholar
  26. Furstenberg, F. F. (2007). The making of the black family: Race and class in qualitative studies in the twentieth century. Annual Review of Sociology, 33, 429–448 Scholar
  27. Glave, D. D. (2011). Rooted in the earth: Reclaiming the African American environmental heritage. Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill Books.Google Scholar
  28. Gundaker, G. (2007). Hidden education among African Americans during slavery. Teacher’s College. Theatre Record, 109(7), 1591–1612.Google Scholar
  29. Gutman, H.G. (1987). The Black family in slavery and freedom: A revised perspective. In (I. Berlin, ed.), Power and culture: Essay on the American working class. New York, NY: Pantheon Books. pp. 357–379.Google Scholar
  30. Hahn, S. (2003). A nation under our feet: Black political struggles in the rural south from slavery to the great migration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Halpern, R. (2002). A different kind of child development institution: The history of after-school programs for low-income children. Teachers College Record, 104(2), 178–211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Higginson, T.W. (1867). Slave songs and spirituals. In M.C. Sernett (Ed.), Afro-American religious history: A documentary witness. Duke University Press: Durham, NC. pp. 110–132.Google Scholar
  33. Hine, D. C. (2003). Black professionals and race consciousness: Origins of the civil rights movement, 1890-1950. The Journal of American History, 89(4), 1279–1294 Scholar
  34. Holland, J.W. (2002). Black recreation: A historical perspective. Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  35. Hounmenou, C. (2012). Black settlement houses and oppositional consciousness. Journal of Black Studies, 43(6), 646–666. Scholar
  36. Hunnicutt, B. K. (2000). Our reform heritage: Recovering the vision of community leisure service. Journal of Leisure Research, 32(1), 58–61. Scholar
  37. Illick, J. E. (2005). American childhoods. Philadelphia, PA: University of Philadelphia Press.Google Scholar
  38. Jackson Jr., D. H. (2005). The growth of African American cultural and social institutions. In A. Hornsby (Ed.), A companion to African American history (pp. 312–324). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Kaye, A. E. (2002). Neighbourhoods and solidarity in the Natchez district of Mississippi: Rethinking the antebellum slave community. Slavery & Abolition, 23(1), 1–24. Scholar
  40. Kaye, A. E. (2007). Joining places: Slave neighborhoods in the Old South. Chapel Hill, NC: The. University of North Carolina Press.Google Scholar
  41. Kelly, J.R., Freysinger, V.J. (2000). 21st century leisure: Current issues. Boston, MA: Allyn& Bacon.Google Scholar
  42. King, W. (2005). African American childhoods: Historical perspectives from slavery to civil rights. New York, NY: Palgrave.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. King, W. (2011). Stolen childhood: Slave youth in nineteenth century America. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Kivel, B. D., Johnson, C. W., & Scraton, S. (2009). (Re)theorizing leisure, experience and race. Journal of Leisure Research, 41(4), 473–493.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Kleiber, D. A., & Powell, G. M. (2005). Historical change in leisure activities during after-school hours. In J. L. Mahoney, R. W. Larson, & J. S. Eccles (Eds.), Organized activities as contexts of development: Extracurricular activities, after school and community programs (pp. 23–44). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  46. Lasch-Quinn, E. (1993). Black neighbors: Race and the limits of reform in the American settlement house movement, 1890–1945. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.Google Scholar
  47. Le Menestrel, S. M., & Lauxman, L. A. (2011). Voluntary youth-serving organizations: Responding to the needs of young people and society in the last century. Journal of Youth Development, 6(3), 137–152. Scholar
  48. Lincoln, C.E. (1974). The power in the black church. CrossCurrents, 24(1), 3–21. Retrieved From
  49. Lincoln, C. E., & Mamiya, L. H. (2003). The black church in the African American experience. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  50. Luker, R. E. (1984). Missions, institutional services and settlement houses: The black experience, 1885-1910. Journal of Negro History, 69(3/4), 101–113 Scholar
  51. Mays, B.E. & Nicholson, J.W. (1933). The genius of the Negro church. In M.C. Sernett (Ed.), Afro-American religious history: A documentary witness. Duke University Press: Durham, NC. Pp. 337–348.Google Scholar
  52. Mintz, S. (1999). African American voices: The life cycle of slavery (2nd ed.). St. James, NY: Brandywine Press.Google Scholar
  53. Mintz, S. (2006). Huck’s raft: A history of American childhood. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press.Google Scholar
  54. Mintz, S., & Kellog, S. (1988). Domestic revolutions: A social history of family life. New York, NY: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  55. Mitchell, M. N. (2008). Raising freedom’s child: Black children and visions of the future after slavery. New York, NY: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  56. Mjagkij, N. (1994). Light in the darkness: African Americans and the YMCA, 1852–1946. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.Google Scholar
  57. Mowatt, R. A. (2012). Lynching as leisure: Broadening notions of a field. The American Behavioral Scientist, 56(10), 1361–1387. Scholar
  58. Mowatt, R. A. (2017a). A critical expansion of theories on race and ethnicity in leisure studies. In K. Spracklen, B. Lashua, E. Sharpe, & S. Swain (Eds.), The Palgrave handbook of leisure theory. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  59. Mowatt, R. A. (2017b). The case of the 12-year-old boy: Or, the silence of and relevance to leisure research. Leisure Sciences.
