economic exploitation of African AmericansThroughout history, America has benefitted from the economic exploitation of African Americans.
As a youth, Anne Moody experienced life growing up on the plantation as a child of sharecroppers. Her powerful and honest autobiography described the economic hardship in the rural south. Anne’s early memories of the Carter plantation depicted the inferior living and working conditions of African Americans in comparison to the affluence of the whites that they worked for. The Carter’s “castle” on the hill which overlooked the rotten shacks of the farmers who worked the land below, reflected how black exploitation benefitted the productive growth of America.
The economic exploitation of blacks has its roots throughout history. The beginning of slavery, it can be argued, began the exploitation of blacks in America. It was the key feature of the southern economy and the source of wealth and power of the dominant class in southern society. Money was the motivating factor behind free labor and ultimately became the most important business enterprise of that time.
Economic conditions, including soil and climate determined the number of slaves in a given locality. The majority of the black population were found in the colonies that produced the greatest agricultural staples, such as sugar, rice, tobacco and cotton. The land most suitable for cotton production became the land where plantation slavery was most concentrated. Since picking cotton was relatively simple, it was a powerful stimulant for exploitation, providing year-round employment for men, women, children and the elderly.
Agriculture however, was not the only source of labor that the slaves were identified with. The shortage of labor of white artisans led the owners of the plantation to train the slaves in the handicraft trade. The plantation itself was a self-sufficient economic unit and required skills in woodwork, building-trade and leather work. As Marcus W. Jernegan pointed out,
“The slave artisan had a three fold role in the commercial development of the southern colonies: in the making of containers for the exported staples, in the manufacture of staves and other forest products, and in the tanning industry for use at home and abroad”.
Black slavery was essential to the carrying on of commerce which in turn was fundamental to the making of the modern world.
After the civil war which led to the emancipation of the slaves, a set of questions was left concerning what to do with the south. Some of these questions involved the status of the newly freed slaves and the problem of developing a southern economy based on free labor.
Getting a job and making a living in the period following the reconstruction was aggravating to the Negro. In the rural south the typical Negro was propertyless. Southern whites were reluctant to sell land to the Negro because they felt that the Negro might feel himself entitled to full citizenship rights. Furthermore, the lands that were available for purchase, few Negroes had the money to buy. With no way to secure a loan, the landless Negro became a sharecropper.
Share cropping was a new labor arrangement between the landowner and the freed slave. The landowner provided land, seed and credit. The former slaves contributed labor and received a share of the crop’s value. This system later resulted in unfair situations that did not benefit the laborer. Because the sharecropper bought food, clothing and other supplies on credit he had to pay back prices with high interest charges. The harvest usually was not enough to pay off the debt completely and so the laborer found himself having to work that piece of land for many years.
Anne’s parents experienced the difficulties of a share cropper’s life. She was often left alone with her siblings as her parents worked in the fields from early morning to the evening. Overall, sharecropping proved to be more enduring and less advantageous for those who farmed the land.
Lesser occupations, especially those in domestic service such as cooks, maids and laundresses were monopolized by Negroes. Anne’s after school housecleaning jobs began at the early age of nine. Throughout her account she described the substandard working conditions that she and her mother encountered as domestic servants.
As Negroes competed with whites for jobs, race riots began. White laborers brought strong pressure to drive the colored workers out of skilled jobs. In many instances, the Negro was able to keep his skilled job but they were forced to take lower pay. The Negro was cheated year after year in wages. They felt pressure to remain dependent on the only means of survival skills that they had. As they continued to sell their work ability in various forms, the white Americans continued to capitalize.
In the first period of reconstruction the political, economic and social life presented a complex pattern of achievement and disappointment. Blacks still suffered from dire poverty and the old ruling class remained largely intact but the progression of reconstruction furthered the possibility of change. As Eric Foner noted,
“Without Reconstruction, it is difficult to imaging the establishment of a framework of legal rights enshrined in the Construction that, while flagrantly violated after 1877, created a vehicle for further federal intervention in Southern affairs.”
What remained however, was that Reconstruction failed. The fraud, intimidation and violence against black voters and the political compromise of Rutherford B. Hayes for the Democratic party was enough to defeat the Reconstruction. For blacks the failure of the Reconstruction was a disaster whose magnitude cannot be obscured by the accomplishments that endured. Racism contributed to the undoing of Reconstruction. In her unforgettable personal story, Anne detailed vivid accounts of sacrifices, terror and suffering that were shaped by the implications of slavery, emancipation and reconstruction.
New Beginnings: The Civil Rights Act
During the 1950’s and the 1960’s, a great deal happened in America to suggest that some measure of racial equality were being achieved by blacks. Beginning with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Congress passed legislation intended to guarantee blacks their constitutional rights in voting, housing and public accommodations and against discrimination in jobs. Yet the effects of race on opportunity still remained at the center of issues relating to power and economic production in society.
Continued poverty, reinforced by the patterns of discrimination led many blacks to move north. These uprooted blacks made their way to the big city ghettos, which they soon found, were simply exchanging one poverty cycle for another. Racial inequality in employment proved particularly persistent, the gap between the white worker and the black worker continued to expand. This gap proved to be a great economic opportunity for many corporations. Black workers would be hired in order to hold down wages thereby increasing profits.
In the early 1970’s, black capitalism promised advancement to black people by becoming capitalists in their own neighborhoods and entering the bureaucracies of the great corporations. Sweeping and significant changes in politics and economic independence were seen during this decade.
By developing a strong black business class, black-owned businesses helped reduce chronic unemployment and black entrepreneurs served as role models for upwardly mobile young blacks. As Benjamin Quarles noted,
“Numbering 231,203 in 1977, black owned businesses rose to 339,239 in 1982, although it is to be noted that of this 1982 total 95 percent were small businesses with a single proprietor. This substantial rise in black self-employment resulted in part from the growth of black purchasing power, which in 1968 was estimated at $30 billion and had expanded in 1978 to $70 billion. Of the one hundred Negro businesses grossing the highest sales in 1978, over three quarters (77) had been founded after 1968.”
Despite these successes, many black businesses faced grave problems. Many white companies attracted to the successes of these black businesses, sought to take advantage of these economic opportunities. Soon, black companies found it harder to retain their more promising recruits who were being offered more incentives to work for the white companies. Black businesses became training ground for larger, more well known, white corporations who were interested in penetrating these industries. Many white firms began furnishing the training themselves.
The new generation of black business people faced the old problem of getting funds, of capital formation. This lack of funding resulted in the failure of many black business while white businesses monopolized and benefitted from the exploitation of blacks in industries such as cosmetics (hair and skin preparations) and publishing (periodicals and newspapers).
Throughout history, America has benefitted greatly from the economic exploitation of African Americans. From slavery, the reconstruction, the civil rights movement and black capitalism, African Americans have partially sustained America’s economy. Coming of age in Mississippi chronicles the experience of racism and it’s effects on the Sharecropper, the domestic and finally the educated Negro. It reveals the resilience and fortitude that a young woman had the courage to challenge. Anne Moody’s autobiography is a testimony which gives hope to generations present and future.
I believe her story was especially inspiring because despite the obstacles that she encountered, Anne managed to succeed. Today with the advances that African Americans made in education, business and the media, there is a shift in the pendulum of economic equality. Although the economic gap has not been completely bridged, I think that we can look forward to this change in the near future.
1. Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the Making of America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966.
2. Eric Foner, A Short History of Reconstruction. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.