Charles Loring Brace

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'Brace, Charles Loring (1826—1890)

A Unitarian, Brace was the descendant of a prominent Hartford, Connecticut, family and had attended Yale University and Union Theological Seminar. At age 26, while an ordained Methodist minister, he decided that he wasn't cut out for the pulpit. Instead, he wanted to help the numerous children he saw all around him in the slums of New York City

He became a social reformer who founded (1853) the Children’s Aid Society of New York and launched the "orphan trains" program that helped an estimated 100,000 to 400,000 children.

Estimates in 1854 of homeless children in New York City were at about 34,000, the situation caused by the flood of immigrants who had left conditions of poverty in other countries, only to find that New York City was no better. There were few jobs for them, and those who worked faced long hours, no benefits, dangerous duties, and low wages. Children were asked to go to the streets to beg for money, sell newspapers or matches, or even bring in household income by selling themselves sexually.

If they ended up living on the streets, they were thrown out of their households. Some were runaways. Others were simply trying to survive after their parents died. Their conditions were deplorable. Many were near starvation, few had warm clothing in winter, and almost none had any medical care.

Known as "street Arabs" or "the dangerous classes," they faced problems with street violence, many forming gangs and presenting a growing problem for police. As a result, some children were arrested, and even those as young as five were thrown in jail with adults.

In an 1872 essay, Brace described the conditions:

  • My attention had been called to the extraordinarily degraded condition of the children in a district lying on the west side of the city, between Seventeenth and Nineteenth Streets, and the Seventh and Tenth Avenues. A certain block, called "Misery Row," in Tenth Avenue, was the main seed-bed of crime and poverty in the quarter, and was also invariably a "fever-nest." Here the poor obtained wretched rooms at a comparatively low rent; these they sub-let, and thus, in little, crowded, close tenements, were herded men, women and children of all ages. The parents were invariably given to hard drinking, and the children were sent out to beg or to steal. Besides them, other children, who were orphans, or who had run away from drunkards' homes, or had been working on the canal-boats that discharged on the docks near by, drifted into the quarter, as if attracted by the atmosphere of crime and laziness that prevailed in the neighborhood. These slept around the breweries of the ward, or on the hay-barges, or in the old sheds of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Streets. They were mere children, and kept life together by all sorts of street jobs - helping the brewery laborers, blackening boots, sweeping sidewalks, "smashing baggages" (as they called it), and the like. Herding together, they soon began to form an unconscious society for vagrancy and idleness. Finding that work brought but poor pay, they tried shorter roads to getting money by petty thefts, in which they were very adroit. Even if they earned a considerable sum by a lucky day's job, they quickly spent it in gambling, or for some folly.

Brace's proposal was to send them "to the West," to farm families in the Midwest or even in the South. But he seemed to overlook that farm families also experienced povery, alcoholism, and other problems. When he sent 46 boys and girls to Dowagiak, Michigan, in 1854, all found homes. As to whether the Society's program was successful is debatable. Some reports of abusive situations were noticed, but had they stayed in their previous neighborhoods many would have died due to violence, lack of health care, or starvation. A 1910 report from the Society said that 87% of riders had "done well."

Dr. Bill Cooke, editor of The New Zealand Rationalist and Humanist, found that Warren Allen Smith's including Brace in his Who's Who in Hell was "jarring," describing him as a Unitarian and philanthropist. Cooke, in reviewing the book, wrote:

  • But Brace also wrote Gesta Christi: A History of Humane Progress under Christianity (1882) in which he attributed all progress to benevolent Christians and all setbacks to malevolent unbelievers. He has no place in this book.

Unitarians who in the 21st century are humanistic rather than theistic in their outlook would find that Brace might not have believed in the supernatural son of God, or in the Holy Ghost, but was exemplary of activist Unitarians of his time period, not of the present.

Among Brace's books are Short Sermons to Newsboys (1866) and Gesta Christi (1882).

Thomas J. Main's Of Vice and Men (Indiana University Press) cites Brace as a Unitarian minister, as does "Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography. [[1]]