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From Field and Factory, Essay Example

Pages: 6

Words: 1596

Essay

The Social Development of African-American Community

The American Revolution and the economic trend toward industrialization that followed affected free blacks and slaves according to the social circumstances in which each existed.  In the South, blacks were chattel, commodities to be bought and sold.  In the New England colonies, blacks were free but the systematic racism that made a legitimate enterprise of slavery impacted the economic and social prospects of northern blacks as well.  Ultimately, African Americans were forced to create for themselves a community outside the cultural and political boundaries that prevailed in post-RevolutionaryWar America.

For blacks, the Revolution held the promise of freedom and, in the spirit of the times,many slave owners actually did follow through on the pledge to grant slaves freedom in exchange for military service against Great Britain.  However, in the constitutional debates that followed independence, efforts to abolish slavery fell victim to political expediency and a “devil’s compromise” was struck that set the Republic upon a path that would nearly end in its destruction.

So it was in the South.  However, the same fears that drove Congress’s southern contingent to stand so firmly against abolition gave rise to a less overt system of prejudice and discrimination in the new nation’s free colonies.  Though slavery did not exist as an institution in the northern colonies, the advent of technology and manufacturing in the years after the war gave rise to a form of industrialized servitude in the North.  In the South, it created new opportunities to exploit the slave population.  In truth, there was little difference between a “slave” and a “wage slave.”

The principles upon which the Revolution was fought did not extend to slavery and, by extension, to the incipient racial discrimination in America’s evolving labor market.1  In the post-Revolutionary years, the trend toward industrialization had begun “as advocates of increased manufacturing argued that national strength required a diversified economy based on neo-mercantilist assumptions.”2

America’s founders were in general agreement that the new country could not continue to exist based on an economy driven by small-scale, home-based production.  Nothing short of wholesale manufacturing could achieve the hope of a prosperous, free-market economy capable of competing on the global stage.3The growth of a factory-based system laid

the foundation for a dedicated working class.  Indispensable to the rise of the factory though it was, this class of free blacks was restricted from social and economic mobility.

In the late 18th century, free African Americans began to specialize.  For example, in the early 19thcentury African Americans were prominent in the caulking trade, providing expertise that was vital to shipping and commerce because caulking prevented ships from leaking.However, in spite of such valuable skill in this and other trades, free blacks were constrained by discrimination that choked off any possibility of a “future independence which commonly lightens the white man’s weary way and supports him in the severest drudgery and keenest

__________________________

  1. Carl Van Horn & Herbert Schaffner, Work in America: An Encyclopedia of History, Policy and Society, (ABC-CLIO, 2003), 9.
  2. Lawrence A. Peskin, Manufacturing Revolution: The Intellectual Origins of Early American Industry, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).
  3. Van Horn, Work in America: An Encyclopedia of History, Policy and Society, 9. privation.”4

During the country’s early years, African Americans filled manual labor jobs in teeming urban centers like Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York.  Theybecame grist for a labor mill that bore similarities to the slavery that sustained the South’s plantation system.

Nor did the country’s westward expansion offer equal economic opportunitiestofree African Americans.  Exclusion laws formalized the repression they had lived with in the country’s rapidly industrializing northeastern corridor.  Nor could black workers give testimony against employers, or sue for breach of contract.  This sanctioned disenfranchisement in America’s burgeoning industrial landscape made masters of employers because “the configuration of racial power within the early Republic provided them with an advantage over their workers.”

Alexis DeTocqueville, commenting on the place of blacks in early American society, acknowledged that oppression and harsh treatment were not at all restricted to the lives of African American slaves in the South.

“So the Negro [in the North] is free, but he cannot share the rights, pleasures, labors, griefs, or even the tomb of him whose equal he has been declared; there is nowhere where he can meet him, neither in life nor in death.In the South, where slavery still exists, less trouble is

__________________________

  1. Cathy D. Matson, The Economy of Early America: Historical Perspectives and New Directions, (Wadsworth Publishing, 2006), 356.
  2. Matson, The Economy of Early America: Historical Perspectives and New Directions, 356.

taken to keep the Negro apart: they sometimes share the labors and the pleasures of the white men; people are prepared to mix with them to some extent; legislation is more harsh against them, but customs are more tolerant and gentle.”6

Without the means to empower themselves, free blacks coalesced around their churches in which were rooted communities that “promoted cooperative economics, educational advancement, and the abolition of slavery.  From these faith-based organizing efforts sprang countless African-American social, economic, and political institutions, including schools, insurance companies, banks, and social service organizations.”7

