But the Brute said in his breast, "Till the mills I grind have ceased,
The riches shall be dust of dust, dry ashes be the feast!
"On the strong and cunning few
Cynic favors I will strew;
I will stuff their maw with overplus until their spirit dies;
From the patient and the low
I will take the joys they know;
They shall hunger after vanities and still an-hungered go.
Madness shall be on the people, ghastly jealousies arise;
Brother's blood shall cry on brother up the dead and empty skies."
WILLIAM VAUGHN MOODY.
[On the meaning of the bar of music]
Have you ever seen a cotton-field white with harvest, --its golden fleece hovering above the black earth like a silvery cloud edgedwith dark green, its bold white signals waving like the foam of billows fromCarolina to Texas across that Black and human Sea? I have sometimes halfsuspected that here the winged ram Chrysomallus left that Fleece after whichJason and his Argonauts went vaguely wandering into the shadowy East threethousand years ago; and certainly one
might frame a pretty and not far-fetched analogy of witchery and dragons'teeth, and blood and armed men, between the ancient and the modern quest of theGolden Fleece in the Black Sea.
And now the golden fleece is found; not only found, but,in its birthplace, woven. For the hum of the cotton-mills is the newest andmost significant thing in the New South to-day. All through the Carolinas andGeorgia, away down to Mexico, rise these gaunt red buildings, bare and homely,and yet so busy and noisy withal that they scarce seem to belong to the slowand sleepy land. Perhaps they sprang from dragons' teeth. So the Cotton Kingdomstill lives; the world still bows beneath her sceptre. Even the markets thatonce defied the parvenu have crept one by one across the seas, and thenslowly and reluctantly, but surely, have started toward the Black Belt.
To be sure, there are those who wag their heads knowinglyand tell us that the capital of the Cotton Kingdom has moved from the Black tothe White Belt, -- that the Negro of to-day raises not more than half of thecotton crop. Such men forget that the cotton crop has doubled, and more thandoubled, since the era of slavery, and that, even granting their contention,the Negro is still supreme in a Cotton Kingdom larger than that on which theConfederacy builded its hopes. So the Negro forms to-day one of the chieffigures in a great world-industry; and this, for its own sake, and in the lightof historic interest, makes the field-hands of the cotton country worthstudying.
We seldom study the condition of the Negro to-dayhonestly and carefully. It is so much easier to assume that we know it all. Orperhaps, having already reached conclusions in our own minds, we are loth tohave them disturbed by facts. And yet how little we really know of thesemillions, -- of their daily lives and longings, of their homely joys andsorrows, of their real shortcomings and the meaning of their crimes! All thiswe can only learn by intimate contact with the masses, and not by wholesalearguments covering millions separate in time and space, and differing widely intraining and culture. To-day, then, my reader, let us turn our faces to
the Black Belt of Georgia and seek simply to know the condition of the blackfarm-laborers of one county there.
Here in 1890 lived ten thousand Negroes and two thousandwhites. The country is rich, yet the people are poor. The keynote of the BlackBelt is debt; not commercial credit, but debt in the sense of continuedinability on the part of the mass of the population to make income coverexpense. This is the direct heritage of the South from the wasteful economiesof the slave regime; but it was emphasized and brought to a crisis bythe Emancipation of the slaves. In 1860, Dougherty County had six thousandslaves, worth at least two and a half millions of dollars; its farms wereestimated at three millions, -- making five and a half millions of property,the value of which depended largely on the slave system, and on the speculativedemand for land once marvellously rich but already partially devitalized bycareless and exhaustive culture. The war then meant a financial crash; in placeof the five and a half millions of 1860, there remained in 1870 only farmsvalued at less than two millions. With this came increased competition incotton culture from the rich lands of Texas; a steady fall in the normal priceof cotton followed, from about fourteen cents a pound in 1860 until it reachedfour cents in 1898. Such a financial revolution was it that involved the ownersof the cotton-belt in debt. And if things went ill with the master, how faredit with the man?
The plantations of Dougherty County in slavery days werenot as imposing and aristocratic as those of Virginia. The Big House wassmaller and usually one-storied, and sat very near the slave cabins. Sometimesthese cabins stretched off on either side like wings; sometimes only on oneside, forming a double row, or edging the road that turned into the plantationfrom the main thoroughfare. The form and disposition of the laborers' cabinsthroughout the Black Belt is to-day the same as in slavery days. Some live inthe self-same cabins, others in cabins rebuilt on the sites of the old. All aresprinkled in little groups over the face of the land, centering about somedilapidated Big House where the head-tenant or agent lives. The generalcharacter and arrangement of these dwellings remains on the whole unaltered.There were in the county, outside the corporate town of Albany, about fifteenhundred
Negro families in 1898. Out of all these, only a single family occupied a housewith seven rooms; only fourteen have five rooms or more. The mass live inone-and two-room homes.
