Enterprising Southerners: Black Economic Success in North Carolina, 1865-1915
Gamble, Richard M., Freeman
Enterprising Southerners: Black Economic Success in North Carolina, 1865-1915 by Robert C. Kenzer
University Press of Virginia 1997 xvi + 178 pages $30.00
In this meticulous and tightly argued volume, historian Robert Kenzer corrects what he describes as the prevailing "monolithic" view of the economic condition of North Carolina blacks in the 50 years between the end of the Civil War and the First World War. By no means dismissing or even minimizing the impact of racism and the legacy of slavery in shaping the black experience in those years, Kenzer presents compelling evidence of "slow but steady progress" in land-ownership and business enterprises. Drawing imaginatively on extensive primary statistical evidence, yet going far beyond mere quantitative history, Kenzer analyzes the range of economic, cultural, and political factors that encouraged economic success among an exceptional group of blacks in the postbellum South, a success that they took pains to pass on to their children through higher education for careers in teaching, the ministry, medicine, and business.
Kenzer found that blacks' success in acquiring land, launching viable businesses, and achieving political and social leadership in their communities was related to several clearly identifiable factors, some economic, some cultural. Land-ownership, for example, was highest both in amount of and value of acreage among blacks who had been free before the war, were mulattos, held non-agricultural occupations, and lived in the more fluid real estate market of the cities. Similar patterns held true for success in business and politics. To be sure, success was not limited to blacks who fit this statistical profile, but urban blacks who had been free before the war experienced the highest degree of success as landowners, businessmen, and political leaders.
From the perspective of free-market economics, two important contributions stand out in Kenzer's work. While not the main point of his study, his observations about blacks' relationship to the market economy and their network of self-help organizations bear noting. Black leaders in North Carolina defended an open market in real estate free from government intervention and special-interest legislation. Faced with proposed legislation in 1915 designed to prevent blacks from buying land in majority-white districts, for example, black leaders argued for a free market for both blacks and whites in which to buy and sell property under the most favorable terms. Blacks simply wanted the freedom to acquire land and homes in an open market. Under pressure from like-minded white landowners, who did not want their freedom restricted either, the state senate rejected the bill. …