Charles Loring Brace

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Charles Loring Brace (19 June 1826 in Litchfield, Connecticut - 11 August 1890) was a contributing philanthropist in the field of social reform. He was most renowned for starting the Orphan Train movement of the mid-1800s.



Brace graduated from Yale in 1846 and then went on to study divinity and theology at Yale but left to study at the more liberal Union Theological Seminary, from which he graduated in 1849. He was drawn to New York because it was viewed as the hotbed of American Protestantism and social activity. His best friend, Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect, also lived in New York. Shortly after, he married Letitia Neill in Belfast, Ireland, who proved to be a great support to her husband’s social reformation efforts. Letitia's father was an avid abolitionist and he opened his home to some of the world's most famous anti-slavery orators including Frederick Douglass.

In 1852, at the age of twenty-six, Brace, raised as a Calvinist, was serving as a minister to the poor of Blackwell's Island (now known as Roosevelt Island) and to the poor of the Five Points Mission when he decided he wanted to fulfill his humanitarian efforts in the streets rather than in church. Brace was aware of the impoverished lives of the children in New York City and for this reason his focus was concentrated on improving children’s situations and their future. A year later, in 1853, Brace established the Children's Aid Society.

Brace witnessed many children in New York City who lived in poverty with parents who abused alcohol, engaged in criminal activity, and who were unfit parents. The children of these individuals were sent to beg for money in the streets and sell newspapers and matches. These children became known as “street Arabs” or “the dangerous classes” due to the street violence and gangs they inevitably became a part of. In some cases, children as young as five years old would be sent to jails where adults were imprisoned in as well. The police referred to these children, who fell into a life of crime, as “street rats”.

According to an essay written by Brace in 1872, one crime and poverty ridden area around Tenth Avenue was referred to as “Misery Row”. Misery Row was considered to be a main seed-bed of crime and poverty in the quarter, and was also an invariable ‘fever nest’.” Other children, who were orphans or runaways, found themselves drifting into this destitute area, as well as the old sheds of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Streets. Such was the severity of child poverty in 1854, the estimated number of homeless children in New York City was as high as 34,000.

Although orphanages existed, Brace did not believe they were worthwhile institutions because they merely served the purpose of feeding the poor and providing handouts. He felt that such institutions only deepened the dependence that keeps the poor dependent on charity. Brace was also influenced by the writings of Edward Livingstone, a pioneer in prison reform who believed that the best way to deal with crime and poverty was to prevent it. Brace focused on finding jobs and training for poor and destitute children so they could help themselves. His initial efforts in social reform included free kindergartens, free dental clinics, job placement, training programs, reading rooms, and lodging houses for boys.


Fostering and the “peanut Trains”

His other belief was to place children into farm families of northern New York State, the Midwest and after the American Civil War, some southern and a few western states. From 1853-1864, 384 children were sent each year to families in New England states, the North Atlantic states and East North Central states. Nearly 1000 children per year were sent from 1865-1874 to Michigan, Kansas, Iowa, and Missouri. This was carried out through Brace's "Emigration Plan”, now known as "The Orphan Trains," where children were "placed-out" in new homes. In fact, Charles Loring Brace is considered a father of the modern foster care movement.

The “Orphan Trains” transported children removed from lodging houses, orphanages, private homes or the street and sent them by train to towns where local organizers had created interest in the children. Posters ("circulars") were placed throughout town as well as newspaper advertisements notifying locals of the date of the children's arrival and "viewing" location. The Children's Aid Society (CAS) had made arrangements with train companies for the children (in groups ranging in size from three to 35) along with at least two adult "agents" to travel in regular trains, not wooden "box cars" as depicted in novels. The boys and girls were asked to stand on boxes at the train station or were brought to opera houses, schools, or town halls and placed on stages for the community to meet them. “In every American community, especially in a western one, there are many spare places at the table of life,” Brace wrote. “There is no harassing struggle for existence. They have enough for themselves and the stranger, too.” Brace’s vision of migrating children to live with the western Christian farming families was a widely supported belief sponsored by wealthy New York families. The first $50 was given by Mrs. John Astor in 1853.


Emigration Plan

Brace's Emigration Plan was also an anti-eugenic movement because Brace believed that one's "gemmules" (an early, pre-genetic concept that blood carried a family's heritability and character) did not predetermine one's future. Brace was deeply moved by Charles Darwin's Origin of Species having read it fifty two times. Brace was also an outspoken abolitionist. In a bold move (and perhaps inspired by his abolitionist and Darwinian mindset), Brace did away with the centuries-old custom of indenture so that the "placed" children were allowed to leave a home if they were uncomfortable with the placement.

The plan had failures and critics, but there were many success stories as well. Many children placed in the program grew up to become productive citizens. The Children's Aid Society, (CAS) the most well-known organization responsible for finding homes for children, made every effort to screen the host families, and follow up on the welfare of placed children. By 1909, at the first White House Conference on Dependent Children, the country's top social reformers praised the CAS' emigration movement but stated that the new thinking was that children should be kept with their natal families or if they were removed as a result of parental neglect or abuse, every effort should be made to place the child in a foster home nearby. In a report in 1910, the Children’s Aid Society estimated that eighty-seven percent of children placed through “orphan trains” were doing well. While there were occasional abuses of children placed in the foster families, most people agree that over all, the children were better off in foster care than on the streets of big cities without shelter, food, clothes or healthcare.

By 1920, the CAS and approximately 1500 other agencies and institutions had placed approximately 150,000 children in what became known as the largest migration or resettlement of children in American history. The CAS' Orphan Train movement ended in 1929, seventy five years after it had begun as a social experiment.

Charles Loring Brace served as an executive secretary of Children's Aid Society for thirty seven years, overseeing this foster care program. He died in 1890 from Bright's disease. After his death, the Brace Memorial Farm was created for street children to learn farm skills, manners, and personal social skills to help prepare them for life on their own.


In popular culture

  • The song by Utah Phillips called Orphan Train has been performed by numerous modern bluegrass singers.[1]
  • The book Gratefully Yours describes a nine year old girl's feelings about her new family who adopt her from the orphan train.[2]
  • There is a ballet entitled "Orphan Train presented by Covenant Ballet Theatre of Brooklyn", which tells the story of Brace and shows stories of orphans on the train. It is choreographed by Marla Hirokawa.
  • Authors Al and Joanna Lacy have written an Orphan Trains Trilogy. depicting the lives of fictional orphans.



The ballad "Rider On An Orphan Train", written by David Massengill, describes the inevitable tragedy of the separation of siblings in spite of the efforts to keep brothers and sisters together.

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