The size and arrangements of a people's homes are nounfair index of their condition. If, then, we inquire more carefully into theseNegro homes, we find much that is unsatisfactory. All over the face of the landis the one-room cabin, -- now standing in the shadow of the Big House, nowstaring at the dusty road, now rising dark and sombre amid the green of thecotton-fields. It is nearly always old and bare, built of rough boards, andneither plastered nor ceiled. Light and ventilation are supplied by the singledoor and by the square hole in the wall with its wooden shutter. There is noglass, porch, or ornamentation without. Within is a fireplace, black and smoky,and usually unsteady with age. A bed or two, a table, a wooden chest, and a fewchairs compose the furniture; while a stray show-bill or a newspaper makes upthe decorations for the walls. Now and then one may find such a cabin keptscrupulously neat, with merry steaming fireplaces and hospitable door; but themajority are dirty and dilapidated, smelling of eating and sleeping, poorlyventilated, and anything but homes.
Above all, the cabins are crowded. We have come toassociate crowding with homes in cities almost exclusively. This is primarilybecause we have so little accurate knowledge of country life. Here in DoughertyCounty one may find families of eight and ten occupying one or two rooms, andfor every ten rooms of house accommodation for the Negroes there aretwenty-five persons. The worst tenement abominations of New York do not haveabove twenty-two persons for every ten rooms. Of course, one small, close roomin a city, without a yard, is in many respects worse than the larger singlecountry room. In other respects it is better; it has glass windows, a decentchimney, and a trustworthy floor. The single great advantage of the Negropeasant is that he may spend most of his life outside his hovel, in the openfields.
There are four chief causes of these wretched homes:First, long custom born of slavery has assigned such homes to Negroes; whitelaborers would be offered better accommodations, and might, for that andsimilar reasons, give better
work. Secondly, the Negroes, used to such accommodations, do not as a ruledemand better; they do not know what better houses mean. Thirdly, the landlordsas a class have not yet come to realize that it is a good business investmentto raise the standard of living among labor by slow and judicious methods; thata Negro laborer who demands three rooms and fifty cents a day would give moreefficient work and leave a larger profit than a discouraged toiler herding hisfamily in one room and working for thirty cents. Lastly, among such conditionsof life there are few incentives to make the laborer become a better farmer. Ifhe is ambitious, he moves to town or tries other labor; as a tenant-farmer hisoutlook is almost hopeless, and following it as a makeshift, he takes the housethat is given him without protest.
In such homes, then, these Negro peasants live. Thefamilies are both small and large; there are many single tenants, -- widows andbachelors, and remnants of broken groups. The system of labor and the size ofthe houses both tend to the breaking up of family groups: the grown children goaway as contract hands or migrate to town, the sister goes into service; and soone finds many families with hosts of babies, and many newly married couples,but comparatively few families with half-grown and grown sons and daughters.The average size of Negro families has undoubtedly decreased since the war,primarily from economic stress. In Russia over a third of the bridegrooms andover half the brides are under twenty; the same was true of the antebellumNegroes. Today, however, very few of the boys and less than a fifth of theNegro girls under twenty are married. The young men marry between the ages oftwenty-five and thirty-five; the young women between twenty and thirty. Suchpostponement is due to the difficulty of earning sufficient to rear and supporta family; and it undoubtedly leads, in the country districts, to sexualimmorality. The form of this immorality, however, is very seldom that ofprostitution, and less frequently that of illegitimacy than one would imagine.Rather, it takes the form of separation and desertion after a family group hasbeen formed. The number of separated persons is thirty-five to the thousand, --a very large number. It would of course be unfair to compare this number withdivorce
statistics, for many of these separated women are in reality widowed, were thetruth known, and in other cases the separation is not permanent. Nevertheless,here lies the seat of greatest moral danger. There is little or no prostitutionamong these Negroes, and over three-fourths of the families, as found byhouse-to-house investigation, deserve to be classed as decent people withconsiderable regard for female chastity. To be sure, the ideas of the masswould not suit New England, and there are many loose habits and notions. Yetthe rate of illegitimacy is undoubtedly lower than in Austria or Italy, and thewomen as a class are modest. The plague- spot in sexual relations is easymarriage and easy separation. This is no sudden development, nor the fruit ofEmancipation. It is the plain heritage from slavery. In those days Sam, withhis master's consent, "took up" with Mary. No ceremony was necessary,and in the busy life of the great planta- tions of the Black Belt it wasusually dispensed with. If now the master needed Sam's work in anotherplantation or in another part of the same plantation, or if he took a notion tosell the slave, Sam's married life with Mary was usually unceremoniouslybroken, and then it was clearly to the master's interest to have both of themtake new mates. This widespread custom of two centuries has not been eradicatedin thirty years. To-day Sam's grandson "takes up" with a womanwithout license or ceremony; they live together decently and honestly, and are,to all intents and purposes, man and wife. Sometimes these unions are neverbroken until death; but in too many cases family quarrels, a roving spirit, arival suitor, or perhaps more frequently the hopeless battle to support afamily, lead to separation, and a broken house-hold is the result. The Negrochurch has done much to stop this practice, and now most marriage ceremoniesare performed by the pastors. Nevertheless, the evil is still deep seated, andonly a general raising of the standard of living will finally cure it.
