I've always had a desire to understand another person's perspective. If you spend any time reading American history the name W.E.B. DuBois shows up a lot of the time. If this is the first time you're hearing about him, shame on you for a general lack of American history knowledge. The truth is he is pretty hard avoid, even if you're only casually looking. His work touched a lot of people over a number of generations in the United States. DuBois lived into his 90's and was well ahead of his time. You can read a little about him here.
This work, originally published in 1903 tackles a lot of issues in the black community and America as a whole. The section that was probably the most touching to me was Chapter 13: The Coming of John. It follows a young black kid named John as he travels to the north to receive his education with the hope that he will return one day. After starting his education in a lack than serious way he buckles down to complete his work. While in New York he comes across an old childhood friend, also named John, of his that is white and the son of the local judge from their hometown. The white man acts as if he doesn't know him while in public. Eventually black John returns to his home in Georgia to take up as a teacher for all of the black children in the community. Without resources he makes progress, until it is found out that he is teaching equality to his students as part of his lesson. This forces the Judge to come down and shut down the school. The story continues from there.
Many other topics and tackled within the chapters of the book including the struggle to set up education for freed ex-slaves and also the struggle to get justice after the Freedom Bureau was pulled out of the south following Reconstruction. This book is really worth the read, although it is a lot to take in and is written 117 years ago. Understanding it isn't as bad as texts like "The Scarlet Letter" however.
What Did I Learn?
1. I learned that it was a remarkably difficult struggle to set up education for newly freed slaves in the South. The Southern whites would rarely voluntarily give funds to the black schools. If they were publicly funded the ratio of funds would be anywhere from 4-to-1 all the way to 7-1 in proportion of white-to-black spending. It was difficult to find teachers, either from Northern whites coming down after the war or educated enough blacks. The black community was largely forced to create their own elementary, high schools and eventually universities. DuBois actually attended Fisk University in Nashville and Harvard, but he certainly was the normal story.
2. There was an agreement in place after the Civil War to give land and a mule to freed slaves, largely from the southern plantation owners. This didn't come to fruition for the vast majority of ex-slaves, who eventually went into sharecropping, manual labor or low level manufacturing positions. They went into these positions making a fraction of white workers, with no real hope of getting a promotion to management. This made it very hard to survive, much less build savings. There are countless people that were able to break away and finance a college education, but is often took generations to build the wealth to pay for it or to find someone who would give you funding. Basically what we refer to as a scholarship.
3. Sharecropping or tenants was a much worse relationship than I even imagined. This was for both poor white and black residents, although the whites were often given better terms. In a lot of situations you were expected to turn over half of your crop yield, pay rent for your housing and the land and also buy all of the tools and goods from the landowner at often inflated prices. This left little to nothing for the tenant of the land and really was spinning wheels.
4. DuBois went a little into the prison system, which was largely expanded after the Civil War to trap poor people and often blacks for minor crimes. They would be put on work duty for chain gangs and bid out for jobs picking cotton, agriculture, construction, etc. at a drastically low cost to the bidder. Those who died from exhaustion from working were lucky to get a proper burial and certainly weren't paid for their work. The money from the bids was often pocketed to more than cover the expenses to feed and house inmates. Where the proceeds went, no one really knows. Likely in someone's pocket.
About the Author
Andy Rupert is a Penn State (B.A. John Curley Center for Sports Journalism 08') and a Southern Miss (M.S. Sport Management 09'). He has spent his whole career working in sports and tourism digital marketing and metrics.