One Kind of Freedom

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

One Kind of Freedom by Roger Random and Richard Sutch explores developments in Southern economy in the nineteenth century after the Civil War. It takes as its primary assumption that many new economic opportunities were available to blacks in the South, particularly ex-slaves, as a consequence of emancipation. The authors do not attempt to correlate political ideas and events with economic trends and attitudes; they do not inject social conceptualizations to explain economic institutions. However, in avoiding examination of economic changes on political, social, and cultural dimensions of Southern life, they do not place economic change in a sterile mass of charts and tables set apart from the real world of people and their own value system. One Kind of Freedom successfully relates the economics of the South after the Civil War to the region’s racial history and particulary its “peculiar institution,” slavery.

The study concentrates on what the authors call the Cotton South, two hundred thousand square miles including the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. This area contained over half of the black population in the United States, and approximately three-fourths of the cotton growth in this country. Drawing on a variety of resources, including extensive federal surveys of agricultural activity in the Cotton South (although not limited to that area), Ransom and Sutch conclude that Southern agriculture failed to progress and indeed stagnated in a period of tremendous growth for other regions of the United States. The significant changes in Southern agriculture were the end of the plantation system, the substitution of tenancy, and new individual actors and institutional mechanism to adjust this system. The authors’ overriding and very convincing themes are exploitation and racism.

Sutch and Ransom are emphatic in their insistence that emancipation did offer new opportunities to the ex-slave, and the importance of his labor became quite clear to the Southern black. These developments manifested themselves in several ways. Freemen devoted more time to leisure and recreation; they made their own decisions on consumption; they abandoned the slave quarters and constructed their own living quarters. Ex-slaves also spent what seemed to whites as wasteful or inordinate amounts of money on “luxuries” such as boots, whiskey, tobacco, calico, ham, cheese, and candy. Sutch and Ransom explain such luxury expenses as an exercise of freedom, an exercise very important to those once denied freedom; however, whites at the time saw such actions, as well as the choice made by many black women, children, and elderly people to work less hours as reaffirmations of their antebellum attitudes toward blacks.

An understanding of continuing racism as a critical aspect of Southern agriculture and economic changes after the Civil War is essential. The change was sudden; postemancipation economy was in place by the early 1870’s and was not a gradual process requiring several generations. While other historians have come to this conclusion or at least hinted at it, Sutch and Ransom include the valuable statement that Southern blacks took the first step in availing themselves of new options; material standards improved and some qualities of freedom, such as the aforementioned choices, did become a part of the life of ex-slaves. However, institutional change and reorganization of the marketplace affecting the Southern economy stopped progress in general for Southern agriculture.

Many studies of the slave community indicate that those whites who controlled the plantation system denied education and even occupational training to blacks. Sutch and Ransom conclude that white unwillingness to allow this minimal service is a reflection of the master’s belief that such education was not economically beneficial. The free, educated labor necessary for plantation service was minimal and could be hired without undue cost. Some skills, such as carpentry and blacksmithing, were available for some slaves, but this type of skill could be obtained “on the job,” and would not compete with white artisans. Consequently, because literacy and other skills were not considered necessary on the slave-run plantations, ex-slaves in the postwar years were at an enormous educational disadvantage.

In regard to the legacy of physical capital left to blacks, it was nonexistent; as a result, ex-slaves worked almost as hard as they had...

(The entire section is 1831 words.)

One Kind of Freedom Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Library Journal. CII, December 15, 1977, p. 2498.