Looking now at the county black population as a whole, itis fair to characterize it as poor and ignorant. Perhaps ten per cent composethe well-to-do and the best of the laborers, while at least nine per cent arethoroughly lewd and vicious. The rest, over eighty per cent, are poor andignorant, fairly
honest and well meaning, plodding, and to a degree shiftless, with some but notgreat sexual looseness. Such class lines are by no means fixed; they vary, onemight almost say, with the price of cotton. The degree of ignorance cannoteasily be expressed. We may say, for instance, that nearly two-thirds of themcannot read or write. This but partially expresses the fact. They are ignorantof the world about them, of modern economic organization, of the function ofgovernment, of individual worth and possibilities, -- of nearly all thosethings which slavery in self-defence had to keep them from learning. Much thatthe white boy imbibes from his earliest social atmosphere forms the puzzlingproblems of the black boy's mature years. America is not another word forOpportunity to all her sons.
It is easy for us to lose ourselves in details inendeavoring to grasp and comprehend the real condition of a mass of humanbeings. We often forget that each unit in the mass is a throbbing human soul.Ignorant it may be, and poverty stricken, black and curious in limb and waysand thought; and yet it loves and hates, it toils and tires, it laughs andweeps its bitter tears, and looks in vague and awful longing at the grimhorizon of its life, -- all this, even as you and I. These black thousands arenot in reality lazy; they are improvident and careless; they insist on breakingthe monotony of toil with a glimpse at the great town-world on Saturday; theyhave their loafers and their rascals; but the great mass of them workcontinuously and faithfully for a return, and under circumstances that wouldcall forth equal voluntary effort from few if any other modern laboring class.Over eighty-eight per cent of them -- men, women, and children -- are farmers.Indeed, this is almost the only industry. Most of the children get theirschooling after the "crops are laid by," and very few there are thatstay in school after the spring work has begun. Child-labor is to be found herein some of its worst phases, as fostering ignorance and stunting physicaldevelopment. With the grown men of the county there is little variety in work:thirteen hundred are farmers, and two hundred are laborers, teamsters, etc.,including twenty-four artisans, ten merchants, twenty-one preachers, and fourteachers. This narrowness of life reaches its maximum among the women: thirteenhundred
and fifty of these are farm laborers, one hundred are servants and washerwomen,leaving sixty-five housewives, eight teach- ers, and six seamstresses.
Among this people there is no leisure class. We oftenforget that in the United States over half the youth and adults are not in theworld earning incomes, but are making homes, learning of the world, or restingafter the heat of the strife. But here ninety-six per cent are toiling; no onewith leisure to turn the bare and cheerless cabin into a home, no old folks tosit beside the fire and hand down traditions of the past; little of carelesshappy childhood and dreaming youth. The dull monotony of daily toil is brokenonly by the gayety of the thoughtless and the Saturday trip to town. The toil,like all farm toil, is monotonous, and here there are little machinery and fewtools to relieve its burdensome drudgery. But with all this, it is work in thepure open air, and this is something in a day when fresh air is scarce.
The land on the whole is still fertile, despite longabuse. For nine or ten months in succession the crops will come if asked:garden vegetables in April, grain in May, melons in June and July, hay inAugust, sweet potatoes in September, and cotton from then to Christmas. And yeton two-thirds of the land there is but one crop, and that leaves the toilers indebt. Why is this?
