Read CHAPTER III. ECONOMIC HERITAGE. of The Negro Farmer , free online book, by Carl Kelsey, on

Previous to the appearance of the European, West Central Africa for untold hundreds of years had been almost completely separated from the outside world. The climate is hot, humid, enervating. The Negro tribes living in the great forests found little need for exertion to obtain the necessities of savage life. The woods abounded in game, the rivers in fish. By cutting down a few trees and loosening the ground with sharpened sticks the plantains, a species of coarse banana, could be made to yield many hundred fold. The greater part of the little agricultural work done fell on the women, for it was considered degrading by the men. Handicrafts were almost unknown among many tribes and where they existed were of the simplest. Clothing was of little service. Food preparations were naturally crude. Sanitary restrictions, seemingly so necessary in hot climates, were unheard of. The dead were often buried in the floors of the huts. Miss Kingsley says: “All travelers in West Africa find it necessary very soon to accustom themselves to most noisome odors of many kinds and to all sorts of revolting uncleanliness.” Morality, as we use the term, did not exist. Chastity was esteemed in the women only as a marketable commodity. Marriage was easily consummated and with even greater ease dissolved. Slavery, inter-tribal, was widespread, and the ravages of the slave hunter were known long before the arrival of the whites. Religion was a mass of grossest superstitions, with belief in the magical power of witches and sorcerers who had power of life and death over their fellows. Might was right and the chiefs enforced obedience. It is not necessary to go more into detail. In the words of a recent writer:

“It is clear that any civilization which is based on the fertility of the soil, and not on the energy of man, contains within itself the seed of its own destruction. Where food is easily obtained, where there is little need for clothing or houses, where, in brief, unaided nature furnishes all man’s necessities, those elements which produce strength of character and vigor of mind are wanting, and man becomes the slave of his surroundings. He acquires no energy of disposition, he yields himself to superstition and fatalism; the very conditions of life which produced his civilization set the limit of its existence.”

It is evident from the foregoing that there had been almost nothing in the conditions of Africa to further habits of thrift and industry. The warm climate made great provision for the future unnecessary, not to say impossible, while social conditions did not favor accumulation of property. It is necessary to emphasize these African conditions, for they have an important influence on future development. Under these conditions Negro character was formed, and that character was not like that of the long-headed blonds of the North.

The transfer to America marked a sharp break with the past. One needs but to stop to enumerate the changes to realize how great this break was. A simple dialect is exchanged for a complex language. A religion whose basic principle is love gradually supplants the fears and superstitions of heathenhood. The black passes from an enervating, humid climate to one in which activity is pleasurable. From the isolation and self-satisfaction of savagery he emerges into close contact with one of the most ambitious and progressive of peoples. Life at once becomes far more secure and wrongs are revenged by the self-interest of the whites as well as by the feeble means of self-defense in possession of the blacks. That there were cruelties and mistreatment under slavery goes without saying, but the woes and sufferings under it were as nothing compared to those of the life in the African forests. This fact is sometimes overlooked. With greater security of life came an emphasis, from without, to be sure, on better marital relations. In this respect slavery left much to be desired, but conditions on the whole were probably in advance of those in Africa. Marriage began to be something more than a purchase. Sanitation, not the word, but the underlying idea, was taught by precept and example. There came also a dim notion of a new sphere for women. Faint perceptions ofttimes, but ideas never dreamed of in Africa. I would not defend slavery, but in this country its evil results are the inheritance of the whites, not of the blacks, and the burden today of American slavery is upon white shoulders.

Many of the changes have been mentioned, but the greatest is reserved for the last. This is embraced in one word work. For the first time the Negro was made to work, not casual work, but steady, constant labor. From the Negro’s standpoint this is the redeeming feature of his slavery as perhaps it was for the Israelites in Egypt of old. Booker Washington has written: “American slavery was a great curse to both races, and I would be the last to apologize for it, but, in the providence of God, I believe that slavery laid the foundation for the solution of the problem that is now before us in the South. During slavery the Negro was taught every trade, every industry, that constitutes the foundation for making a living.”

Dr. H. B. Frissell has borne the same testimony:

“The southern plantation was really a great trade school where thousands received instruction in mechanic arts, in agriculture, in cooking, sewing and other domestic occupations. Although it may be said that all this instruction was given from selfish motives, yet the fact remains that the slaves on many plantations had good industrial training, and all honor is due to the conscientious men and still more to the noble women of the South who in slavery times helped to prepare the way for the better days that were to come.”

Work is the essential condition of human progress. Contrast the training of the Negro under enforced slavery with that of the Indian, although it should not be thought that the characters were the same, for the life in America had made the Indian one who would not submit to the yoke, and all attempts to enslave him came to naught. Dr. Frissell out of a long experience says:

“When the children of these two races are placed side by side, as they are in the school rooms and workshops and on the farms at Hampton, it is not difficult to perceive that the training which the blacks had under slavery was far more valuable as a preparation for civilized life than the freedom from training and service enjoyed by the Indian on the Western reservations. For while slavery taught the colored man to work, the reservation pauperized the Indian with free rations; while slavery brought the black into the closest relations with the white race and its ways of life, the reservation shut the Indian away from his white brothers and gave him little knowledge of their civilization, language or religion.”