  60. Mowatt, R. A., Johnson, C. W., Roberts, N. S., & Kivel, B. D. (2016). “Embarrassingly white”: Faculty racial disparities in American recreation, park, and tourism programs. Schole, 31(1), 37–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Neumann, C. E. (2008). Childhood. In P. Finkelman (Ed.), Encyclopedia of African American history, 1896 to the present: From the age of segregation to the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  62. O’Donnell, S. M. (1996). Urban African American community development in the progressive era. Journal of Community Practice, 2(4), 7–26. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Olive, E. (2002). The African American child and positive youth development: A journey from support to sufficiency. In F. A. Villarruel, D. F. Perkins, L. M. Borden, & J. G. Keith (Eds.), Community youth development: Programs, policies and practices (pp. 27–46). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  64. Painter, N. I. (2006). Creating black Americans: African American history and its meanings, 1619 to present. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  65. Pastorello, K. (2014). The progressives: Activism and reform in American society, 1893–1917. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.Google Scholar
  66. Pinckney IV, H. P., Outley, C., Blacke, J. J., & Kelly, B. (2011). Promoting positive youth development of black youth: A rites of passage framework. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, 29(1), 98–112 Scholar
  67. Qvortup, J., Corsaro, W., & Honig, M-S. (2009). Why social studies of childhood? An introduction to the handbook. In J. Qvortup, W. Corsaro, & M-S. Honig (Eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of Childhood Studies. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, NY. pp. 1–18.Google Scholar
  68. Raboteau, A. J. (1995). A fire in the bones: Reflections on African-American religious history. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  69. Raboteau, A. J. (2004). Slave religion: The “invisible institution. In The antebellum south. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  70. Randolph, P. (1893). Plantation churches: Visible and invisible. In M.C. Sernett (Ed.), Afro-American religious history: A documentary witness. Duke University Press: Durham, NC. Pp. 63–68.Google Scholar
  71. Ruggles, S. (1994). The origins of African-American family structure. American Sociological Review, 59(1), 136–151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Spencer, M. B., Harpalani, V., Cassidy, E., Jacobs, C. Y., Donde, S., Goss, T. N., et al. (2006). Understanding vulnerability and resilience from a normative developmental perspective: Implications for racially and ethnically diverse youth. In D. Cicchetti & D. J. Cohen (Eds.), Developmental psychopathology. Hoboken (pp. 627–672). Wiley: N.J.Google Scholar
  73. Williams, H. A. (2005). Self-taught: African American education in slavery and freedom. Chapel Hill, NC: The. University of North Carolina Press.Google Scholar
  74. Williams, H. A. (2012). Help me to find my people: The African American search for family lost in slavery. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.Google Scholar
  75. Willis, A. I. (2002). Literacy at the Calhoun colored school 1892-1945. Reading Research Quarterly, 37(1), 8–44 Scholar
  76. Winant, H. (2004). New politics of race: Globalism, difference, justice. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  77. Witt, P. A. (2005). Why and how youth services were developed. In P. A. Witt & L. L. Caldwell (Eds.), Recreation and Youth Development. State college, PA: Venture (pp. 81–96).Google Scholar
  78. Wolcott, V. W. (2012). Race, riots, and roller coasters: The struggle over segregated recreation in America. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Woodward, C. V. (1974). The strange career of Jim crow (3rd ed.). London, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, HRC 113Benedict CollegeColumbiaUSA

Personalised recommendations