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Posts Tagged ‘economics’

I have come to think a lot about what’s in a name or a label. What is conveyed? Should some names or labels be forgotten, erased from memory? But what might be lost along the way? What insights from human history, and how names and labels were used, might inform who we are today? Take the label “turpentine negro.”

The colonization of America resulted in the development of a naval stores industry. Naval stores are products — tar, pitch, turpentine and rosin – produced from pine and at first primarily used in early ship building. Tar was needed to seal wooden ships and ropes. Turpentine would become a vital ingredient in a range of manufacturing from paints and varnishes to paper production. Europe had relied upon Sweden for its tar but with the “discovery” of the New World and its expansive forests, new opportunities emerged for Britain to develop its own naval stores in the colonies. New England forests were tapped for awhile but it was the abundant long leaf pines of the southern colonies that would prove to be most lucrative, especially in the Carolinas and later in Georgia, Florida and Texas.

I first learned of this tree and the concept of naval stores while researching a colonial-era Bostonian. As a young man he joined a business venture where he sailed to the Carolinas, purchased tar and pitch, and then returned to sell the naval stores in New England. I wondered what was the source of tar and how was it produced. In learning about tar, I learned about turpentine production and that’s how I learned about the “turpentine negroes” and “turpentine niggers.” The words, this classification of human beings, can be found used hundreds of time in mostly southern newspapers from the 1880s to 1940s.

turpentine workers

I know there was turpentine in the house where I grew up. I just don’t remember how my father used it. This is when I really miss my brothers’ memories because when I think of turpentine, growing up in Virginia, it was something very much in the male realm. I don’t think my mother did anything with it except disparage it for its scent.

Disparage. To regard or represent as being of little worth.

Turns out, since before the Revolutionary War, southern Blacks were essential to the production of naval stores. The nature of the work meant they lived in the pine woods. There they formed a unique culture. The first Black workers were mostly enslaved, often hired out by their owners. Even after the Civil War, these workers, now technically free, continued to apply their skills in the turpentine orchards, traveling from pine woods to pine woods across state lines.

Over many generations these men and women produced the goods that helped keep the world’s greatest fleets afloat. They produced goods that enabled improvements in the manufacturing of a diverse range of products. Their labor was valued but they were disparaged as human beings, by whites and sometimes other people of color as well. Thus the distinction that was made by the label, turpentine negro.

Frederick Law Olmstead during his travels in the South wrote in 1855, “There are very large forests of this [long leaf pine] tree in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama; and the turpentine business is carried on, to some extent, in all these States. In North Carolina, however, much more largely than in the others; because, in it, cotton is rather less productive than in the others, in an average of years. Negroes are, therefore, in rather less demand; and their owners oftener see their profit in employing them in turpentine orchards than in the cotton-fields.

If we enter, in the winter, a part of a forest that is about to be converted into a “turpentine orchard,” we come upon negroes engaged in making boxes, in which the sap is to be collected the following spring. They continue at this work from November to March, or until, as the warm weather approaches, the sap flows freely, and they are needed to remove it from the boxes into barrels. These “boxes” are not made of boards, nailed together in a cubical form, as might be supposed; nor are they log-troughs, such as, at the North, maple-sap is collected in. They are cavities dug in the trunk of the tree itself. A long, narrow ax, made in Connecticut, especially for this purpose, is used for this wood-pecking operation; and some skill is required to use it properly.

A considerable amount of turpentine is shipped in barrels to Northern ports, where it is distilled; a larger amount is distilled in the State.

The orchards operated under a task system. Workers were assigned specific tasks. Olmstead is noted as describing, an overseer had “ten hands dipping + six hands getting timber, seven hands at the cooper shop, five hands at the still, one hand cutting wood, and three wagoning.”  After the Civil War, with slavery’s end, the system essentially remained the same.