Away down the Baysan road, where the broad flat fieldsare flanked by great oak forests, is a plantation; many thou- sands of acres itused to run, here and there, and beyond the great wood. Thirteen hundred humanbeings here obeyed the call of one, -- were his in body, and largely in soul.One of them lives there yet, -- a short, stocky man, his dull-brown face seamedand drawn, and his tightly curled hair gray- white. The crops? Just tolerable,he said; just tolerable. Get- ting on? No -- he wasn't getting on at all. Smithof Albany "furnishes" him, and his rent is eight hundred pounds ofcotton. Can't make anything at that. Why didn't he buy land! Humph! Takes moneyto buy land. And he turns away. Free! The most piteous thing amid all the blackruin of war-time, amid the broken fortunes of the masters, the blighted hopesof mothers and maidens, and the fall of an empire, -- the most piteous thingamid all this was the black freedman who threw
down his hoe because the world called him free. What did such a mockery offreedom mean? Not a cent of money, not an inch of land, not a mouthful ofvictuals, -- not even ownership of the rags on his back. Free! On Saturday,once or twice a month, the old master, before the war, used to dole out baconand meal to his Negroes. And after the first flush of freedom wore off, and histrue helplessness dawned on the freedman, he came back and picked up his hoe,and old master still doled out his bacon and meal. The legal form of servicewas theoretically far different; in practice, task-work or "cropping"was substituted for daily toil in gangs; and the slave gradually became ametayer, or tenant on shares, in name, but a laborer with indeterminate wagesin fact.
Still the price of cotton fell, and gradually thelandlords deserted their plantations, and the reign of the merchant began. Themerchant of the Black Belt is a curious institution, -- part banker, partlandlord, part banker, and part despot. His store, which used most frequentlyto stand at the cross-roads and become the centre of a weekly village, has nowmoved to town; and thither the Negro tenant follows him. The merchant keepseverything, -- clothes and shoes, coffee and sugar, pork and meal, canned anddried goods, wagons and ploughs, seed and fertilizer, -- and what he has not instock he can give you an order for at the store across the way. Here, then,comes the tenant, Sam Scott, after he has contracted with some absentlandlord's agent for hiring forty acres of land; he fingers his hat nervouslyuntil the merchant finishes his morning chat with Colonel Saunders, and callsout, "Well, Sam, what do you want?" Sam wants him to"furnish" him, -- i.e., to advance him food and clothing for theyear, and perhaps seed and tools, until his crop is raised and sold. If Samseems a favorable subject, he and the merchant go to a lawyer, and Sam executesa chattel mortgage on his mule and wagon in return for seed and a week'srations. As soon as the green cotton-leaves appear above the ground, anothermortgage is given on the "crop." Every Saturday, or at longerintervals, Sam calls upon the merchant for his "rations"; a family offive usually gets about thirty pounds of fat side-pork and a couple of bushelsof cornmeal a month. Besides this, clothing and shoes must be furnished; if Samor his family is sick, there are orders on the druggist and
doctor; if the mule wants shoeing, an order on the black- smith, etc. If Sam isa hard worker and crops promise well, he is often encouraged to buy more, --sugar, extra clothes, perhaps a buggy. But he is seldom encouraged to save.When cotton rose to ten cents last fall, the shrewd merchants of DoughertyCounty sold a thousand buggies in one season, mostly to black men.
The security offered for such transactions -- a crop andchattel mortgage -- may at first seem slight. And, indeed, the merchants tellmany a true tale of shiftlessness and cheating; of cotton picked at night,mules disappearing, and tenants absconding. But on the whole the merchant ofthe Black Belt is the most prosperous man in the section. So skilfully and soclosely has he drawn the bonds of the law about the tenant, that the black manhas often simply to choose between pauperism and crime; he "waives"all homestead exemptions in his contract; he cannot touch his own mortgagedcrop, which the laws put almost in the full control of the land-owner and ofthe merchant. When the crop is growing the merchant watches it like a hawk; assoon as it is ready for market he takes possession of it, sells it, pays thelandowner his rent, subtracts his bill for supplies, and if, as sometimeshappens, there is anything left, he hands it over to the black serf for hisChristmas celebration.
