Jim Crow and Economics

Note: This is a very broad overview of things, and I’m gliding over a lot of history. There are a number of books on the topic, a few of which I’ll mention at the end of the post. We’re talking economics here.

The laws collectively referred to as “Jim Crow” legalized economic and legal discrimination against people of African ancestry in parts of the United States. In other areas, informal local agreements and mob action served a similar purpose, that being keeping African-Americans and other blacks out of certain jobs and places of residence.

The term “Jim Crow” came from a minstrel show song of that title.

Everyone today agrees that these were wrong. But what a lot of people don’t talk about is the reason for those laws, and that in some cases, the laws hurt whites as well as blacks. Which in some cases was the point, in others a side-effect. It traces all the way back to the 1600s, when slaves and indentured servants (like slaves without the investment value), tended to run away together. European slaves and indentured servants could blend into the general population more easily than could Africans. Once indentured servitude fell out of use, and it became apparent that enslaving Indians didn’t work (first, you have to have a population to enslave. Second, they have to stop fighting back. See the Yamasee Wars, King Phillip’s War, et cetera.) enslaved Africans became the labor of choice for some crops, in some areas. And for domestic use, because of the social cachet as well as having an additional set of hands and a strong back. Culture became conflated with skin-color, and in some cases the story of Noah’s son Ham was used to justify racial discrimination.

When the Civil War/ War Between the States/ Late Unpleasantness ended, poor whites and freedmen found themselves in the same economic boat. The war had ruined a lot of the market systems that had been in place in the South, and the largest consumer of cotton, Great Britain, had shifted to buying from Egypt and India (which it now owned.) Before 1861, slaves had been taxed but not land. Now the reverse was true, and applied to any and all land owners. Blacks and whites found themselves in debt and pushed into sharecropping, which often led to a cycle of debt. Reformers from the North (and some from the South) tried to help, but encountered resistance from the old elites. And let’s face it, not everyone who rushed to the South came with pure intentions and moral uprightness. For example, timber companies bought land for a song, paid people very low wages, stripped the forests to the ground, and relocated. They did the same thing in the north, too, but there were more people on the ground in the South. Discrimination against blacks continued in the North, in some cases intensifying as European immigrants began competing for jobs.

As the 1870s passed and it became apparent that in some areas, the white elites didn’t have any interest in the welfare of the poor whites. Political and economic movements like the Farmers’ Alliance began developing as a way to counter a common enemy: people who exploited small farmers and share croppers. These groups and movements were open to all people, and in a few cases began flexing some muscle. As 1877 and the “Redeemer” governments came in, the elites often found the unified farmers a touch too hot to want to handle. So divide and conquer returned with a vengeance.

“You may be poor, you may be chronically sick from malnutrition and parasites, but at least you’re not a [whatever],” can be a powerful phrase. The first voting restriction laws in the South were based on two things – ancestry and income. Literacy came later. Could your father or grandfather vote? If so, it implied that he’d had sufficient property to qualify, and so your family had been prosperous and semi-elite at some point. Could you pay a head tax? If not, well too bad. And in many states, at least for the first few years, the poll taxes applied to everyone. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman of South Carolina was a sterling example of a politician who didn’t care if whites suffered, so long as his people—the right sort—stayed in control. Pride is a powerful thing, and having someone to look down on, what some called “mud-sill people” meant that you were not the bottom of the system. Noblesse Oblige was powerful in the South, and those with money were expected to help those without, but carefully*, always mindful of pride. Especially in the uplands and border states. When people had nothing else, they had pride. That was one of the things that made Jim Crow so common, and so poisonous. At the economic bottom of the heap, pride let a man hold his head up. He wasn’t one of those.** And skin color made it easy to identify those.

As time passed, ways for poor whites to get around the anti-voting and anti-other thing laws developed, but not everywhere. And Jim Crow wasn’t universal. You still found places prosperous enough that blacks and whites worked, voted, and served on juries together in local and county matters. Texas was like that until after 1900, when it became a state rather than a local matter and Jim Crow became state law.

Not every white agreed with this system. Family members on both sides of my ancestry ignored Jim Crow as much as possible, or quietly worked around it to see that people got educations, legal assistance, and the like. But the elites liked Jim Crow, and it gave them a tool to use to divide and conquer. By the 1940s, the seams had started to fray, but tradition, economic changes that helped some but not others, and the social tension of the 1950s-60s started tearing at Jim Crow. The elites and the lowest held on the longest, and the end was not pretty. Neither were the riots in the North, where economic tension plus ethnic tension plus other things erupted in ways that most of the South missed.

