Black Families and Labor Markets in the Post-Reconstruction Era

The argument that economic structure predicates family structure is certainly not new. Neither is the effort to ex­plain differences between the devel­opment of White and Black families in the United States. In approaching this topic, I am entering into one of the oldest questions in American Sociology – that is, the question of how to rightly understand the Black Ameri­cans in a context dominated by White norms. This debate can be dated back to W.E.B. Du­bois’ seminal work in 1905, The Souls of Black Folk, and was ignited by Frazier’s 1939 book The Negro Family in the United States. The most famous contribution to this debate on the Black family was the government-sponsored Moynihan Report in 1965 entitled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action; its thesis has been popularized as the “culture of pover­ty” or the “pathology of the Black family”. Un­doubtedly, Frazier’s and Moynihan’s theories have been modified and mischaracterized to the point that they have become reified, as so­cial facts, in that they now exist independent­ly of the authors’ intentions and have themselves exerted social force. In 1980, William Julius Wilson released his classic, The Declining Significance of Race, in which he argued, among other things, that the lives of Black Americans in period between the Civil War and World War II should be understood through the lens of the split-labor market.

Amid this general confusion and lack of strong consensus, a few theoretical frame­works for understanding the Black family have emerged: the cultural deviant, the cultural equivalent, and the cultural variant (Staples, 1993). The first posits the Black family struc­ture in the United States is deficient and thus, prone to pathological tendencies. The cultur­al equivalent model suggests the Black family is considered healthy when it conforms to middle-class norms. And lastly, the cultural variant model argues that the Black family is a different but functional family form. Of these models, my thesis leans closest to the cultur­al variant model. Black families were shaped structurally by economic forces outside of their control in the period directly following Reconstruction, and Black men and women were able effectively adopt a different family structure to adapt to their economic position.

In undertaking this study, I am adopting a theoretical framework of standpoint episte­mology, which attempts to understand people by taking their perspective as the point of ref­erence. Admittedly, I’m drawn to this frame­work because of my Christian faith, which declares that we are not the ultimate Judge but rather we are made equal in our nature, our sin, and finally in the radically equalizing re­demptive work of Christ.

The debate about Black families—wheth­er or not there is dysfunction, the nature of the dysfunction, and what has caused it—con­tinues to capture the modern imagination but without much resolution. Public intellectuals and political pundits seesaw between cultural and economic explanations. As lines get more clearly defined and arguments simplified, historical and sociological analyses are often lost and muddled. A thorough examination of labor participation in the period directly following Reconstruction reveals that African Americans were severely limited in economic opportunities, in different ways for men and women, which had direct impacts on the size and function of the Black family. I argue that Wilson’s emphasis on the split-labor market thesis misses out on the effect that different employment patterns, explained only through a dual-labor market, had on the structure of Black families. In particular, the White rul­ing class set up separate dual-labor markets for Black men and women, establishing the economic conditions under which millions of Black families started their own families for the first time. As a result, Black fathers had less financial influence and authority than their White counterparts, mothers had com­parably more influence in the financial and food security of their families, and Black com­munities came together to share childcare and domestic tasks.

Historical Background

To understand why the period between 1880 and 1920 was so important for Black families, we must first understand the histori­cal background of Black people in the United States. The first Africans to arrive in mod­ern day United States came as a result of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, widely regarded as the most brutal and dehumanizing system of slavery in human history. Millions of Africans were enslaved in Western Africa and if they survived the perilous journey across the At­lantic, joined the ranks of plantation workers in South, Central, and North America. After over two hundred years of enslavement, Af­rican Americans were freed following a civil war that tore the United States in two over the issue of slavery (Gilder Lehrman, 2016). How­ever, the struggle for full and meaningful free­dom was just beginning. The period following the Civil War and Reconstruction is broadly known as the Jim Crow Era, roughly spanning 1877 to the 1950s. This era was marked by le­gal discrimination and segregation, on both local and state levels, that withheld opportu­nities from Black Americans. I’ve chosen to focus this study on the years following the Re­construction, when Black Americans first had the opportunity to form their own families and before World War I, which dramatically altered the economic landscaped and sparked the Great Migration of Black Americans northward.

Though most Black Americans lived in two-parent families, 75% between 1880 and 1925, they differed from their White peers in that both parents worked and mothers were more influential in providing financial and food security (Staples, 1993). First I will dis­cuss labor conditions for Black men, in agri­culture and industry, and move to an analysis of the dual-labor market of Black women, in which the vast majority of Black women were domestic servants.