The direct result of this system is an all-cotton schemeof agriculture and the continued bankruptcy of the tenant. The currency of theBlack Belt is cotton. It is a crop always salable for ready money, not usuallysubject to great yearly fluctuations in price, and one which the Negroes knowhow to raise. The landlord therefore demands his rent in cotton, and themerchant will accept mortgages on no other crop. There is no use asking theblack tenant, then, to diversify his crops, -- he cannot under this system.Moreover, the system is bound to bankrupt the tenant. I remember once meeting alittle one-mule wagon on the River road. A young black fellow sat in it drivinglistlessly, his elbows on his knees. His dark-faced wife sat beside him,stolid, silent.
"Hello!" cried my driver, -- he has a mostimprudent way of addressing these people, though they seem used to it, --"what have you got there?"
"Meat and meal," answered the man, stopping. Themeat lay uncovered in the bottom of the wagon, -- a great thin side of fat porkcovered with salt; the meal was in a white bushel bag.
"What did you pay for that meat?"
"Ten cents a pound." It could have been boughtfor six or seven cents cash.
"And the meal?"
"Two dollars." One dollar and ten cents is thecash price in town. Here was a man paying five dollars for goods which he couldhave bought for three dollars cash, and raised for one dollar or one dollar anda half.
Yet it is not wholly his fault. The Negro farmer startedbehind, -- started in debt. This was not his choosing, but the crime of thishappy-go-lucky nation which goes blundering along with its Reconstructiontragedies, its Spanish war interludes and Philippine matinees, just as thoughGod really were dead. Once in debt, it is no easy matter for a whole race toemerge.
In the year of low-priced cotton, 1898, out of threehundred tenant families one hundred and seventy-five ended their year's work indebt to the extent of fourteen thousand dollars; fifty cleared nothing, and theremaining seventy-five made a total profit of sixteen hundred dollars. The netindebtedness of the black tenant families of the whole county must have been atleast sixty thousand dollars. In a more prosperous year the situation is farbetter; but on the average the majority of tenants end the year even, or indebt, which means that they work for board and clothes. Such an economicorganization is radically wrong. Whose is the blame?
The underlying causes of this situation are complicatedbut discernible. And one of the chief, outside the carelessness of the nationin letting the slave start with nothing, is the widespread opinion among themerchants and employers of the Black Belt that only by the slavery of debt canthe Negro be kept at work. Without doubt, some pressure was necessary at thebeginning of the free-labor system to keep the listless and lazy at work; andeven to-day the mass of the Negro laborers need stricter guardianship than mostNorthern laborers. Behind this honest and widespread opinion dishonesty
and cheating of the ignorant laborers have a good chance to take refuge. And toall this must be added the obvious fact that a slave ancestry and a system ofunrequited toil has not improved the efficiency or temper of the mass of blacklaborers. Nor is this peculiar to Sambo; it has in history been just as true ofJohn and Hans, of Jacques and Pat, of all ground-down peasantries. Such is thesituation of the mass of the Negroes in the Black Belt to-day; and they arethinking about it. Crime, and a cheap and dangerous socialism, are theinevitable results of this pondering. I see now that ragged black man sittingon a log, aimlessly whittling a stick. He muttered to me with the murmur ofmany ages, when he said: "White man sit down whole year; Nigger work dayand night and make crop; Nigger hardly gits bread and meat; white man sittin'down gits all. It's wrong." And what do the better classes ofNegroes do to improve their situation? One of two things: if any way possible,they buy land; if not, they migrate to town. Just as centuries ago it was noeasy thing for the serf to escape into the freedom of town-life, even so to-daythere are hindrances laid in the way of county laborers. In considerable partsof all the Gulf States, and especially in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas,the Negroes on the plantations in the back-country districts are still held atforced labor practically without wages. Especially is this true in districtswhere the farmers are composed of the more ignorant class of poor whites, andthe Negroes are beyond the reach of schools and intercourse with theiradvancing fellows. If such a peon should run away, the sheriff, elected bywhite suffrage, can usually be depended on to catch the fugitive, return him,and ask no questions. If he escape to another county, a charge of pettythieving, easily true, can be depended upon to secure his return. Even if someunduly officious person insist upon a trial, neighborly comity will probablymake his conviction sure, and then the labor due the county can easily bebought by the master. Such a system is impossible in the more civilized partsof the South, or near the large towns and cities; but in those vast stretchesof land beyond the telegraph and the newspaper the spirit of the ThirteenthAmendment is sadly broken. This represents the lowest economic depths of theblack American peasant; and in a study of the rise and
condition of the Negro freeholder we must trace his economic progress from themodern serfdom.
