Enterprising Southerners: Black Economic Success in North Carolina, 1865-1915. – Review

Enterprising Southerners: Black Economic Success in North Carolina, 1865-1915. – Review – book reviews

Larry E. Hudson Jr.

Enterprising Southerners: Black Economic Success in North Carolina, 1865- 1915. By Robert C. Kenzer (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997. xvi plus l78pp.).

Robert Kenzer’s goal in Enterprising Southerners is to correct some of the “shortcomings” in the recent studies on black economic achievement in the South, none of which, he contends, provides a means of assessing exactly what constituted “satisfactory economic gains for blacks.” In viewing black Southerners in largely monolithic terms,” he observes, they fail to explain why a significant minority did “acquire land and conduct businesses.” (5) Given their unrealistically high expectations, these studies tended to conclude that black under achievement “resulted from either flawed regional infrastructure or racial prejudice,” that is, “distinctly southern factors.” (5) Kenzer wonders how we could expect any group of newly arrived immigrants in the immediate post-war South “who lacked property and [were] largely illiterate to acquire within fifty years an economic status matching that of prewar property owners.” (5) And here lays the central point of Enterprising Southerners: “blacks did not begin their quest to gain real estate in 1865, prewar emancipation was an important factor in immediate postwar economic success for blacks.” (7) Before the war, the small population of freedmen, largely mulattoes, “were already laying the foundation that would exist following the general emancipation.” (34) There were also clear variations based upon location, acquired skills, and color complexion. Those most likely to succeed (and most usefully compared with white entrepreneurs?) were mulattoes who lived in urban areas and whose livelihood was in non-agricultural occupations.

Drawing on evidence from a variety of sources including business directories, credit ratings, records from the National Negro Business League, and black colleges, Enterprising Southerners examines the ways in which family, community, politics, and African-American collective identity, shaped black economic entrepreneurship. Although Kenzer’s main focus is the period between 1865 and 1915, he uses multiple time frames to mark the changes that sometimes occurred in the black farmer’s landholding patterns from harvest to harvest, and explain why particular years, even decades, were more or less conducive to black economic advancement.

As with the antebellum period, factors such as location and timing affected the ability of black Southerners to retain their property in the years following the Civil War. Black property holders fared far better, for example, between 1895 and 1915 than they had during the preceding 20 years. For, as Kenzer explains, “enough blacks gained farm acreage during the 30 years after the war that from 1895 to 1915 more blacks could pass land on to their children than ever before.” Also, those in the countryside who had purchased or inherited land now had an asset that they might use as collateral to buy other farmland. (25) A similar situation existed for black entrepreneurs who looked to advance their interests through non-agricultural means. Those who started their businesses immediately after the war–largely mulattoes emancipated in the antebellum period–were much more likely to survive in business for a long period of time than those who began in the 1870s, who were increasingly likely to be black. (45)

Notwithstanding a brief discussion of the “social fabric of the rural economy,” Enterprising Southerners devotes little time to the discussion of white racism as a possible barrier to black economic achievement. Kenzer gives far more attention to factors such as black collective efforts which, he argues, was a primary determinant of black entrepreneurial success and a means of subverting even the worst aspects of white racism. In a close look at some of the successful black entrepreneurs, Kenzer highlights the “differential rates of success based upon antebellum status and skin complexion,” and the antebellum and postbellum success of mulattoes. Interestingly, in developing this point Kenzer introduces a crucial and often omitted element in the continuity or discontinuity debate. (5)

Antebellum, the slave community had relied on the family to provide some security against the vicissitudes of an evil system and to protect and expand its domestic economy. Post war, black people learned that they had to form mutual aid networks if they were to protect and advance their best interests. Those who had most to lose were most likely to establish and join Masonic lodges in the nineteenth century. (70) Kenzer tells us that more than half of the Masons who were landowners were mulattoes, most of whom were not farmers but skilled tradesmen and merchants.

Kenzer identifies a close correlation among legal and racial status (slave or free, black or mulatto), property accumulation, economic organization, political service, and social position. As with black economic activities, the social patterns of the wider black society also changed after slavery. Before the Civil War, Kenzer observes, slavery was the most influential factor affecting marriage for African Americans. Once the war ended, however, economic factors replaced slavery as the significant determinant of spousal selection. (109) Thus, rather than stressing race as a primary consideration, Kenzer relies on more measurable factors, in this case, demographics: the “vast majority of blacks had black spouses” because “most blacks and mulattoes who were married as of 1870 had been married before slavery ended.” (111) Enterprising Southerners challenges a number of popular perceptions not the least of which is that spousal selection during the immediate postwar years was shaped by skin color. On the contrary , Kenzer argues, the primary factor “was economic status resulting from the disproportionate prewar emancipation of mulattoes and the headstart this emancipation provided mulattoes in accumulating property.” (111)

Here is Enterprising Southerners’ most worthy contribution and, perhaps, its primary weakness. This study is a valuable contribution to the ongoing effort to get beyond race as the central (and tragic?) theme of southern history, but it fails to explain satisfactorily why the individuals it describes differ so much from “the vast majority of their race.” (128) Kenzer asks us to lower our expectations and acknowledge the fact that African Americans’ economic opportunities were limited not because they were hindered by white racism, but because most of them lacked the economic and skill base that was essential to succeed after 1865 and which, presumably, as slaves, they were denied.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Carnegie Mellon University Press

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