The American Revolution Reconsidered: Part Twenty-Four: Urban Slavery (Section E)
Now, if you have been following this series, you may be asking yourself, what exactly I mean when I say that: black urban slave labor seems to have formed a somewhat invisible cushion and support for free white labor, in the urban industrial sector, perhaps for the entire period of slavery up until before the American Civil War of the 1860s.
The key words are: invisible cushion and support.
As you know, one argument that is made about the Civil War is that slavery had to be destroyed, in order to open up opportunities for free white labor. The idea is that slave labor naturally had free white labor at a competitive disadvantage.
I am proposing the idea that there was no such "competition" between enslaved black labor and free white labor.
I am proposing that the two had been weaved together in a complimentary relationship. I am proposing that enslaved black labor picked up the slack, was the invisible cushion and support of free white labor.
To me, this is the vital missing link between conditions that the white urban industrial worker enjoyed before the Civil War, which can, as a shorthand, be described as "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," and those endured white urban industrial worker of the 1870s-1930s, a period which I am calling the re-enslavement of the white working class.
If you think I'm exaggerating about the former, the "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" thing, let me, again, invite you to check out a lecture given by Dr. Megan J. Elias, a historian. You can see this lecture on YouTube: "Eating the Past: Why and How To Study Food History." If you go to the 19:24 mark in the video, you can hear Dr. Elias describe the typical workday of the white industrial workers at the New York shipyards in the 1830s.
I can tell from the perplexed expression on your face, dear reader, as you read this, that it is still not quite clear, just precisely what I mean by the concept invisible cushion and support.
The best way to approach this may be through a contemporary analogy. Think about the government privatization/deregulation phenomenon that overtook public policy, in the United States and other countries, starting in, say, the 1980s.
You know, many years ago, I would hear a politician, on television, talk about reforming government by cutting it. He would say something to the effect that he planned to cut a certain government department from, for example, ten people to three.
I would hear something like that, and in my ignorance, think to myself: Wow! So he's saying that the same job can be done by only three people? I guess ten was wasteful and inefficient. Something like that.
Of course, that was never the real meaning. It turns out that ten people are needed to do the job, after all, and maybe even more.
It turns out that what said politician really means is that the number of actual government employees are to be cut to three; the other seven bodies are to be replaced by private contractors, at a rate of at least twice the pay of the government bureaucrat.
Economic journalist David Cay Johnston wrote, in a 2007 book: "Despite all the deregulation rhetoric, government grows ever larger. The number of federal government workers shrinks, but the ranks of people who are hired on contract of much greater cost increases. In 2000 workers hired on contract cost our federal government $207 billion. By 2006 this had swelled to $400 billion --- rivaling the expense of either Social Security or interest on the federal government's growing debt" (1).
Mr. Johnston let us know that contractors typically cost twice as much as civil servants, doing the same work. But here's the part that is most salient for our purposes: David Cay Johnston made the claim that government and companies collude in withdrawing contracts from the public record (2).
If that is true, it makes a lot of sense. You see, in this way, the private contractor acts as the invisible cushion and support for the claims of conservative politicians to have "cut government."
Does that make sense?
Now, once again, let me say that we know that there were about 400,000 slaves living in urban areas of the United States, in 1850; and that the vast majority must have surely been engaged in nonagricultural pursuits (3).
We also know that the period of 1840-1890 was the period in which the American economy became the most dynamic in the world, in a sense. Again, it was an economy "[f]lush enough to drive English dukes and French princes to wed American heiresses to secure their family estates," in the words of economic historian Kevin Phillips (4).
Basically, we've just been trying to reconcile those two factoids. And I must remind you all, that we must augment the 400,000 number of urban slaves. In Section D I laid out the circumstances created by American state legislatures, which, in effect, rendered the nominally free black population, effectively, little more than a reserve pool of slave labor, to be tapped when needed --- that is, during the nineteenth century before the Civil War.
It seems to me, that with the withdrawal of the invisible cushion and support of enslaved black urban labor, in the urban industrial sector, at the conclusion of the Civil War, and the nominal end of the slave period --- the American white working class found themselves re-enslaved.
In other words, after the end of the Civil War and the nominal end of the slave period, in 1865, the leaders of the United States' political and economic systems had a choice to make.
They could have decided to reconstruct working life, the urban industrial sector in particular, on a humane basis. Or they could have chosen another path...
The powers-that-be chose another path.
They apparently made the decision that the American economy was going to go right on, producing at levels that had been manifested throughout the slave period.
If they were going to do that, somebody had to be enslaved.
Politically, for the moment, blacks were nominally off the table.
That brings American history to the Hell that the white working class were subjected to, during the period of the 1870s-1930s. As you know, that is the period which I refer to as the re-enslavement of the American white working class.
Why do I call the years of the 1870s-1930s, the period of the re-enslavement of the American white working class?
Because it was.
