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‘Amiable Peasantry’ or ‘Social Burden’: Constructing a Place for Black Southerners

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Abstract

Booker T. Washington knew his white neighbours well. Southern employers and landlords might incessantly complain about their black labour force; various white southerners might repeatedly warn of the inability of African-Americans to reach the Anglo-Saxon level of civilisation; legislators might translate an ideology of racial hierarchy into spatial distance by mandating segregation. ‘But when there is work to be done about the plantation, when it comes time to plant and pick the cotton the white man does not want the Negro so far away that he cannot reach him by the sound of his voice.’1 During the half-century between emancipation and the publication of this insight in 1914, black southerners on the move tended to remain — at least metaphorically — within hailing distance. Two years later, however, a vast social movement known as the Great Migration signalled the beginning of very different, and less accommodating, patterns of African-American migration. White southerners responded in ways that reveal not only the extent of their dependence on black labour, but also the ideological, political and economic underpinnings of social relations and order in much of the South.

Keywords

Labour Market Baton Rouge Race Relation Black Worker Social Burden 
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  1. 1.
    Booker T. Washington, ‘The Rural Negro and the South’, Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction, 41 (1914), 122.Google Scholar
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    Charles S. Johnson, ‘Efforts to Check the Movement’, 1, in folder marked ‘Migration Study, Draft (Final)’, Chapters 7–13, Box 86, Series 6, National Urban League Records, Library of Congress; Jackson Daily Clarion-Ledger quoted in Neil R. McMillen, Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (Urbana, 1989), 262;Google Scholar
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  5. 4.
    Thomas C. Holt, ‘Marking: Race, Race-making, and the Writing of History’, American Historical Review, 100:1 (February, 1995), 1–20; quotations are from 18. For the most powerful statement of the distinction between class as a material reality versus race as an ideological construction that is an artefact of class relations, see Barbara Jeanne Fields, ‘Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America’, New Left Review, 181 (May–June, 1990), 95–118; and Fields, ‘Ideology and Race in American History’, in J. Morgan Kousser and James M. McPherson, eds, Region, Race and Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of C. Vann Woodward (NY, 1982), 143–177. The literature on racial ideology as a psychological problem is as vast as it is outdated. An interesting place to begin is E. Franklin Frazier’s pioneering essay, ‘The Pathology of Race Prejudice’, which characterised white racism as a form of paranoia. See G. Franklin Edwards, ed., E. Franklin Frazier on Race Relations; Selected Writings (Chicago, 1968). Social, psychological and political aspects of southern racism during this period are explored in Joel Williamson, The Crucible of Race: Black White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation (NY, 1984), 79–323, 414–482. Lawrence Goodwyn, The Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment in America (NY, 1976) maps out a progressive and broad-based democratic political culture in parts of the South during this period, with racism as the tragic flaw undermining this strand of populism. C. Vann Woodward’s Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel (NY, 1938) has a similarly tragic theme.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See Dwight B. Billings, Planters and the Making of a ‘New South’: Class, Politics, and Development in North Carolina, 1865–1900 (Chapel Hill, 1979), 92;Google Scholar
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    Particularly notable examples include Joe W. Trotter, Coal, Class, and Color: Blacks in Southern West Virginia. 1915–32 (Urbana, 1990);Google Scholar
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  23. 18.
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  27. 20.
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  32. 21.
    The seminal texts include John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (New York, 1937);Google Scholar
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  35. 25.
    Elsa Barkley Brown, ‘Uncle Ned’s Children: Negotiating Community and Freedom in Postemancipation Richmond’ (PhD dissertation, Kent State University, 1994), viii.Google Scholar
  36. 26.
    This is not to say that racial and class consciousness cannot be disentangled. Although these orientations toward social identity cannot be examined in isolation from one another, and most individuals perceive themselves in different ways at different times and in different contexts, there are occasions which require forms of behaviour or expression that imply a statement of the relative salience of various sources of identity. Moreover historians who have emphasised the salience of class as the structure of domination in the South have argued that race consciousness has been the very force impeding either effective African-American resistance or forms of class organisation against the white elite. See Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll; Robinson, ‘Beyond the Realm of Social Consensus’; Goodwyn, Democratic Promise. On the problematic aspects of the search for interracial class consciousness see Leon F. Litwack, ‘Trouble in Mind: The Bicentennial and the Afro-American Experience’, Journal of American History, 74:2 (September 1987), 317; and Fredrickson, Arrogance of Race, 156–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. 28.