Even in the better-ordered country districts of the Souththe free movement of agricultural laborers is hindered by the migration-agentlaws. The "Associated Press" recently informed the world of thearrest of a young white man in Southern Georgia who represented the"Atlantic Naval Supplies Company," and who "was caught in theact of enticing hands from the turpentine farm of Mr. John Greer." Thecrime for which this young man was arrested is taxed five hundred dollars foreach county in which the employment agent proposes to gather laborers for workoutside the State. Thus the Negroes' ignorance of the labor-market outside hisown vicinity is increased rather than diminished by the laws of nearly everySouthern State.
Similar to such measures is the unwritten law of the backdistricts and small towns of the South, that the character of all Negroesunknown to the mass of the community must be vouched for by some white man.This is really a revival of the old Roman idea of the patron under whoseprotection the new-made freedman was put. In many instances this system hasbeen of great good to the Negro, and very often under the protection andguidance of the former master's family, or other white friends, the freedmanprogressed in wealth and morality. But the same system has in other casesresulted in the refusal of whole communities to recognize the right of a Negroto change his habitation and to be master of his own fortunes. A black strangerin Baker County, Georgia, for instance, is liable to be stopped anywhere on thepublic highway and made to state his business to the satisfaction of any whiteinterrogator. If he fails to give a suitable answer, or seems too independentor "sassy," he may be arrested or summarily driven away.
Thus it is that in the country districts of the South, bywritten or unwritten law, peonage, hindrances to the migration of labor, and asystem of white patronage exists over large areas. Besides this, the chance forlawless oppression and illegal exactions is vastly greater in the country thanin the city, and nearly all the more serious race disturbances of the lastdecade have arisen from disputes in the count between
master and man, -- as, for instance, the Sam Hose affair. As a result of such asituation, there arose, first, the Black Belt; and, second, the Migration toTown. The Black Belt was not, as many assumed, a movement toward fields oflabor under more genial climatic conditions; it was primarily a huddling forself-protection, -- a massing of the black popu- lation for mutual defence inorder to secure the peace and tranquillity necessary to economic advance. Thismovement took place between Emancipation and 1880, and only partiallyaccomplished the desired results. The rush to town since 1880 is thecounter-movement of men disappointed in the economic opportunities of the BlackBelt.
In Dougherty County, Georgia, one can see easily theresults of this experiment in huddling for protection. Only ten per cent of theadult population was born in the county, and yet the blacks outnumber thewhites four or five to one. There is undoubtedly a security to the blacks intheir very numbers, -- a personal freedom from arbitrary treatment, which makeshundreds of laborers cling to Dougherty in spite of low wages and economicdistress. But a change is coming, and slowly but surely even here theagricultural laborers are drifting to town and leaving the broad acres behind.Why is this? Why do not the Negroes become land-owners, and build up the blacklanded peasantry, which has for a generation and more been the dream ofphilanthropist and statesman?
To the car-window sociologist, to the man who seeks tounderstand and know the South by devoting the few leisure hours of a holidaytrip to unravelling the snarl of centuries, -- to such men very often the wholetrouble with the black fieldhand may be summed up by Aunt Ophelia's word,"Shiftless!" They have noted repeatedly scenes like one I saw lastsummer. We were riding along the highroad to town at the close of a long hotday. A couple of young black fellows passed us in a muleteam, with severalbushels of loose corn in the ear. One was driving, listlessly bent forward, hiselbows on his knees, -- a happy-go-lucky, careless picture of irresponsibility.The other was fast asleep in the bottom of the wagon. As we passed we noticedan ear of corn fall from the wagon. They never saw it, -- not they. A rodfarther on we noted another ear on the ground; and between that creeping mule
and town we counted twenty-six ears of corn. Shiftless? Yes, thepersonification of shiftlessness. And yet follow those boys: they are not lazy;to-morrow morning they'll be up with the sun; they work hard when they do work,and they work willingly. They have no sordid, selfish, money-getting ways, butrather a fine disdain for mere cash. They'll loaf before your face and workbehind your back with good-natured honesty. They'll steal a watermelon, andhand you back your lost purse intact. Their great defect as laborers lies intheir lack of incentive beyond the mere pleasure of physical exertion. They arecareless because they have not found that it pays to be careful; they areimprovident because the improvident ones of their acquaintance get on about aswell as the provident. Above all, they cannot see why they should take unusualpains to make the white man's land better, or to fatten his mule, or save hiscorn. On the other hand, the white land-owner argues that any attempt toimprove these laborers by increased responsibility, or higher wages, or betterhomes, or land of their own, would be sure to result in failure. He shows hisNorthern visitor the scarred and wretched land; the ruined mansions, theworn-out soil and mortgaged acres, and says, This is Negro freedom!
