Ethnicity in the House of Refuge

The reformers in charge of the New York City House of Refuge (HOR) targeted specific populations of New York City in the mid-19th century.  In other words, officials tended to induct certain ethnic groups of children based on their potential threat to the social order of the city, which in the mid-19th century was flooded with immigrants from Western Europe.  Noting the difference in cultural and social values, as well as the disproportionately high numbers of Irish, the HOR became fearful of this particular ethnic group.  As a result, the HOR’s chief targets in the 1830s and 1840s came to be the Irish population of New York City.

African American Children

As stated in a previous essay, the HOR of New York City opened in 1825, welcoming juveniles of any race or gender.  According to its 1836 annual report, the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents (SRJD) documented approximately 220 African juvenile delinquents distributed among several penal institutions across the city such as the HOR,[i] adult prison, or Quaker almshouses, scattered residences in major cities where poor individuals were housed.[ii](see below)  In 1836, this same report argued that black juvenile delinquency was not a prominent issue in New York City, citing the considerable amount (3200) of African American children working at the time in domestic or menial labor.[iii]  SRJD officials commonly believed that juveniles who possessed some form of labor would not have the freedom to commit petty laws and vagrancies.


Figure 1

Admittance Rates of African Juveniles

African American juveniles of NYC throughout most of the 19th century were admitted very rarely in comparison to their white (mostly Irish) counterparts.(see below)  From 1830 to 1850, the ratio of African Americans children to white children was 1:10, and decreased to 1:20 over the next 5 years.[iv] This is true despite the fact that New York City actually contained a sizable African American population; experts believe that the number of African American individuals in NYC was the highest of any city above the Mason-Dixon Line.[v]  However, as census data from the period shows (insert Figure1) the number of Irish dwarfed African American children and likely contributed to the heightened sense of urgency with which the SRJD attempted ton induct Irish children into its HOR.

ruth starr rose

Figure 2

Irish Juveniles and the HOR

Within several years of its opening, the HOR was defined by an abundance of Irish children (usually under the age of 12) characterized by poverty and usually admitted after some instance of vagrancy or stealing.(see below)  For much of the 19th century, the majority of the residents within this HOR were of immigrant Irish descent.  By 1840, half of the Refuge’s inmates were Irish, and between 1850 and 1855 this number rose to 63%.[vi]  Despite the fact that this increased incarceration of Irish youth was likely due to the increased numbers of Irish immigrants in the early half of the 19th century, many officials and reformers within the SRJD saw the increased numbers of Irish in their institution as a sign of this population being inherently “unruly” or “uncivilized”.  Though the increased immigration of the 1840s was partially to blame, most historians also attribute the poverty, disease, and social unrest that characterized the Irish American population in the 19th century to the increase in Irish juvenile incarceration.[vii]


Figure 3

House of Refuge as Social Control

Both implicitly and explicitly, the officials of the HOR saw themselves as instituting a form of social control on the city of New York. Their primary concern was managing “deviant element of the increasingly heterogeneous society”, or the members of society most prone to crime both petty and serious.[viii]  From an insider perspective, this meant that the SRJD desired to induct juveniles that came from populations associated with poverty or poor behavior (or both).  As a result, immigrant populations (like Irish Americans and African Americans) were usually incarcerated at higher rates than U.S. born citizens.  Despite the fact that African American juveniles were “incarcerated” into the HOR at much lower rates than their Irish counterparts (as we have discussed, these juveniles usually existed in a ratio of at most 1:10 to Irish immigrant children), this does not necessarily mean that African American juveniles were less incarcerated on a holistic basis.

On the contrary, it was common for black juveniles to be incarcerated at moderate rates in the same facilities as adult offenders in New York; for example, there were instances of black children as young as 13 years old living at Newgate Prison in Greenwich Village, NY (insert Newgate graphs here).  The first attempts at Houses of Refuge exclusively for colored children began in Philadelphia in 1850, with the construction of the House of Refuge for Colored Children, modeled on the basic concept of the HOR but administered solely to the black juvenile population. [ix] (see below)  This institution represented the first and only time in a northern state designed a juvenile facility solely for the reformation of blacks.


Figure 4

Overview (Connections to other penal reform)

The House of Refuge, both in its original concept and ultimate conclusion, bore striking resemblances to other reformation movements in the United States.  It originated from a perceived absence of treatment for a specific population (in this case, juveniles) and sought to correct the situation by creating an institution designed to care for this population.  While at first the HOR was described in glowing terms by both its officials as well as visiting gentlemen such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens who praised both the concept and organization of the facilities, as the 19th century continued the abundance of immigrants that flooded New York City similarly flooded not just the HOR in NYC but also HORs in other states.  By the end of the 19th century nearly every penitentiary facility, let alone houses of refuge, were severely overcrowded and subsequently the quality of the institution decreased dramatically bringing about new reforms in the 20th century and later on.

-Nicholas Popo

[i] Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents. (1836). Eleventh annual report. New York: Mahlon Day.

[ii] Wagner, David. “Poor Relief and the Almshouse.” Social Welfare History Project.

[iii] Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents. (1836). Eleventh annual report. New York: Mahlon Day.

[iv] Pickett, R. (1969). House of refuge: Origins of juvenile reform in New York State, 1815-1857

[v] White, S. (1988). “We dwell in safety and pursue our honest calling”: Free blacks in New York City, 1783-1810.

[vi] Pickett, R. (1969).


[viii] Frey, C. (1981). The house of refuge for colored children.

[ix] Frey, C. (1981). The house of refuge for colored children


Figure 1- Illustration in the 1890 book History and Reminiscences of the Philadelphia Almshouse and Philadelphia Hospital, Volume 1, by D. Hayes Agnew, M.D., et al. Accessed October 30, 2016.

Figure 2- Ruth Starr Rose (1887-1965): “Revelations of African American Life in Maryland and the World”  Special Exhibitions, Reginald F Lewis Museum Accessed October 25, 2016

Figure 3- Works of Art, North Carolina Museum of Art; John George Brown “A Tough Story” 1886 Accessed October 25, 2016

Figure 4- The Library Company of Philadelphia, World Digital Library “View of the Department for Colored Children of the House of Refuge”  Accessed October 30, 2016