Blog Post

“On The Defensive? Aren’t We?”: Historians Ensnared in Land, Labor, and Wealth Questions

Elizabeth Clark-Lewis

Booker T. Washington’s 1915 death encouraged the African American businessmen in a small Virginia village to organize a meeting revisiting the ideals he had outlined in his famous address to the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia.[1] Accepting the reality of racial segregation, Washington had insisted that African Americans could be included in the progress of the South. The day long program in Virginia, with “stay in place” discussions, had as its focus improving the status of African American men in the world of work.[2] This meeting directly influenced Walter Johnson, a business owner, who declared that it would not be commerce, industry, loyalty, fidelity or service to the white population, but political agency that would mean success. This capitalist stressed that until the community tried to stand against oppression—and improve their access to liberties whites shared—the shift to jobs outside the south would continue. Johnson said, “. . . people won’t stop leaving. We are doing poorly . . . [trying to stop] people leaving Catalpha, Brandy Station, or Success.”

This 1916 businessman’s compelling insight into the problems driving the complex interplay of economic, social, and political changes helps us understand why scholars are still on the “defense” today; why scholars still resist attempts to dynamically address racially proscribed economic problems in the United States. Exactly 100 years after that meeting Roger Splawn, an entrepreneur and great-nephew of Walter Johnson, stressed that in business —like politics— African Americans are all too often “thwarted in every effort” they make.

TheCapitalism and the Making and Unmaking of Black America” session had papers that focused on the precarious economic exigencies of African American life. Using the example of small landowning farmers, and brilliantly outlining how men, women and children patched together nonfarm labor employment to maintain cherished family-owned land, Adrienne Monteith Petty (City College of New York) explored how landownership gave African Americans a limited freedom, far more widespread than we understand today. She illustrated how the aspirations for land among the descendants of slaves, and the Pigford v. Glickman case data, are more enduring than historians imagine and more relevant now than ever.

Panelist Shane White (Univ. of Sydney) used a microeconomic exceptionalist model to explain wealth amassed by The Colored American Anti-Masonic Grocery Association and others. Starting in the 1830s, he revealed how these African Americans speculated in New York city real estate (the Times Square area today) like their white neighbors. White ended with numbers and spoke of the “brilliant Harlem success story” that evolved because majority financial institutions ignored this community. Yes, successful community-based organizations flourished in early New York but the work would be further enriched by incorporating the African American counter narrative of disgruntlement, hatred, and racial violence documented by Marcia Eisenberg in discussions at meetings of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.[3]

 William Julius Wilson (Harvard Univ.) has decades of publications about race-based discrimination in every facet of employment. At the session, he related how widespread jobless-driven poverty and employment denial across entire sectors of the labor market have harmed African American workers, their families, and their communities. The paper he read describedkey elements of joblessness; the persisting pathologies intertwined with unemployment; the dramatic decline of jobs that only needed a strong back; the African American workers’ (especially males) limited soft skills; and, the loss of casual networks for job leads.

Eric Arnesen (George Washington Univ.) followed with a paper on how African Americans have actively challenged trade union exclusion and white labor’s negative racial practices since the end of the Civil War. Unions were embraced strongly after the 1920s, but the Negro American Labor Council (created in 1960) reinforced African American’s concerns about the “gospel of unionism.” As the daughter of Edward Clark, a member and organizer for the United Steelworkers in Steelton, Pennsylvania, I feel this paper missed the enduring barriers African American unionists overcame—through challenging, imaginative, and underappreciated local campaigns—as agents of their own change.

I know the research of Petty will powerfully add the economic metadata valuable for the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Smithsonian, and historical organizations. The papers of Arnesen, Wilson, and White have sections that will invite responses from people who believe, as A. Philip Randolph did, that “the promise of a job is merely a hoax.”[4] Scholarly assessments often do not withstand or deter aggressive inquiry by people who share Kwame Nkrumah’s belief that capitalism is the gentleman’s method of slavery.[5] For too many people in poor communities of the United States, there are real disparities in job, pay, wealth gap, health, life expectancy, and justice;[6] and, they know the reality of being underrepresented in high-income positions and overrepresented in jails or lower-income jobs. (Jobs are hard labor, janitorial, food and personal service work.)[7]

One hundred years ago, Walter Johnson knew his extended family, church members, and community residents could never resist, remain undamaged or unaffected by the real economic enemy—racism. So he left the meeting, with an entrepreneurial strength undergirded by political agency, and with his brothers faced down people who tried to close his store and put his brothers out of their businesses. At this session’s end, like Johnson’s unapologetic stand against economic equivocation, questions from Robert Harris, Ida Jones, Gerald Early, and Barbara Ransby teased out difficult economic truths which left several scholars clearly “on the defensive.” In 2016 as this panel ended, why did the discussion of economics have several scholars “on the defensive?


Elizabeth Clark-Lewis is professor of history and public history program director at Howard University. She tweets @EClarkLewisHU.

[1] In this period many African American businesses were not allowed directly in a town in this area of Virginia where business and landowners had Racially Restrictive Covenants. The people in this meeting were from African American “villages” that were allowed to exist by code and custom. See Virginia Supreme Court finding on the NAACP challenges to Virginia’s Restrictive Covenant Cases: “Racial Zoning by Private Contract,” Virginia Law Register, XIII (1928), 526; For information on Virginia racism and racist laws, see J. Clay Smith, Emancipation The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844–1944. (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), 5, 10, 225–237, 245–246, 264.

[2] The Southern Negro Anti-Exodus Association, an organization founded in Virginia in 1906, “encouraged Negroes to stay in the South and not move to cities in the North.” See the Southern Negro Anti-Exodus Association in Florette Henri, Black Migration: Movement North, 1900–1920 (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1976), 74.

[3] See the “Statutes of the State of New York: Special, Private, and Local Statutes as a Genealogical Resource.” Tree Talks (Syracuse: Central New York Genealogical Society, 1991).

[4] Testimony of A. Philip Randolph, “Federal Role in Urban Affairs. Part 9.” Hearings before the Subcommittee on Executive Reorganization of the Committee on Government Operations. US Senate, Eighty-Ninth Congress, Second Session, December 6, 1966 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1967), 1994.

[5] See Kwame Nkrumah quote from Doreatha D. Mbalia Toni Morrison’s Developing Class Consciousness (Cranbury: Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp, 2004), 229 and Kwame Nkrumah Consciencism (Chicago: Monthly Review Press, 1964), 72.

[6] Jahi Issa “America Is Not Racist—It’s Just Ferguson.” Black Agenda Report, March 11, 2015.

[7] Martha Gethers, “That’s A Position, Not a Job.” Local Oral History Interviews file, Washingtoniana Room, Martin Luther King Library, October 1973, and Paul Phillips Cooke Papers, 1947–1992, Washingtoniana Collection, Martin Luther King Library, Washington, DC.


SESSION 4: Capitalism and the Making and Unmaking of Black America