*The Scots-Irish are touchy, prickly, and have strong feelings about being looked down on. Think Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, and feuding families like the McCoys. Their ancestors didn’t get tossed out of both Scotland and Ireland for nothing.

**To this day, in parts of Africa, if it is learned that a person had slave ancestors, they are treated as (at best‚) second class. After all, if their ancestors had had any sort of strength or brains, then they wouldn’t have been enslaved, so their offspring must also be inferior.

Books: The Mind of the South J. W. Cash. An old book, but telling in some ways, and still a starting point for those interested in the pre-air-conditioning South.

The Strange Career of Jim Crow C. Van Woodward. This book helped kick-start Southern history as an academic field, and although controversial today, makes good points about how Jim Crow developed. His essays in The Burden of Southern History are also excellent.

Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy by Stephen Kantrowitz is a biography of the fascinating and unpleasant architect of South Carolina’s Jim Crow laws. It’s a good read about a less-than-good person.


10 thoughts on “Jim Crow and Economics

  1. What? No love for Thomas Sowell’s “Black Rednecks”?

    The point-and-shriek crowd finds it hard to distinguish between “race relations got worse after the ACW” and “slavery was good”. (You’d think they’d be more receptive to a situation that actually largely supports their Marxist assumptions.)
    There’s a huge amount to unpack with respect to post-ACW race relations. But try to have a discussion over why the border states have worse race relations than the tidewater, or why Indiana was the seat of the 20th century Klan, and the trolls come piling out of the woodwork.
    If you mention the Confederate diaspora being mulatto within two generations, or that there were black members of the Planter class, it must be that you hate and fear black people. Because reasons.
    (I *do* have prejudices against the willfully ignorant, but that’s colorblind.)

    • The essays in _Black Rednecks, White Liberals_ are excellent, but I wanted to stick with monographs specifically on the topic.

  2. Perhaps related, perhaps not.. lynchings were NOT purely southern. They happened in Minnesota, as far north as Duluth! But when a black man was lynched in MN? (Yes, whites were lynched, too.) Then the outcry began in earnest. “We are NOT like those… racists!” And then the reforms, such as they were, began.

  3. Slavery was …weird in Texas, for sure. I found it curious that many slaves actually hired out for pay (and at skilled trades, more often than not), and it was considered grasping and greedy for their owner to take their wages; and a fair number of slaves bought their way out of that condition. IIRC, it was in the 1860 Census, only one slave owner in Texas owned more than 300 slaves – and the next-biggest slave owners owned considerably fewer.
    Then there was the interesting example of Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a white woman in the 1850s/1860ies who married a free mulatto man – this was on the frontier – whose free black father owned a general store and was said to be the wealthiest man in the county. Towards the end of the Civil War, Elizabeths’ father in law voluntarily signed himself into slavery as Elizabeth’s property; probably out of concern for his own safety. (A great deal of suspicion of free blacks, because of the war – he would have been much safer, being the property of his daughter-in-law.) Britt Johnson, another free black man, worked for Elizabeth as a ranch manager – and when she and her grandchildren (and Britt Johnson’s wife and children) were taken prisoner in a Comanche raid, Britt Johnson went into Indian Territory looking for them – with the support of white friends and neighbors.
    Yes, it was all curious and complicated.

    • Slave/freedmen in the skilled trades is definitely something that needs more discussion these days.

      I understand that if the 1619 project was essentially correct, we would not expect skilled tradesmen during that period.

      If slavery then were the main driver of poor economic situations now, we would expect that the driving economic behaviors now and immediately post war would have been the same.

  4. And the wokescolds are doing their ‘best’ to put us BACK to those days, with the attempts to raise race issues their backers want raised to divide this country once again… sigh

  5. Minstrel songs came in for W.S.Gilbert’s scorn in =The Mikado=: “There’s the banjo serenader and the others of his race.” It was originally “n****r serenader”, before the word gained its first stage of stigma.

    • Eddie Cantor seemed to have a blackface minstrel(-esqe – see: Roman Scandals) scene in every movie. In Kid Millions as he’s applying the blackface makeup, he remarks to the black servant, “You know, you’re lucky.” and the guy gives him *SUCH* a look… kinda.. subversive for 1934.

  6. I know one of the ways that Catholics earned a bad reputation was by helping educate blacks, illegally. (Didn’t do great for the home life, either, since their parishes ended up competing with the same folks for jobs….)

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