Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Just Finished Reading - Black Property Owners in the South

Continuing my search for secondary source information on antebellum black barbers, I found Black Property Owners in the South, 1790-1915, by Loren Schweninger. I became acquainted with Schweninger's writings several years ago due to his several collaborations with my favorite historian, John Hope Franklin.

A couple of Schweninger's past books examine two Southern barbers' experiences. In James T. Rapier and Reconstruction, the author provides a biography of this free black barber in northern Alabama, who became a politician during Reconstruction. And, in In Search of the Promised Land: A Slave Family in the Old South, Schweninger and Franklin cover the Thomas family. One member of this fascinating family, James Thomas, who started as an apprentice (and was James Rapier's uncle), owned a barber shop in Nashville, Tennessee.

While Black Property Owners in the South certainly does not solely focus on barbers, it does include some coverage. Schweninger's intriguing statistics and conclusions are similar to those I am finding. On page 124, Schweninger claims of barbers in the upper South, "Some of them owned cigar stores or bathing establishments or ran small shops selling wigs, ties, lotions, and hats. Most of them invested heavily in city real estate. By 1860, their average realty holdings exceeded $6,500, two and a half times the average for their counterparts in the lower [Southern] states."

Later in his discussion about the post Civil War years, Schweninger contends that "The occupational transition from the antebellum to the postbellum periods was symbolized by the decline among prosperous barbers. In 1860, among realty owners in the South with at least $5,000 worth of property, 5 percent were barbers, and among those with at least $20,000, 10 percent practiced the same trade. By 1870, while the proportion with more than $5,000 remained about the same, those with the larger amount dropped from 10 to 5 percent."

Black Property Owners in the South consists of six chapters. The first chapter covers the understanding of property as was brought by slaves to the New World and provides background information on black property owners during the colonial and Early Republic eras. The next two chapters discusses antebellum property ownership among slaves and free people of color respectively. Chapter four looks at extraordinarily wealthy free people of color, particularly in Louisiana and South Carolina. Schweninger contends that a transition occurred that saw the most wealthy black owners shift from the lower South to the upper South after the Civil War.  Chapter five looks at postbellum black property owners, and the final chapter examines prosperous African Americans in the postbellum South.

The amount of wealth that some free people of color were able to accumulate was astounding and a true credit to hard work, frugality, and a strong business sense. But despite the amount of wealth free blacks were able to establish and pass on, they well understood - especially those in the antebellum years - that they walked a precarious road among their potentially jealous white neighbors. While some blacks were able to loan and even sue whites to collect debts, those acts were often done with great care as not to offend those with power.

As a supplement to the book's text (and what I considered a true bonus), Schweninger includes a number of primary source correspondence, petitions, and probate court records in the appendices.

Despite the numerous charts and figures, both percentages and dollar amounts, which I sometimes found distracting, Black Property Owners in the South is an important and eye-opening book, which clearly shows that property ownership was achievable even for slaves.  And, for free blacks, it was one of the few ways for them to exercise a measure of independence in a world controlled by others. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.75.

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