Black Men in Agriculture

In lower-tier agricultural jobs, recent research has suggested that White and Black sharecroppers received the same mean wag­es, demonstrating a fundamental flaw in the split-labor market thesis (Alston and Kauff­man, 2001). Further examination of the data reveals that Black men were disproportion­ately funneled into the lowest tiers of agri­cultural labor, with nearly 65% of Black men working as wage laborers and sharecroppers. In contrast, only 32.5% of Whites occupied positions in the bottom tier. Participation in the top tiers of owners, cash tenants, and share tenants was completely flipped—67.5% of White men and 36% of Black men held such positions (Alston and Kauffman, 2001). The inadequacy of the split-labor market theo­ry in explaining similar mean wages of White and Black sharecroppers is ameliorated by the dual-labor market thesis, which explains that although Blacks and Whites may have been paid the same in some instances, Black men were disproportionately represented in the lowest tiers of agricultural work.

And although White and Black share­croppers had similar mean wages, the data reveals that Black men were much more lim­ited in the range of their wages. The range of income for White sharecroppers (~$150-$250) was at least double that of Black share­croppers (~$175-$225) suggesting that White sharecroppers had an economic mobility not shared by their Black counterparts. This 1910 study of over 400,000 agricultural workers in Georgia demonstrates that not only were Black men relegated to the lowest positions of labor in agricultural work, but even with­in those sharecropper positions they did not share the structural mobility of their poor, White counterparts (Alston and Kauffman, 2001). Furthermore, White legislators enact­ed sunset laws throughout the United States that stipulated that farmers could not sell their produce after sunset, claiming safety con­cerns. However, in reality and in practice, this meant that poor farmers—disproportionately Black—who worked from sunrise to sunset, could not sell their produce on the market le­gally or without threat that White farmers or government officials could claim their crops as stolen (Reich, 2015). As a result of the du­al-labor market in agriculture, exacerbated by lack of mobility and laws that targeted Black farmers, Black men were not able to provide the same economic support for their families that White men could.

Low pay and low income mobility of Black men meant that the Black family could not survive without supplemental income. That supplemental income came from two sources: Black men taking on other jobs, and Black women, who disproportionately partic­ipated in the labor market. First, we will ex­amine the other sources of income for Black men.

Black Men in Industry

In the 30 years preceding 1880, wages of farmers had only increased 8% while the wag­es of non-farm work increased by 46% (Leb­ergott, 1960). The movement of high-paying job into industry began long before the end of Reconstruction but what it meant for Black families in this era was that in general, farm labor was becoming less attractive compared to non-farm labor (mostly industrial jobs). The low wages and economic insecurity of agricul­ture drove many Black men into seasonal man­ufacturing or industrial jobs in logging, min­ing, and factories to supplement their income. In choosing to supplement their income with temporary wage jobs, Black men had to leave their families for months at a time—leaving many Black mothers at the helm of household affairs. Others tried to get full-time work in manufacturing.

In 1890, manufacturing and mining made up a total of 30% of the nation’s Gross National Product (White, 2016). And yet, in that same year only 6.8% of Black men were employed full-time in manufacturing (Reich, 2015). Just as in agriculture, Black men faced a dual-labor market in manufacturing. They were given the most physically demanding, un­predictable, and unskilled jobs because White supervisors believed Black men were biologi­cally wired to do hard labor and mentally un­able to learn skills and trades. For example, 80% of Black railroad workers in the South worked outside doing the most grueling man­ual labor: laying and maintaining tracks. In the most dangerous jobs among the blast fur­naces of steel mills in Birmingham, Black men made up 90% of the work force. In whichever industry they entered, whether on a full-time or temporary basis, Black men found them­selves the most physically difficult and danger­ous jobs with the least pay-off and job security (Reich, 2015). Dual-labor market conditions for Blacks in manufacturing meant that Black men were overwhelmingly funneled into low-skilled, manual labor, with the lowest wages. Not only were Black men disproportionately funneled into unskilled jobs, but even those Black men who were able to enter into skilled work were strongly opposed by Whites.

In fact, the sentiment against Black men in skilled industry jobs was so strong that White labor unions were often mobilized to defend exclusive access to jobs and preserve White labor mobility through strikes. In a case that attracted national attention in 1909, eighty White firemen in Georgia went on strike to protest the hiring of Black firemen, sparking violence in the community (Reich, 2015). Even for Black men who managed to enter skilled occupations without violent opposition, lack of promotion severely limit­ed the economic potential of even the most skilled Black men. As was the case in agricul­ture, the labor participation of Black men in industry and manufacturing demonstrate dual-labor market conditions for Black men that constricted job access as well as wage and opportunity discrimination within available jobs.