    David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865–1925 (Cambridge, 1987), 243;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  42. 29.
    Columbia, SC State, 1917, quoted in Emmett J. Scott, Negro Migration During the War (New York, 1920), 156;Google Scholar
  43. Lawrence J. Nelson, ‘Welfare Capitalism on a Mississippi Plantation in the Great Depression’, Journal of Social History, 50:2 (May 1984), 227. Leroy Percy quoted inGoogle Scholar
  44. Bertram Wyatt-Brown, ‘Leroy Percy and Sunnyside: Planter Mentality and Italian Peonage in the Mississippi Delta’, in Shadows over Sunnyside: An Arkansas Plantation in Transition, 1830–1045 (Fayetteville, 1993), 88; Mississippi employer quoted in McMillen, Dark Journey, 159. See also Jones, The Dispossessed, 120. This sentiment outlasted the legal framework of Jim Crow. As late as 1971, a study of Mississippi could observe that ‘even today many planters will admit they still prefer Negroes as tractor drivers and farm workers to whites, for they are less troublesome and can be fired if necessary, with fewer repercussions’. See James Loewen, The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White (Cambridge, MA, 1971), 201.Google Scholar
  45. 30.
    Harold Woodman, ‘Post-Civil War Southern Agriculture and the Law’, Agricultural History, 53:1 (January 1979), 319–37.Google Scholar
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    Tobias Higbie, ‘Indispensable Outcasts: Harvest Laborers in the Wheat Belt, 1895–1925’, paper presented at Newberry Seminar in Rural History (1993), 20, 26.Google Scholar
  47. 32.
    Letter from Peg Leg Williams to Atlanta Constitution, quoted in Ray Stannard Baker, Following the Color Line: American Negro Citizenship in the Progressive Era (New York, 1964; orig. pub. 1906), 80. Landlords’ sense of tenants as ‘their niggers’ is discussed in McMillen, Dark Journey, 125.Google Scholar
  48. 34.
    Ronald Takaki, Iron Cages: Race and Culture in 19th-Century America (New York, 1979), 236;Google Scholar
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  50. 35.
    David Brody, Steelworkers in America: The Nonunion Era (Cambridge, MA, 1960);Google Scholar
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  52. 36.
    Jacqueline Dowd Hall, James Leloudis, Robert Korstad, Mary Murphy, Lu Ann Jones, and Christopher B. Daly, Like A Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World (Chapel Hill, 1987).Google Scholar
  53. 37.
    Arthur Raper, Preface to Peasantry: A Tale of Two Black Belt Counties (Chapel Hill, 1936), 122.Google Scholar
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    Carlton, Mill and Town, 92–103; James P. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1880–1935 (Chapel Hill, 1988), 96; McMillen, Dark Journey, 93.Google Scholar
  55. 39.
    Charles Flynn Jr, White Land, Black Labor: Caste and Class in Late Nineteenth-Century Georgia (Baton Rouge, 1983); Mississippi State Extension Director R.S. Wilson quoted in McMillen, Dark Journey, 122.Google Scholar
  56. 41.
    According to the historian of Birmingham’s Sloss Furnace, what mattered about the management there around the turn of the century was that it came ‘from a plantation background’ and therefore was ‘imbued with what can only be described as racist attitudes common at the time’. Lewis has correctly identified the culture of labour relations that influenced the management at Sloss, but has too readily attributed it merely to racism, rather than a combination of ideas about race and ideas about managing labour. W. David Lewis, ‘Sloss Furnaces: The Heritage and the Future’, paper presented at Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, Birmingham, Alabama, 5 March 1992.Google Scholar
  57. 42.
    On management reform in the North see Montgomery, Fall of the House of Labor, 236; David Montgomery, ‘Workers’ Control of Machine Production in the Nineteenth Century’ in Workers’ Control in America (New York, 1979), 32–3.Google Scholar
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    Edgar Gardner Murphy, quoted in Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817–1914 (New York, 1971), 287.Google Scholar
  59. 49.
    Little Rock Gazette, 1 June 1880.Google Scholar
  60. 50.
    Quoted in Thomas C. Holt, ‘The Lonely Warrior: Ida B. Wells-Bamett and the Struggle for Black Leadership’, in John Hope Franklin and August Meier, eds, Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century (Urbana, 1982), 47.Google Scholar
  61. 51.
    Stephen Whitfield, A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till (New York, 1988), 4.Google Scholar
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  63. 53.
    Robert E. Park, ‘The “Money Ralley” at Sweet Gum. The Story of a Visit to a Negro Church in the Black Belt, Ala.’, typescript (ca. 1912), 11, Folder 10, Box 1, Robert E. Park Papers, Regenstein Library, University of Chicago, Chicago IL.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1997

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