Now it happens that both master and man have just enoughargument on their respective sides to make it difficult for them to understandeach other. The Negro dimly personifies in the white man all his ills andmisfortunes; if he is poor, it is because the white man seizes the fruit of histoil; if he is ignorant, it is because the white man gives him neither time norfacilities to learn; and, indeed, if any misfortune happens to him, it isbecause of some hidden machinations of "white folks." On the otherhand, the masters and the masters' sons have never been able to see why theNegro, instead of settling down to he day-laborers for bread and clothes, areinfected with a silly desire to rise in the world, and why they are sulky,dissatisfied, and careless, where their fathers were happy and dumb andfaithful. "Why, you niggers have an easier time than I do," said apuzzled Albany merchant to his black customer. "Yes," he replied,"and so does yo' hogs."
Taking, then, the dissatisfied and shiftless field-handas a starting-point, let us inquire how the black thousands of
Dougherty have struggled from him up toward their ideal, and what that idealis. All social struggle is evidenced by the rise, first of economic, then ofsocial classes, among a homogeneous population. To-day the following economicclasses are plainly differentiated among these Negroes.
A "submerged tenth" of croppers, with a fewpaupers; forty per cent who are metayers and thirty-nine per cent ofsemi-metayers and wage-laborers. There are left five per cent of money-rentersand six per cent of freeholders, -- the "Upper Ten" of the land. Thecroppers are entirely without capital, even in the limited sense of food ormoney to keep them from seed-time to harvest. All they furnish is their labor;the land-owner furnishes land, stock, tools, seed, and house; and at the end ofthe year the laborer gets from a third to a half of the crop. Out of his share,however, comes pay and interest for food and clothing advanced him during theyear. Thus we have a laborer without capital and without wages, and an employerwhose capital is largely his employ- ees' wages. It is an unsatisfactoryarrangement, both for hirer and hired, and is usually in vogue on poor landwith hard- pressed owners.
Above the croppers come the great mass of the blackpopulation who work the land on their own responsibility, paying rent in cottonand supported by the crop-mortgage system. After the war this system wasattractive to the freedmen on account of its larger freedom and its possibilityfor making a surplus. But with the carrying out of the crop-lien system, thedeterioration of the land, and the slavery of debt, the position of themetayers has sunk to a dead level of practically unrewarded toil. Formerly alltenants had some capital, and often considerable; but absentee landlordism,rising rack- rent, and failing cotton have stripped them well-nigh of all, andprobably not over half of them to-day own their mules. The change from cropperto tenant was accomplished by fixing the rent. If, now, the rent fixed wasreasonable, this was an incentive to the tenant to strive. On the other hand,if the rent was too high, or if the land deteriorated, the result was todiscourage and check the efforts of the black peasantry. There is no doubt thatthe latter case is true; that in Dougherty County every economic advantage ofthe price of
cotton in market and of the strivings of the tenant has been taken advantage ofby the landlords and merchants, and swallowed up in rent and interest. Ifcotton rose in price, the rent rose even higher; if cotton fell, the rentremained or followed reluctantly. If the tenant worked hard and raised a largecrop, his rent was raised the next year; if that year the crop failed, his cornwas confiscated and his mule sold for debt. There were, of course, exceptionsto this, -- cases of personal kindness and forbearance; but in the vastmajority of cases the rule was to extract the uttermost farthing from the massof the black farm laborers.
The average metayer pays from twenty to thirty per centof his crop in rent. The result of such rack-rent can only be evil, -- abuseand neglect of the soil, deterioration in the character of the laborers, and awidespread sense of injustice. "Wherever the country is poor," criedArthur Young, "it is in the hands of metayers," and "theircondition is more wretched than that of day-laborers." He was talking ofItaly a century ago; but he might have been talking of Dougherty County to-day.And especially is that true to-day which he declares was true in France beforethe Revolution: "The metayers are considered as little better than menialservants, removable at pleasure, and obliged to conform in all things to thewill of the landlords." On this low plane half the black population ofDougherty County -- perhaps more than half the black millions of this land --are to-day struggling.
A degree above these we may place those laborers whoreceive money wages for their work. Some receive a house with perhaps agarden-spot; then supplies of food and clothing are advanced, and certain fixedwages are given at the end of the year, varying from thirty to sixty dollars,out of which the supplies must be paid for, with interest. About eighteen percent of the population belong to this class of semi-metayers, while twenty-twoper cent are laborers paid by the month or year, and are either"furnished" by their own savings or perhaps more usually by somemerchant who takes his chances of payment. Such laborers receive fromthirty-five to fifty cents a day during the working season. They are usuallyyoung unmarried persons, some being women;
and when they marry they sink to the class of metayers, or, more seldom, becomerenters.
