Read CHAPTER V. SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT. of The Negro Farmer , free online book, by Carl Kelsey, on

Hitherto we have had to do chiefly with the economic situation of the Negro farmer. There is, however, another set of forces which may not be ignored if we are to understand the situation which confronts us. These are, of course, the social forces. In discussing these it is more than ever essential to remember that a differentiation has been taking place among the Negroes and that there are large numbers who are not to be grouped with the average men and women whom we seek to describe. It may even be true that there are communities which have gained a higher level. Any statement of the social environment of 8,000,000 people must necessarily be false if applied strictly to each individual. The existence of the higher class must not, however, be allowed to blind us to the condition of the rest.

The average Negro boy or girl is allowed to grow. It is difficult to say much more for the training received at home. We must remember that there is an almost total absence of home life as we understand it. The family seldom sits down together at the table or do anything else in common. The domestic duties are easily mastered by the girls and chores do not weigh heavily on the boys. At certain periods of the year the children are compelled to assist in the farm operations, such as picking cotton, but most of the time they are care free. Thus they run almost wild while the parents are at work in the fields, and the stranger who suddenly approaches a cabin and beholds the youngsters scattering for shelter will not soon forget the sight. Obedience, neatness, punctuality do not thrive in such an atmosphere. The introduction to the country school a little later does not greatly improve conditions. The teachers are often incompetent and their election often depends upon other things than fitness to teach; upon things, indeed, which are at times far from complimentary to the school trustees. The school year seldom exceeds four months and this may be divided into two terms, two months in the fall and two in the spring. School opens at an indefinite time in the morning, if scheduled for nine it is just as likely as not that it begins at ten thirty, while the closing hour is equally uncertain. The individual attention received by the average child is necessarily small. The schools are poorly equipped with books or maps. The interior view given on page 61 is by no means exceptional.

It may not be out of place to mention the fact that recognition of these evils is leading in many places in the South to the incorporation of private schools, which then offer their facilities to the public in return for partial support at the public expense. Public moneys are being turned over to these schools in considerable amounts. In some counties the public does not own a school building. Without questioning the fact that these schools are an improvement over existing conditions, history will belie itself if this subsidizing of private organizations does not some day prove a great drawback to the proper development of the public school system, unless it may be, that the courts will declare the practice illegal and unconstitutional.

The home and the school being from our point of view unsatisfactory, the next social institution to which we turn is the church. Since the war this has come to be the most influential in the opinion of the Negro and it deserves more careful study than has yet been given to it. Only some of the more obvious features can here be considered. The first thing to impress the observer is the fact that time is again no object to the Negro. The service advertised for eleven may get fairly under way by twelve and there is no predicting when it will stop. The people drift in and out, one or two at a time, throughout the service. Families do not enter nor sit together. Outside is always a group talking over matters of general interest. The music, lined out, consists of the regulation church hymns, which are usually screeched all out of time in a high key. The contrast between this music and the singing of the plantation songs at Hampton or some other schools which impresses one as does little music he hears elsewhere is striking. The people have the idea that plantation songs are out of place in the church. The collection is taken with a view to letting others know what each one does. At the proper time a couple of the men take their places at a table before the pulpit and invite the people to come forward with their offerings. The people straggle up the aisle with their gifts, being constantly urged to hasten so as not to delay the service. After half an hour or so the results obtained are remarkable and the social emulation redounds to the benefit of the preacher. It is difficult for the white visitor to get anything but hints of the real possibilities of the preacher, for he is at once introduced to the audience and induced to address them if it is possible. Even when this is not done there is usually an air of restraint which is noticeable. Only occasionally does the speaker forget himself and break loose, as it were. The study then presented is interesting in the extreme. While the minister shouts, the audience are swaying backward and forward in sympathetic rhythm, encouraging the speaker with cries of “Amen”, “That’s right”, “That’s the Gospel”, “Give it to ’em bud”, “Give ’em a little long sweetening”. There is no question that they are profoundly moved, but the identity of the spirit which troubles the waters is to me sometimes a question. The forms of the white man’s religion have been adopted, but the content of these forms seems strangely different. Seemingly the church, or rather, religion, is not closely identified with morality. I am sorry to say that in the opinion of the best of both races the average country (and city) pastor does not bear a good reputation, the estimates of the immoral running from 50 to 98 per cent. of the total number. It is far from me to discount any class of people, but if the situation is anything as represented by the estimate, the seriousness of it is evident. This idea is supported by the fact that indulgence in immorality is seldom a bar to active church membership, and if a member be dismissed from one communion there are others anxious to receive him or her. There are churches and communities of which these statements are not true. It is interesting to note that the churches are securing their chief support from the women. As an organization the church does not seem to have taken any great interest in the matters which most vitally affect the life of the people, except to be a social center. If these things be considered it is easy to see why the best informed are seeking for the country districts men who can be leaders of the people during the week on the farms as well as good speakers on Sunday. It is a pleasure to note that here and there some busy pastor is also spending a good deal of his time cultivating a garden, or running a small farm, with the distinct purpose of setting a good example. The precise way in which the church may be led to exert a wider and more helpful influence on the people is a matter of great importance, but it must be solved from within.