The coddled Indian, with all the vices of the white man open to him, has made little, if any, progress, while the Negro, made to work, has held his own in large measure at least.

Under slavery three general fields of service were open to the blacks. The first comprised the domestic and body servants, with the seamstresses, etc., whose labors were in the house or in close personal contact with masters and mistresses. This class was made up of the brightest and quickest, mulattoes being preferred because of their greater aptitude. These servants had almost as much to do with the whites as did the other blacks and absorbed no small amount of learning. Yet the results were not always satisfactory. A southern lady after visiting for a time in New York said on leaving:

“I cannot tell you how much, after being in your house so long, I dread to go home, and have to take care of our servants again. We have a much smaller family of whites than you, but we have twelve servants, and your two accomplish a great deal more and do their work a great deal better than our twelve. You think your girls are very stupid and that they give much trouble, but it is as nothing. There is hardly one of our servants that can be trusted to do the simplest work without being stood over. If I order a room to be cleaned, or a fire to be made in a distant chamber, I can never be sure I am obeyed unless I go there and see for myself.... And when I reprimand them they only say that they don’t mean to do anything wrong, or they won’t do it again, all the time laughing as though it were a joke. They don’t mind it at all. They are just as playful and careless as any wilful child; and they never will do any work if you don’t compel them.”

The second class comprised the mechanics, carpenters, blacksmiths, masons and the like. These were also a picked lot. They were well trained ofttimes and had a practical monopoly of their trades in many localities. In technical knowledge they naturally soon outstripped their masters and became conscious of their superiority, as the following instance related by President G. T. Winston shows:

“I remember one day my father, who was a lawyer, offered some suggestions to one of his slaves, a fairly good carpenter, who was building us a barn. The old Negro heard him with ill-concealed disgust, and replied: ’Look here, master, you’se a first-rate lawyer, no doubt, but you don’t know nothin’ ’tall ’bout carpentering. You better go back to your law books.’”

The training received by these artisans stood them in good stead after the war, when, left to themselves, they were able to hold their ground by virtue of their ability to work alone.

The third class was made up of all that were left, and their work was in the fields. The dullest, as well as those not needed elsewhere, were included. Some few became overseers, but the majority worked on the farms. As a rule little work was required of children under 12, and when they began their tasks were about of the adult’s. Thence they passed to “half,” “three-quarter” and “full” hands. Olmsted said:

“Until the Negro is big enough for his labor to be plainly profitable to his master he has no training to application or method, but only to idleness and carelessness. Before children arrive at a working age they hardly come under the notice of their owner.... The only whipping of slaves I have seen in Virginia has been of these wild, lazy children, as they are being broke in to work. They cannot be depended upon a minute out of sight. You will see how difficult it would be if it were attempted to eradicate the indolent, careless, incogitant habits so formed in youth. But it is not systematically attempted, and the influences that continue to act upon a slave in the same direction, cultivating every quality at variance with industry, precision, forethought and providence, are innumerable.”

In many places the field hands were given set tasks to do each day, and they were then allowed to take their own time and stop when the task was completed. In Georgia and South Carolina the following is cited by Olmsted as tasks for a day:

“In making drains in light clean meadow land each man or woman of the full hands is required to dig one thousand cubic feet; in swamp land that is being prepared for rice culture, where there are not many stumps, the task for a ditcher is five hundred feet; while in a very strong cypress swamp, only two hundred feet is required; in hoeing rice, a certain number of rows equal to one-half or two-thirds of an acre, according to the condition of the land; in sowing rice (strewing in drills), two acres; in reaping rice (if it stands well), three-quarters of an acre, or, sometimes a gang will be required to reap, tie in sheaves, and carry to the stack yard the produce of a certain area commonly equal to one-fourth the number of acres that there are hands working together; hoeing cotton, corn or potatoes, one-half to one acre; threshing, five to six hundred sheaves. In plowing rice land (light, clean, mellow soil), with a yoke of oxen, one acre a day, including the ground lost in and near the drains, the oxen being changed at noon. A cooper also, for instance, is required to make barrels at the rate of eighteen a week; drawing staves, 500 a day; hoop-poles, 120; squaring timber, 100 feet; laying worm fence, 50 panels per day; post and rail fence, posts set two and a half to three feet deep, nine feet apart, nine or ten panels per hand. In getting fuel from the woods (pine to be cut and split), one cord is the task for a day. In ‘mauling rails,’ the taskman selecting the trees (pine) that he judges will split easiest, 100 a day, ends not sharpened.

“In allotting the tasks the drivers are expected to put the weaker hands where, if there is any choice in the appearance of the ground, as where certain rows in hoeing corn would be less weedy than others, they will be favored.

“These tasks would certainly not be considered excessively hard by a northern laborer, and, in point of fact, the more industrious and active hands finish them often by two o’clock. I saw one or two leaving the field soon after one o’clock, several about two, and between three and four I met a dozen women and several men coming to their cabins, having finished their day’s work.... If, after a hard day’s labor he (the driver) sees that the gang has been overtasked, owing to a miscalculation of the difficulty of the work, he may excuse the completion of the tasks, but he is not allowed to extend them.”