The renters for fixed money rentals are the first of theemerging classes, and form five per cent of the families. The sole advantage ofthis small class is their freedom to choose their crops, and the increasedresponsibility which comes through having money transactions. While some of therenters differ little in condition from the metayers, yet on the whole they aremore intelligent and responsible persons, and are the ones who eventuallybecome land-owners. Their better character and greater shrewdness enable themto gain, perhaps to demand, better terms in rents; rented farms, vary- ing fromforty to a hundred acres, bear an average rental of about fifty-four dollars ayear. The men who conduct such farms do not long remain renters; either theysink to metayers, or with a successful series of harvests rise to beland-owners.
In 1870 the tax-books of Dougherty report no Negroes aslandholders. If there were any such at that time, -- and there may have been afew, -- their land was probably held in the name of some white patron, -- amethod not uncommon during slavery. In 1875 ownership of land had begun withseven hundred and fifty acres; ten years later this had increased to oversixty-five hundred acres, to nine thousand acres in 1890 and ten thousand in1900. The total assessed property has in this same period risen from eightythousand dollars in 1875 to two hundred and forty thousand dollars in 1900.
Two circumstances complicate this development and make itin some respects difficult to be sure of the real tendencies; they are thepanic of 1893, and the low price of cotton in 1898. Besides this, the system ofassessing property in the country districts of Georgia is somewhat antiquatedand of uncertain statistical value; there are no assessors, and each man makesa sworn return to a tax-receiver. Thus public opinion plays a large part, andthe returns vary strangely from year to year. Certainly these figures show thesmall amount of accumulated capital among the Negroes, and the consequent largedependence of their property on temporary pros- perity. They have little totide over a few years of economic
depression, and are at the mercy of the cotton-market far more than the whites.And thus the land-owners, despite their marvellous efforts, are really atransient class, continually being depleted by those who fall back into theclass of renters or metayers, and augmented by newcomers from the masses. Ofone hundred land-owners in 1898, half had bought their land since 1893, afourth between 1890 and 1893, a fifth between 1884 and 1890, and the restbetween 1870 and 1884. In all, one hundred and eighty-five Negroes have ownedland in this county since 1875.
If all the black land-owners who had ever held land herehad kept it or left it in the hands of black men, the Negroes would have ownednearer thirty thousand acres than the fifteen thousand they now hold. And yetthese fifteen thousand acres are a creditable showing, -- a proof of no littleweight of the worth and ability of the Negro people. If they had been given aneconomic start at Emancipation, if they had been in an enlightened and richcommunity which really desired their best good, then we might perhaps call sucha result small or even insignificant. But for a few thousand poor ignorantfield-hands, in the face of poverty, a falling market, and social stress, tosave and capitalize two hundred thousand dollars in a generation has meant atremendous effort. The rise of a nation, the pressing forward of a socialclass, means a bitter struggle, a hard and soul-sickening battle with the worldsuch as few of the more favored classes know or appreciate.
Out of the hard economic conditions of this portion ofthe Black Belt, only six per cent of the population have succeeded in emerginginto peasant proprietorship; and these are not all firmly fixed, but grow andshrink in number with the wavering of the cotton-market. Fully ninety-four percent have struggled for land and failed, and half of them sit in hopelessserfdom. For these there is one other avenue of escape toward which they haveturned in increasing numbers, namely, migration to town. A glance at thedistribution of land among the black owners curiously reveals this fact. In1898 the holdings were as follows: Under forty acres, forty-nine fami- lies;forty to two hundred and fifty acres, seventeen families; two hundred and fiftyto one thousand acres, thirteen families
lies; one thousand or more acres, two families. Now in 1890 there wereforty-four holdings, but only nine of these were under forty acres. The greatincrease of holdings, then, has come in the buying of small homesteads neartown, where their owners really share in the town life; this is a part of therush to town. And for every land-owner who has thus hurried away from thenarrow and hard conditions of country life, how many field-hands, how manytenants, how many ruined renters, have joined that long procession? Is it notstrange compensation? The sin of the country districts is visited on the town,and the social sores of city life to-day may, here in Dougherty County, andperhaps in many places near and far, look for their final healing without thecity walls.