Understanding that Black men faced not only a split-labor market, but rather a dual-la­bor market is critical to understanding how their labor participation impacted the Black family form. If Black men were paid less, but not systematically excluded from skilled jobs, they would not have to go far from the home to find wage employment and they would be able to bring home a living wage. In industry, those Black men who took part-time jobs were separated from their families for months of the year and those who worked full-time were forced into the lowest rungs of industry, jobs that were physically taxing and had the lowest wages with the most volatility.

The labor conditions under which Black men worked meant that they couldn’t support their families on one wage. Consequently, they never had the dominance and authority in the family that comes with complete finan­cial control, as would have been typical for a father in a White family. Furthermore, Black mothers had no choice but to work.

Black Women in Domestic Service

The dual labor market set up by White landowners and legislators ensured that the wages Black men earned, whether through wage labor in industry or farming, were not sufficient to support a family. As a conse­quence, and perhaps as a legacy of the lack of choice to work under slavery, almost all Black women worked. “Who didn’t work?” asked a Black woman from East Texas, who couldn’t conceive of a world in which work wasn’t the norm for African American wom­en (Clark-Lewis, 2010). Indeed, in 1880 Atlan­ta, Black women made up half of the Black working population—implying that their la­bor participation rate was equivalent to their male counterparts (Hunter, 2007). In con­trast, White women worked at dramatically lower rates – at least ten times less than Black women did (Katzman, 1978). And the White women who were employed transitioned quickly into the more lucrative positions in small manufacturing plants and clerical fields (Blair, 2007; Hunt 1997). For example, in the Northern city of Philadelphia, Dubois found that 46% of White women worked in industry while only 9% of Black women were able to share in the employment shift (1899).

For Black women who worked outside of the home, domestic service was almost always the only job available to them—evidence of yet another dual labor market. Dubois, in his study on Philadelphia, found that 88.5% of working Black women engaged in domestic or personal service (1899). Even in Chicago, the city of industry, 77% of working Black wom­en occupied positions in domestic service in 1890 (Blair, 2007). In Southern cities, the pro­portion was generally even higher. In 1900, 92% of working Black women in Atlanta were employed in domestic service (Hunter, 2007). Whatever the exact numbers are for each par­ticular locale, the pattern is clearly visible: working outside of the home was the only op­tion for the vast majority of Black women, and the vast majority of Black women worked in domestic service. Lack of opportunity to work in jobs other than domestic work evidences a clear dual-labor market for Black women, and this had incredible implications for Black fam­ily life.

In the South, the demand for the Black female domestic servant was fueled by White housewives’ need for help, a racial caste system that placed all Blacks in a servant class, and the presence of Black women as domestic servants was crucial to maintaining the institution of the White family (Wooten et al., 2012). The White American family values of the “cult of domesticity” and “Republican motherhood” tied virtuous womanhood to maintaining do­mestic affairs and controlling the home, and was enabled by the keeping of Black women as domestic servants. The expectation for White women to uphold these White American family values and to do so without strain, or at least to maintain the appearance of effort­lessness, was sustained by Black domestic ser­vants. Black domestic servants, just as Ehren­reich’s “Working Poor” do today (2001), were essential to supporting society as it functioned in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They served, as minimum wage workers serve today, as an unwilling but indispensible supporting class —sacrificing their time, labor, and own fami­lies to the function of society as a whole. In the case of post-Reconstruction society, how­ever, the supporting class was not defined by income or occupation but rather by race and gender. The costs sustained by Black families were high and incredibly important to under­stand. The dual-labor market for Black women in the 1880s through the early 1900s created the conditions for the Black family form that continued to impact families throughout the 20th century.

As their male counterparts, Black wom­en did not just face a split-labor market, where they were paid less for the same jobs, but rath­er a dual-labor market, where they were severe­ly restricted in the very jobs they were allowed to access. The importance in recognizing the difference lies in the implications that follow for the Black family form. It is because almost all Black women were domestic servants and could only find work as such that domestic ser­vitude had such an impact on the Black fami­ly. The average daily hours worked by domes­tic servants, as reported by domestic servants, was a little over 12 hours in 1900 (Katzman, 1978). Working an average of 12 hours a day meant that quite often, Black mothers could not return home and take care of their chil­dren in the same way that White mothers could. The actual time spent in their mistress­es’ house was likely longer–Katzman estimates that working days of 10-12 hours likely meant 12-15 hours in the employer’s home with af­ternoon and dinner breaks (1978). Conceiv­ably, if Black women were allowed access to the same jobs as White women but were paid less, as the split-labor market theory suggests, the shortened workday and workload would allow them to spend more time with their fam­ilies. However, in supporting the “Republican motherhood” of White women by working nearly the entire day, Black women were ef­fectively disallowed from providing the same type of service and care to their own children that they were expected to help White women provide to theirs.