In other places the work was not laid out in tasks, but it is safe to say that, judging from all reports and all probabilities, the amount of work done did not equal that of the free labor of the North, then or now. If it had the commercial supremacy of the South would have been longer maintained.

Some things regarding the agricultural work at once become prominent. All work was done under the immediate eye of the task master. Thus there was little occasion for the development of any sense of individual responsibility for the work. As a rule the methods adopted were crude. Little machinery was used, and that of the simplest. Hoes, heavy and clumsy, were the common tools. Within a year I have seen grass being mowed with hoes preparatory to putting the ground in cultivation. Even today the Negro has to be trained to use the light, sharp hoe of the North. Corn, cotton and, in a few districts, rice or tobacco were the staple crops, although each plantation raised its own fruit and vegetables, and about the cabins in the quarters were little plots for gardens. The land was cultivated for a time, then abandoned for new, while in most places little attention was paid to rotation of crops or to fertilizers. The result was that large sections of the South had been seriously injured before the war. As some one has said:

“The destruction of the soils by the methods of cultivation prior to the war was worse than the ravages of the war. The post bellum farmer received as an inheritance large areas of wornout and generally unproductive soils.”

Yet all things were the master’s. A failure of the crop meant little hunger to the black. Refusal to work could but bring bodily punishment, for the master was seldom of the kind who would take life a live Negro was worth a good deal more than a dead one. Clothing and shelter were provided, and care in sickness. The master must always furnish tools, land and seed, and see to it that the ground was cultivated. There was thus little necessity for the Negro to care for the morrow, and his African training had not taught him to borrow trouble. Thus neither Africa nor America had trained the Negro to independent, continuous labor apart from the eye of the overseer. The requirements as to skill were low. The average man learned little of the mysteries of fruit growing, truck farming and all the economies which make diversified agriculture profitable.

Freedom came, a second sharp break with the past. There is now no one who is responsible for food and clothing. For a time all is in confusion. The war had wiped out the capital of the country. The whites were land poor, the Negroes landless. It so happened that at this time the price of cotton was high. The Negro knew more about cotton than any other crop. Raise cotton became the order of the day. The money lenders would lend money on cotton, even in advance, for it had a certain and sure ready sale. Thus developed the crop-lien system which in essence consists in taking a mortgage on crops yet to be raised. The system existed among the white planters for many years before the war.

A certain amount of food and clothing was advanced to the Negro family until the crop could be harvested, when the money value of the goods received was returned with interest. Perhaps nothing which concerns the Negro has been the subject of more hostile criticism than this crop-lien system. That it is easily abused when the man on one side is a shrewd and cunning sharpster and the borrower an illiterate and trusting Negro is beyond doubt. That in thousands of cases advantage has been taken of this fact to wrest from the Negro at the end of the year all that he had is not to be questioned. Certainly a system which makes it possible is open to criticism. It should not be forgotten, however, that the system grew out of the needs of the time and served a useful purpose when honestly administered, even as it does today. No money could be gotten with land as security, and even today the land owner often sees his merchant with far less capital get money from the bank which has refused his security. The system has enabled a poor man without tools and work animals without food to get a start and be provided with a modicum of necessities until the crops were harvested. Thousands have become more or less independent who started in this way. The evil influences of the system, for none would consider it ideal, have probably been that it has made unnecessary any saving on the part of the Negro, who feels sure that he can receive his advances and who cares little for the fact that some day he must pay a big interest on what he receives. Secondly, this system has hindered the development of diversified farming, which today is one of the greatest needs of the South. The advances have been conditioned upon the planting and cultivating a given amount of cotton. During recent years no other staple has so fallen in price, and the result has been hard on the farmers. All else has faded into insignificance before the necessity of raising cotton. The result on the fertility of the soil is also evident. Luckily cotton makes light demands on the land, but the thin soil of many districts has been unable to stand even the light demands. Guano came just in time and the later commercial fertilizers have postponed the evil day. The development of the cotton mills has also served to give a local market, which has stimulated the production of cotton. It seems rather evident, however, that the increasing development of western lands will put a heavier burden upon the Atlantic slope. This, of course, will not affect the culture of sea-island cotton, which is grown in only a limited area. To meet this handicap a more diversified agriculture must gradually supplant in some way the present over-attention to cotton. In early days Virginia raised much cotton, now it stands towards the bottom of the cotton states. Perhaps it is safe to say that Virginia land has been as much injured by the more exhaustive crop, tobacco, as the other states by cotton. Large areas have been allowed to go back to the woods and local conditions have greatly changed. How this diversification is to be brought about for the Negro is one of the most important questions. Recent years have witnessed an enormous development of truck farming, but in this the Negro has borne little part. This intensive farming requires a knowledge of soil and of plant life, coupled with much ability in marketing wares, which the average Negro does not possess. Nor has he taken any great part in the fruit industry, which is steadily growing. The question to which all this leads may be stated as follows. To what extent is the Negro taking advantage of the opportunities he now has on the farm? What is his present situation?