The Black Worker: Land and Labor in the Late 19th-Century South

AHA Session 155
Agricultural History Society 1
Labor and Working Class History Association 3
Friday, January 6, 2017: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Centennial Ballroom F (Hyatt Regency Denver, Third Floor)
Bruce E. Baker, Newcastle University
Aaron Alpeoria Bradley and the First Black Power Movement
Keri Leigh Merritt, independent scholar
The Politics of Collective Landownership during Reconstruction
Adrienne Monteith Petty, City College of New York
Susan E. O'Donovan, University of Memphis

Session Abstract

“The Black Worker” was the first chapter in W.E.B. DuBois’ seminal masterpiece, Black Reconstruction in America. In it, he proposed that there were twoReconstructions: one orchestrated by the capitalists in federal government, and one comprised of black laborers who wanted to “establish a dictatorship of the proletariat...a dictatorship of labor.” This panel intends to explore DuBois’ theories about black workers in the post-Civil War South, focusing on their desires and aspirations, as well as their successes and failures.

For far too long, scholars of the late nineteenth century have tended to focus on elite black politicians and professionals. When black workers were studied, they were often depicted as passive subjects, serving only as strikebreakers and wage-cutters in the larger story of white labor history. By focusing on the laborers themselves, however, historians gain a much clearer understanding of the lives of African Americans in the decades following centuries of slavery.

Indeed, with the advent of emancipation, blacks became the only race in America ever to start out – as an entire people – with close to zero capital. Having nothing else upon which to build or generate wealth, the majority of freedmen had little real chance of breaking the cycles of poverty created by slavery, and perpetuated by federal policy. Without meaningful land reform, a focus on labor was imperative.

For our panel’s first presentation, Keri Leigh Merritt will discuss the early years of Reconstruction in the Georgia lowcountry, deeming 1865 the beginning of the first Black Power Movement. Using Aaron Bradley as a lens to the era, Merritt demonstrates that many freedmen clamored for autonomy, and at times advocated black separatism and nationalism. Next, Adrienne Petty will reexamine freedpeople’s cooperative purchase of land. Much like DuBois, Petty argues that this collective accumulation of land must be viewed as a political act. Finally, Evan Bennett will explore the struggles of black fishermen in Tampa, Florida, near the turn of the century. Using both labor and environmental history, Bennett demonstrates how Gulf fisheries became white spaces by the early twentieth century.

And while all of these papers certainly highlight the limited powers black laborers utilized, they all ultimately confirm DuBois’s most well-known quote: “The slave went free; stood for a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again towards slavery.” Yet as recognizable as the quotation is, few scholars remember the important lines that followed. “A new slavery arose,” he penned, and “The upward moving of white labor was betrayed into wars for profit based on color caste. Democracy died save in the heart of black folk.”

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