Turning from religious work we find the church bearing an important place in the social life and amusements. Besides its many gatherings and protracted meetings which are social functions, numbers of picnics and excursions are given. These may be on the railroads to rather distant points, and because of the lack of discrimination as to participants, many earnest protests have been filed by the better class of Negroes. The amusements of the blacks are simple. Nearly all drink, but drunkenness is not a great vice. Dances are in high esteem, and are often accompanied by much drinking and not infrequently by cutting scrapes, for the Negro’s passions lie on the surface and are easily aroused. In South Carolina the general belief seems to be that the dispensary law has been beneficial. There is also a universal fondness for tobacco in all its forms. Gambling prevails wherever there is ready money and not infrequently leads to serious assaults. Music has great charms while a circus needs not the excuse of children to justify it in the Negro’s eyes. Some of the holidays are celebrated, and when on the coast the blacks dubbed the 30th of May “Desecration Day,” there were those who thought it well named. Active sports, with the occasional exception of a ball game, are not preferred to the more quiet pleasure of sitting about in the sunshine conversing with friends. America can not show a happier, more contented lot of people than these same blacks.

If we turn our attention to other characteristics of the Negro we must notice his different moral standard. To introduce the little I shall say on this point let me quote from a well known anthropologist. “There is nothing more difficult for us to realize, civilized as we are, than the mental state of the man far behind us in cultivation, as regards what we call par excellence ‘morality.’ It is not indecency; it is simply an animal absence of modesty. Acts which are undeniably quite natural, since they are the expression of a primordial need, essential to the duration of the species, but which a long ancestral and individual education has trained us to subject to a rigorous restraint, and to the accomplishment of which, consequently, we can not help attaching a certain shame, do not in the least shock the still imperfect conscience of the primitive man.” From somewhat this standpoint we must judge of the Negro. Two or three illustrations will suffice. Talking last summer to a porter in a small hotel, I asked him if he had ever lived on a farm. He replied that he had and that he often thought of returning. Asking him why he did not he said that it would be necessary for him to get a wife and a lot of other things. I suggested the possibility of boarding in another family. He shook his head and said: “Niggers is queer folks, boss. ‘Pears to me they don’ know what they gwine do. Ef I go out and live in a man’s house like as not I run away wid dat man’s wife.” The second illustration is taken from an unpublished manuscript by Rev. J. L. Tucker of Baton Rouge.

There is a negro of good character here in Baton Rouge whose name is . He is a whitewasher by trade and does mainly odd jobs for the white people who are his patrons, and earns a good living. He is widely known through the city as a good and reliable man. Some time ago he had trouble with his wife’s preacher, who came to his house too often. The trouble culminated in his wife leaving him. Soon thereafter he sent or went into the country and brought home a negro woman whom he installed in his house to cook and otherwise serve him. Explaining the circumstances to Mr. , he said: “I a’in’ got no use for nigga preachers. Dey is de debbil wid de wimmen. I tol’ dat ar fellah to keep away fr’m my house or I’d hunt him wid a shotgun, an’ I meant it. But he got her’n spite a me. She went off to ’im. Now I’s got me a wife from way back in de country, who don’ know the ways of nigga preachers. I kin keep her, I reckon, a while, anyway. I pays her wages reg’lar, an’ she does her duty by me. I tell yeh, Mr. , a hired wife’s a heap better’s a married wife any time, yeh mark dat. Ef yeh don’ line er yer can sen’ her off an’ get anudder, an’ she’s nutten to complain ‘bout a’ longs yeh pay her wages. Yes siree, yeh put dat down; de hired wife’s nuff sight better’n de married one. I don’ fus no mo’ wid marryin’ wives, I hires ’em. An I sent word to dat preacher dat if he comes roun’ my house now I lays for ’im shore wid buck shot.”

Commenting, Mr. Tucker says that the man had no idea of moral wrong, the real wife has lost no caste, the preacher stands just as well with his flock and the “new wife” is well received. The third instance occurred on a plantation. A married woman, not satisfied with the shoes she received from the store, wanted a pair of yellow turned shoes. The planter would not supply them. The woman was angry and finally left her husband, went to a neighboring place and “took up” with another man.

These cases sufficiently illustrate prevailing conceptions of the sacredness of the marriage tie. Certainly this involves a theory of home life which differs from ours. Many matings are consummated without any regular marriage ceremony and with little reference to legal requirements, and divorces are equally informal. Moral lapses seldom bring the Negro before the courts. All these things but indicate the handicap which has to be overcome. Within the family there is often great abuse on the part of the men. The result of it all is that many Negroes do not know their own fathers and so little are the ties of kinship’ regarded that near relatives are often unknown, and if possible less cared for. This may be substantiated by the records of any charity society in the North which has sought to trace friends of its Negro applicants. To attempt a quantitative estimate of the extent of sexual immorality is useless. It is sufficient to realize that a different standard prevails and one result today is a frightful prevalence of venereal diseases to which any practising physician in the South can bear witness. I am glad to say there are sections which have risen above these conditions.

The transition from slavery to freedom set in operation the forces of natural selection, which are sure and steadily working among the people and are weeding out those who for any reason can not adapt themselves to the new environment. Insanity, almost unknown in slavery times, has appeared and has been increasing among the Negroes of the South at a rate of about 100 per cent. a decade since 1860. Of course, the number affected is still small, but the end is perhaps not reached. We have witnessed also the development of the pauper and criminal classes. This was to be expected. There is also some evidence of an increase in the use of drugs, cocaine and the like. The point to be noted is that there is taking place a steady division of the Negroes into various social strata and in spite of race traits it is no longer to be considered as on a level.

I have sought to represent the situation as it appears to me, neither seeking to overemphasize the virtues or the vices of the race. It is clear to me that in spite of the obvious progress the road ahead is long and hard. While I do not anticipate any such acceleration of speed as will immediately bring about an economic or social millénium I believe that proper measures may be found, indeed, are already in use, which if widely adopted will lead to better things. How many of the race will fall by the way is, in one sense, a matter of indifference. In the long run, for the whites as well as the blacks, they will survive who adapt their social theories and, consequently, their modes of life to their environments.