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A Time (Not) Apart: A Lesson in Economic History from Cotton Picking Books


I use the individual-level records from my own family in rural Mississippi to estimate the agricultural productivity of African Americans in manual cotton picking nearly a century after Emancipation, 1952–1965. On average, the Logan children were more than 95 % as productive as enslaved children from the same region in the late antebellum era, 1850–1860. Gender differences in productivity were smaller than among enslaved children and disappeared by late pubescence. Additional qualitative evidence answers questions about agricultural productivity that cannot be derived from the quantitative data. For example, the method of cotton picking was not the gang-labor system described by some economic historians, but an independent process. The qualitative evidence also shows that economic roles were deeply intertwined with racial identity.

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  1. I have been guilty of such work-- see Logan (2009). Tobin (1951) is an early counter-example from mid-century macroeconomics which incorporated a nuanced approach to the savings intentions of African American households.

  2. More recently, Dunn and Logan (2014) have found persistent differences in the rate of intransitive preferences by race. If a basic assumption of the rational choice model is violated more or less for certain racial groups, the applicability of the rational preference relation may be inappropriate in both historical and contemporary contexts.

  3. See Du Bois' (1897) review of Hoffman (1896) or Ellison's (1964) review of Myrdal (1944) as examples.

  4. I stress that this approach is quite distinct from the use of analytic narratives advanced in Bates et al. (1998), which uses formal models of case studies as the key methodological innovation.

  5. Such an argument could be structured by beginning with Murray (1970), who argued that the unique experience of African Americans created a culture so complex that traditional social science could not comprehend, much less describe, its full texture and nuance. I would then turn to, say, Blassingame (1972), who noted that the analysis of American slavery was largely devoid of any description of slave life and used alternative sources and psychological theory to provide an insight into black personality in bondage. I would continue with, say, Genovese (1974), who argued that the development of a distinct African American culture also greatly informs American culture. He, too, required sources outside of the traditional historical apparatus.

  6. In keeping with the aim to use qualitative techniques that describe individual experiences, these direct quotes are not corrected and are spelled phonetically to best reflect the spoken responses.

  7. These interviews constitute personal biographies of the family members as they are individual oral histories (Gillard 2014; Logan 2014a, b, c, d, e; Ratcliff 2014).

  8. The first question in all interviews was “Tell me your earliest memory” and the second question was “What was your favorite food when you were a child?”

  9. In areas where there was disagreement, supplemental interviews were performed in which the responses in previous interviews were used as a prompt. This was done to discover the source of disagreement, to asses the veracity of the conflicting information, and to discover which responses pertained to actual experience as opposed to the contemporaneous telling of another’s experience. These interviews were also semi-structured.

  10. Qualitative evidence is no panacea. While it is certainly the case that there may be political or other reasons motivating responses, the contemporary politics of the siblings are quite distinct. Similarly, the matters of fact would, by themselves, have no political motivation. For example, the exact method of cotton picking would not be motivated by a desire to paint one particular picture or another. On the other hand, recollections of the amount of cotton picked could be motivated by a desire to paint a particular picture of the past.

  11. I take no formal position on which qualitative method should be used in other work. As with quantitative analysis, the most appropriate method is governed by the available resources. In general, however, it is not likely that economic historians should use qualitative techniques which apply grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967) as that method requires the abandonment of the theoretical priors. The method employed here is closest to comparative case analysis, where each child’s experience is treated as an individual case. There are distinct advantages of this method over others when the sample size is small (Collier 1993; Baxter and Jack 2008), although disadvantages relative to experimental and statistical analysis should be noted. It could well be the case that economic history offers the opportunity for significant innovation in methods.

  12. The data used here are proprietary.

  13. Not all of the picking recorded here was done on land specified in the sharecropping relationship. It wascommon to pick daily for others for a daily payment as a means of supplemental income.

  14. It is not possible to estimate the impact of cotton picking on human capital (schooling) directly as the estimates for season are noisy due to the large number of observations with missing dates.

  15. I thank Paul Rhode for graciously sharing these estimates, restricted to the geographic area closest to Yalobusha county as can be had with that data.

  16. Although conjecture, this faster move to higher levels of productivity could be the result of improved nutrition relative to slave children (see Steckel 2010).

  17. The quotations noted here are not edited for grammar.

  18. As seed money and subsequent charges for cotton seed are not available, the implicit interest rate contained in the arrangement cannot be estimated.

  19. The children knew that they worked hard, but did not know of their productivity relative to any other group.

  20. In several instances whites remarked that cotton picking by hand ceased to exist sometime shortly after the Civil War. Others believed that this was more a fable—that although the family picked cotton they did so at their leisure as part of a hobby farm.

  21. Contemporary American economic history is more likely to deal with the issue of race as a case study of development economics as opposed to people alive and well in the developed economy of the United States (Hornbeck and Naidu 2014; Chay and Munshi 2012). This creates some difficult conceptual frameworks. It is difficult to reconcile the American South as underdeveloped with the fact that it was highly productive in agriculture and fueled the textile industry. Recently, scholars have asserted that what some economists refer to as underdeveloped is the heart of American capitalism (Baptist 2014). Johnson (2013), for example, notes that the idea that agriculture was synonymous with underdeveloped is a misconception in American history. Similarly, the view of black social networks as relatively simplistic functions of cotton agriculture belies the fact that millions of people from the African diaspora formed a coherent and collective culture despite significant linguistic, cultural, and religious diversity (Levine 1977). That culture has long been noted as one of the United States’ largest exports (Murray 1970).


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Correspondence to Trevon D. Logan.

Additional information

Remarks prepared for the National Economic Association’s Presidential Address on January 4, 2015 in Boston, MA. I especially thank my family for their willingness to share their experiences. Cecilia A. Conrad, William A. Darity, J. Bradford DeLong, Samuel L. Myers, Jr., Martha L. Olney, Victor M. Rios, Richard H. Steckel, and Warren C. Whatley provided thoughtful feedback. Paul W. Rhode graciously shared data on slave productivity estimates for Louisiana and Mississippi, 1850–1860. Dedicated to George A. Logan, Sr., Annie M. Logan, Mary Frances Bronaugh, and Charles E. Logan, Sr. The usual disclaimer applies.

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Logan, T.D. A Time (Not) Apart: A Lesson in Economic History from Cotton Picking Books. Rev Black Polit Econ 42, 301–322 (2015).

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JEL Classification

  • B4
  • I1
  • J1
  • N3
  • N9
  • Z1


  • Race
  • Economic history
  • Methodology