Thursday, February 21, 2013

Twenty-Five Years in the Black Belt: Where Lies the Negro's Opportunity?

Chapter 17: "Where Lies the Negro's Opportunity?", from the book Twenty-Five Years in the Black Belt, by William J. Edwards, published in 1918  --  The liberation and enfranchisement of four million of slaves in this country fifty years ago brought into the body politic a situation that has ever since been a bone of contention. Because of their ignorance, most of these people were without the slightest idea of the proper use, or the power, of the ballot, and but few could properly exercise this new and high prerogative.

As long as the federal troops remained in the South and supervised and controlled the elections, these newly-made citizens retained their rights, but when, during President Hayes’ administration, the troops were withdrawn, the South immediately set to work to remedy this condition. Starting with Mississippi in 1890, state after state disfranchised the Negro. Other discriminating laws have been enacted setting apart “Jim Crow” apartments for the Negro on all public carriers, establishing “Jim Crow” schools, and, in fact, segregating the two races in all public places wherever it is possible.

This action on the part of the South brought forth a storm of criticism from the North. The North accused the South of treating the Negro unjustly and taking from him his constitutional rights. The South answered the North, not by claiming its policy towards[Pg 105] the Negro to be right, but by accusing the North of hypocrisy; but both sections agree that the Negro should be made as useful as his capacities will permit, and that he should seek the place where this usefulness can be best secured.

This long and constant agitation has led thoughtful students of the race problem to ask the question:

Are the conditions in the South more conducive to the social efficiency of the Negro than those offered to him in the North? This is a vital question and a just answer to it will have a far-reaching and lasting effect upon the future welfare of the Negro race in this country. By social efficiency we mean that degree of development of the individual that will enable him to render the most effective service to himself, his family and to society. As has been defined, all will agree that social efficiency is the chief end of life.

In the North the Negro lives mostly in the large cities, while in the South he lives mostly in the rural or country districts. Both the North and the South will admit this fact; the opportunities offered in the North then must be largely the opportunities such as large cities can offer, those in the South must be largely such as country districts can offer.

But before further considering this question let us note for a moment the opportunities offered in the South and those offered in the North. It is true that, in the South, the Negro is disfranchised. It is also true that he suffers many other injustices in that section, but on the other hand he has a wide field of labor.

First of all he has almost an unlimited opportunity to farm. He is better adapted to farm work in that[Pg 106] section than either the native white man or the foreigner. He stands the heat better and can do more work under a burning Southern sun.

In railroad construction the Negro is preferred. The coal of the South is dug by Negro labor, the iron ore is picked from the bowels of the earth by his brawny muscles. The Negro finds work at the foundries, the great pipe furnaces, the rolling mills, car factories and other industries in the mineral districts. He is eagerly sought for the sawmills, the turpentine orchard, and in fact for almost every industry of the South.

Though the white man in the South is beginning to enter the field of industry, he has not entered to the extent that the Negro’s place is, in the least, in jeopardy. Such are the opportunities offered the Negro in the South, though he is largely deprived of political and social rights. These facts are admitted by both the North and the South.

Now what are the opportunities offered him in the North? First of all, the Negro is a free man in a political sense. He has the same right to vote that other citizens have and, too, he can vote according to the dictates of his own conscience.

President Roosevelt in his speech at Tuskegee in 1905, said that the colored people had opportunities for economic development in the South that are not offered to them elsewhere.

In the large cities of the North, where the Negro mostly lives, the chances for good health and the purchase of a home are not so good. The man with little means, such as the Negro usually is, must live in either[Pg 107] filthy streets or back alleys, where the air is foul and the environments are permeated with disease germs. For the lack of fresh air, pure food and proper exercise, his children are mere weaklings instead of strong and robust boys and girls.

Dr. Robert B. Bean of Ann Arbor, in his essay on “The Training of the Negro” in Century Magazine of October, 1906, said that in the large cities the Negro is being forced by competition into the most degraded and least remunerative occupations; that such occupations make them helpless to combat the blight of squalor and disease which are inevitable in these cities, and therefore many of them are being destroyed by them.

Negro stock yards workers receiving wages. ([1922])

Mr. Baker says:

“One of the questions I asked of Negroes whom I met both North and South was this:

“‘What is your chief cause of complaint?’

“In the South the first answer nearly always referred to the Jim Crow cars or the Jim Crow railroad stations; after that, the complaint was of political disfranchisement, the difficulty of getting justice in the courts, the lack of good school facilities, and in some localities, of the danger of actual physical violence.

“But in the North the first answer invariably referred to working conditions.

“‘The Negro isn’t given a fair opportunity to get employment. He is discriminated against because he is colored.’”

These conditions instead of promoting the social efficiency of the Negro, tend to degrade and demoralize him. The argument that the deprivation of the[Pg 108] Negro’s political and social rights in the South tends to crush his ambition, warp his aspirations and distort his judgment, is unsound, because his self-reliance, ambition and independence in the South can be traced partly to this very deprivation. By it he has been forced to establish his own schools, his own churches, educate his own children and train his own ministers. All of these make for self-reliance and independence and are therefore conducive to his social efficiency.  (source:

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