First of all, child labor was widespread (5). That means ten and twelve-year olds working in factories, mines, getting black lung disease, and all that. I read an interesting thing about what helped bring child labor to an end in the United States. Its on Wikipedia, but I believe it because it fits.
It seems that one factor that helped bring an end to child labor to an end in the United States, was the Great Depression of the 1930s. It seems that during the Depression, adult men became so desperate for work that they were willing to work for children's wages (6).
This was the period in which American white women were working in typical third world-style garment sweat shops. This was exemplified by the 1911 tragedy, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of March 25. Thirty thousand New York garment workers hand-sewed clothing in more than six hundred death traps. The average pay for a fifty-six hour week was $6 --- that's one, two, three, four, five, six dollars (7).
A fire broke out in the eighth floor of the Asch Building. Many fire escapes were broken. The elevators stopped running. The doors had been locked so that workers could not leave the building until their shift was over. Out of desperation, many workers, crazed with fear, hair and clothing on fire, leaped out of windows as high as the tenth floor (8). And so on and so forth.
There was no concept of worker safety to speak of. Between 1888 and 1908, industrial accidents killed 700,000 American workers (9). That's about twelve 9/11s a year for twenty years!
Wages barely covered subsistence (10). The America of the 1870s-1930s, was a typical third world, export-driven economy in which the bulk of the population could not afford to buy the things they produced.
We know this, I think, because, by one estimate, 11 million of the 12.5 million American families, in 1890, got along on an average of $380/year and had to take in borders to survive. Organized and wildcat strikes were common, as was industrial sabotage. Employers used every means at their disposal to discipline workers, such as private security forces, and federal and state military troops (11).
The white male urban industrial worker, during this period, had to work, perhaps, fifteen hours a day without weekends off.
It would take decades of organizing, until around 1937, for the eight-hour day to become standard, with weekends off (12).
We have just one last thing to do.
Historians John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. tell us that the last sixteen years of the nineteenth century saw more than 2,500 lynchings. The vast majority of the victims had been African Americans. The states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana led the nation (13).
In the first year of the twentieth century, more than 100 blacks were lynched. Before the outbreak of World War One, however, the number had leaped to 1,100 blacks lynched. The south led the way, by far, with this (14).
But there were also race riots. As Franklin and Moss wrote: "The South was not the only area of America that was hostile to the Negro in the early years of the new century. Crowds of white hoodlums frequently attacked blacks in large Northern cities. On several occasions white dragged Negroes off the streetcars of Philadelphia, with cries of 'Lynch him! Kill him!' As the migration of Negroes to the North increased, hostility toward them grew. Some towns tolerated them; others did not. Syracuse, Ohio, forbade any Negroes to settle there, and several towns in Indiana did not permit any Negro residents within their limits" (15).
Again, Franklin and Moss: "Rioting in the North was as vicious and almost as prevalent as it was in the South. Springfield, Ohio, had two riots within a few years. The one in 1904 conformed perfectly to the pattern of violence that had characterized rioting in other parts of the country. In an altercation a Negro shot and killed a white officer. A mob gathered and broke into the jail where the Negro was being held. The citizens murdered the Negro in the doorway of the jail, hanged him to a telegraph pole, and riddled his body with bullets. They then proceeded to wreak destruction on the Negro section of town. When they had finished, eight buildings had been burned, many Negroes had been beaten, and others had fled, never to return" (16).
Notice: This anti-black violence happened after slavery. But it is within the period of the 1870s-1930s, which I have called the re-enslavement of the American white working class.
That period, after the nominal end of the slave period, is the period in which the previously invisible cushion and support of enslaved urban black labor was withdrawn.
That withdrawal led to the re-enslavement of the white working class.
What if that anti-black violence was, in some way, related to white urban industrial worker resentment at their re-enslavement; and, as usual, instead of properly directing their fury at their own political and economic elite, they victimized as scapegoats, the population of African descent?
Thank you so much for reading!
1. Johnston, David Cay. Free Lunch: How The Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves At Government Expense (And Stick You With The Bill). Portfolio, 2007. 20
3. Franklin, John Hope & Moss, Jr., Alfred A. From Slavery To Freedom: A History of Negro Americans. Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. (paperback). 121
4. Phillips, Kevin. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich. Broadway Books, 2002. 37
5. Korten, David C. When Corporations Rule the World. Berrett-Koehler & Kumarian Press, 1995. 59
6. Child Labor Laws in the United States. (2015, June 2). Retrieved June 30, 2015.
7. Uschan, Michael V. A Cultural History of the United States: Through the Decades: The 1910s. Lucent Books, Inc., 1999. 21
9. Korten, David C. When Corporations Rule the World. 59
12. Eight-hour Day. (2015, June 21). Retrieved June 30, 2015. (Wikipedia).
13. Franklin, John Hope & Moss, Jr., Alfred A. From Slavery To Freedom. 282
15. ibid, 284
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