Contrary to the logical assumption that the long hours and physically demanding na­ture of their work would mean lack of mother­ly influence on Black children, Black women did not become absentee mothers but rather adopted different family structures to best fit their economic position. They creatively as­serted control in whatever areas they could to create the best conditions possible for their families and themselves. Community ties were incredibly important for Black families in the South, where parents often could not afford to be at home during the day. Although two-parent families were overwhelmingly the norm among Black families (roughly 85% of all households had both parents), these fam­ilies frequently lived in a larger and looser network. Extended family and community ties became increasingly important in Black families. In a survey of Cotton Belt counties, Black households that reported extended or augmented family structures (families with ex­tended family or nonrelatives) increased from 19.5% in 1880 to nearly 27% in 1900. This means that in Black communities, responsi­bilities spilled over from the nuclear family and into the larger community (Jones, 1985). Black women especially, took on the roles of “othermothers” and treated the community’s children as their own—taking care of them when they had time off and helping out with the chores of other families when those moth­ers were working (Collins 2000).

Dubois found that formation of stronger communities also resulted from the practice of “living-out” (1898). The vast majority of Black women “lived-out,” meaning they chose to live outside of their employer’s homes even if they offered housing. In 1888, 90% of Black wom­en domestic servants chose to live-out in Mo­bile, Alabama. This is an obvious contrast to the structure of domestic work under slavery. For many Southern Blacks, living-out was seen as synonymous to emancipation (Katzman 1978). Not living with their employer meant that Black women were no longer at the beck and call of their White employers 24/7. They were able to establish homes that they could call distinctively their own and through liv­ing-out, Black women gained an amount of control over family life which had not been possible under slavery.

Furthermore, Black women routinely used quitting and taking time off as a way to balance control over financial security and care for their families. Because of the enor­mous demand for Black domestic servants–a tight labor market—Black women were able to leverage their position to ask for days off and quit if the conditions were not satisfactory. If these methods didn’t work, Black women would creatively use racial stereotypes to their advantage. Assumptions that Black people were inherently lazy or slow allowed Black women to take “extended breaks” during the day and go home to take care of their families. That is to say, if Black women were not given time off, they took it (Katzman 1978).

Finally, the employment of most Black women in domestic service also provided some level of food security for Black families. An often unspoken agreement between mis­tresses and domestic servants was that they could bring home extra food after their work. Known as the “food basket” or “pan-toting,” Black mothers commonly used this method to ensure that their families were fed (Reich, 2015; Katzman 1978). Through living-out, community sharing, creatively finding time to spend with family, and bringing food home from their employer’s kitchens, Black women were able to adapt their families to best fit the 12-15 hour workdays they faced as domestic servants in White homes.

In the period directly following Recon­struction, economic structures set up by the White ruling elite created two dual-labor mar­kets for African-Americans—one for men and one for women. These two dual-labor markets in tandem had a significant impact on the Black family form as millions of freed peoples were starting their own families for the first time. Consequently, men in Black families had less financial power and authority than White fathers, Black women wielded compa­rably more influence in financial and food security, and Black communities shared child­care and domestic tasks.

Through a theoretical framework of standpoint epistemology, I’ve attempted to uncover the relationship between economic opportunities and the family form, from the perspective of Black workers in the post-Re­construction Era by attempting to understand the conditions of choosing that Black men and women faced before trying to understand the structure of their families. Failure to take the Black family on their own terms and in their own contexts has led many cultural critics to assign blame Black culture for the high pover­ty and single-motherhood rates that seem to afflict the poor Black community.

Rather than judging the merits of the Black family against the yardstick of White middle-class family values that emerged from its own specific historical and economic con­text, I’ve attempted to understand the Black family against its own historical and economic context. My driving purpose in pursuing this project is Jesus’ care and concern for those in society whose voices are ignored. In the account of Jesus and the blind beggar (Luke 18:35-43), Jesus stops to care for a blind man who cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mer­cy on me!” In spite of the loud and chaotic crowd that followed Him, in spite of the at­tempts of that crowd to silence the beggar—and indeed, in spite of all of our attempts to silence others and draw attention to ourselves —Jesus stopped. He heard the man’s cries for mercy, the cries that others ignored in favor of their own. Our Lord, who stopped to care for one man while leading a crowd, undoubtedly cares for the cries of the oppressed in our so­ciety, who ask to be taken on their own terms.

In the heated conversation on the Black family, so few of our modern critics take the time to listen to and inquire from the voices of those whose lives shaped that very institu­tion–the Black workers and their families in the post-Reconstruction Era. This paper seeks to honor those women and men who, facing incredible odds in the economy, managed to survive and even thrive.


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