The Bottom Rung: African American Family Life on Southern Farms

By Gordy, Sondra | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

The Bottom Rung: African American Family Life on Southern Farms


Gordy, Sondra, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


The Bottom Rung: African American Family Life on Southern Farms. By Stewart E. Tolnay. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999. Pp. xi, 232. Preface, illustrations, maps, charts, epilogue, appendix, notes, references, index. $45.00, cloth; $19.95, paper.)

The Bottom Rung is a sociological study by Stewart Tolnay, a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Social and Demographic Analysis at the State University of New York at Albany. Tolnay describes the life of Southern black farmers and their families between 1910 and 1940. He examines public-use samples of U.S. census data to document how these sharecropper families made a living, how and when they married, the number of children they had, and the triggers and timing of their migrations. Included are data on white sharecropper families as points of comparison, as well as some ethnographic quotations from the Federal Writer's Project of the Great Depression era. Tolnay disputes the contention of several prominent African-American scholars that "Southern migrants had a destabilizing influence on family structure in the North" (p. 3). He argues the contrary by juxtaposing six descriptive chapters of earlier rural Southern agricultural life next to a seventh chapter of data on contemporary African Americans currently residing in northern urban areas. Though conditions for blacks tied to debt peonage and the crop lien system were indisputably grim, Tolnay discounts the notion that the Southern black farm family was dysfunctional and thereby questions earlier works of such notables as Charles Johnson, W. E. B. DuBois, St. Clair Drake, Horace Cayton, and E. Franklin Frazier. Also challenged is the later scholarship of Daniel Moynihan and Nicholas Lemann. The student of sociology may argue with Tolnay's assumption that "there is a strong tradition in the sociological literature that claims that a `southern legacy' threatened) the stability of family life in northern cities" (p. 142). As is widely known, most of the previously cited scholars worked early in this century, and even the two more recent ones have been challenged frequently over the past twenty years. …

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