The South

After the Revolution, there followed a period during which slaves experienced a degree of freedom.  A decline in the tobacco industry at least temporarily reduced the need for a mass labor force and slaves who had specific abilities could engage in a kind of free market economy, offering themselves for hire.  “They paid a weekly fee to their master, but were allowed to keep any extra money. This allowed slaves to purchase a wide variety of things, ranging from mirrors to bright fabric for clothes. Slaves also took on a slightly greater role in society, as they were no longer mainly limited to field work.”8

The slaves that maintained the South’s plantations provided many of the agricultural

___________________________

  1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, (University of Chicago Press, 2002), 396.
  2. Omar McRoberts, Black Churches, Community and Development, (Shelterforce Online, Jan./Feb. 2001).
  3. Paul Laurent, Social Change in Post-Revolutionary America, NIAHD Journals, (July 19, 2005).

innovations that would lead to industrialized processing of staple Southern crops such as cotton and rice.  These innovations were crucial to the growth and prosperity of the South’s agrarian economy.

West Africans brought with them a mortar-and-pestle technique for processing rice that acted as a blueprint for mass-producing the valuable low country crop.  Many historians are convinced that Eli Whitney got the idea for his cotton gin from a combing technique devised by slaves to separate the fibers from seeds.

The common view of industrialization in the antebellum South is one of minimal technology.  However, the sheer size and economic demands on the plantations required a high degree of stratification and specialization that actually resembled the organization and scope of manufacturing facilities in the North.

“The larger cotton plantations were of such a size and complexity that they were comparable to New England’s factories. Lumber and grist mills were typically a part of these plantation’s operations. Some had their own cotton gins. Large sugar plantations processed the cane once it was harvested. Some men owned several plantations and, therefore, found hired managers essential.”9

In the early decades of the 19th century, technological advancements in the South created opportunities to blend the standing slave labor force with new manufacturing processes.  By the 1830s, pro-slavery advocates in the South were putting slaves to work in factories.

___________________________

  1. Carole E. Scott, The Antebellum Period, (Ancestry.com, 1997-2001).

Cultural touchstone: origins of the black church

African Americans, disenfranchised in North and South, began to evolve a sense of community and created a network of mutual support in the late 18th centered around their churches.  The black church mirrored the society in which American blacks lived and worked, but its most remarkable achievement was the extent to which “black people created their own unique and distinctive forms of culture and worldviews as parallels rather than replications of the culture in which they were involuntary guests.”10

In the South, black congregations were forced to meet in secret.  The church survived despite periodic harassment from whites and developed an image that reflected the existence of blacks in the antebellum South.  Congregations began to see themselves as God’s chosen people who would one day be freed from bondage.

In the North, the churches became faith-based dynamos that would support the social, political and economic lives of African Americans that worked for exploitative and unscrupulous employers.  Among the churches, “’community’ referred to populations of precariously free blacks, and development activities promoted cooperative economics, educational advancement, and the abolition of slavery. From these faith-based organizing efforts sprang countless African-American social, economic, and political institutions, including schools, insurance companies, banks, and social service organizations.”11

___________________________

  1. Eric Lincoln & Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience, (Duke University Press, 1990), 2.
  2. Omar McRoberts, Black Churches, Community and Development, (Shelterforce Online, Jan./Feb. 2001).

The black church as mutual aid society continued to be the guiding light for African-American society as blacks fought through slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the civil rights era.  That the black church would one day become a source of political power is a testament to the determination and vitality of African-American culture.

Bibliography

deTocqueville, Alexis.  Democracy in America.  University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Laurent, Paul. “Social Change in Post-Revolutionary America.”  NIAHD Journal, July 19, 2005

Lincoln, C. Eric & Mamiya, Lawrence.  The Black Church in the African American Experience. Duke University Press, 1990.

Matson, Cathy D. The Economy of Early America: Historical Perspectives and New Directions. Wadsworth Publishing, 2006.

McRoberts, Omar. Black Churches, Community and Development.  Shelterforce Online, Jan./Feb. 2001.

Peskin, Lawrence A.  Manufacturing Revolution: The Intellectual Origins of Early American Industry.Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Scott, Carole E.  The Antebellum Period.  Ancestry.com, 1997-2001.

Van Horn, Carl E. & Schaffner, Herbert.  Work in America: An Encyclopedia of History, Policy and Society.  ABC-CLIO, 2003.

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