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There were always and will always be orphans. The question is what to do with them. In his terrific new book The Charleston Orphan House: Children’s Lives in the First Public Orphanage in America (University of Chicago Press, 2013), economic historian John E. Murray tells us how one Southern American city did it in the 18th and 19th centuries. Charleston was a city divided between free whites and enslaved African Americans. The whites felt insecure and, according to Murray, this is one of the reasons they founded and funded America’s first public orphanage. The white-only institution not only helped indigent parents and their children, but it also brought the city’s white population together in a way no other body did. It was an expression of civic humanity, but it was also an expression of white unity against the black masses. Listen to John tell the tale.
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