As C. W. Wimster recalled in a 1939 Federal Writers Project interview:

My folks believed in education, an I was sent to school regular when I was a boy, but worked in the summers. When I was about ten years old we moved to a camp at Martin, seven miles from Ocala, an I was promoted to talley “man”—keeping tally on the number of trees boxed or streaked by each nigger. Niggers do all the labor in the woods, an most of the work around the still. The manager, foreman, commissary men and woods riders are all white men. At each camp there will be from 50 to 200 niggers, accordin to the number of “crops” worked. A crop is about 10,000 trees.

turpentine worker’s home, georgia

The white folks live in fairly good homes at one side of the camp, and the niggers in their quarters at the other side in two-or three-room cabins or board houses. We always aimed to have separate quarters for the single niggers to keep them from messin up with the married men’s wives. But this didn’t always work, and there was many a fight on account uv them mixin at night in the woods.

One of the jobs that Wimster later took was “as manager of eight camps owned by a New York concern at Opal, Okeechobee County. This was a big virgin woods in low, swampy country, and the outfit was a big one of 120 crops. There I had charge of 400 niggers and nine woodsmen (riders).

three turpentine pickers

When asked about the home life of the Black people in the Florida turpentine camps, Mr. Wimster replied: “Turpentine niggers are a class by themselves. They are different from town niggers, farm laborers or any other kind. Mostly they are born and raised in the camps, and don’t know much about anything else. They seldom go to town, and few of them ever saw the inside of a school house. In nearly every camp there is a jack-leg preacher who also works in the woods, and they usually have church services on Sunday at one or another of their houses.

And every camp has its ‘jook’, as they are now called, but the original name of this kind of a joint was a ‘tunk’. This is a house where the men and women gather on Saturday nights to dance, drink moonshine, gamble and fight. Between dances or drinks, young couples stroll off into the woods and make love. … The supreme authority in a camp is the foreman. To the niggers he is the law, the judge, jury and executioner. He even ranks ahead of God to these people.”

In a 1903 New Orleans newspaper they were described as the worst character of criminal for the police to deal with when they came to town to spend their money. I suspect there were few things worse than to call a successful Black man a “turpentine nigger” nor was it uncommon for a person of color to say, “What do you think I am a turpentine nigger?”

turpentine worker

In 1942, author Lillian Cox Athey wrote of the long established industry that stretched from North Carolina to Texas. She noted that long leaf pine covered about 1000 miles, with more than 1200 turpentine camps to be found in the woods and over 45,000 workers. She presents a romanticized view of the camps and their management. And as for the workers:

Excerpt from Evening Star, Washington, DC, 1942

At a 1946 Southern Forestry Convention, one report noted that the times were changing and that the “old fashioned turpentine negro” was to become a shadowy creature of the past. In a post-war world, workers were going to towns, “wearing zoot suits and driving trucks and making money.”

The language is regional. Searching old newspapers the terminology is primarily expressed in deep southern publications. More recent use of the words appears in the historical novels of writers with southern roots. Studying the characterization of these workers from antebellum times to just after World War II suggests that this regional history is also a national if not indeed global history. Shining a spotlight on people, labeled turpentine negroes, illuminates once more the ties that link North and South in the American slave economy and offers the opportunity to think about who benefited from that economy, who suffered, and the enduring legacy long after slavery ended.

Sources of Images & Further Reading

Outland, Robert B. “Slavery, Work, and the Geography of the North Carolina Naval Stores Industry, 1835-1860.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 62, no. 1, Southern Historical Association, 1996, pp. 27–56, https://doi.org/10.2307/2211205.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Turpentine workers. Georgia. United States Georgia, 1937. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017770332/.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Overseer in the turpentine woods. Georgia. United States Georgia, 1937. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017770378/.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Untitled photo, possibly related to: Turpentine worker’s family near Cordele, Alabama. Father’s wages one dollar a day. This is the standard of living the turpentine trees support. United States Alabama Cordele, 1936. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017768046/.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Turpentine worker’s family near Cordele, Alabama. Father’s wages one dollar a day. This is the standard of living the turpentine trees support. United States Alabama Cordele, 1936. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017763012/.

In the great pine forests of the South – gathering crude turpentine – North Carolina. , ca. 1903. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003663487/.

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They could have stayed in the land where they had been born, a land that over time their ancestors had come to consider home. During the war the land had been bloodied but the war was over. A few cities and institutions had been destroyed but for the most part key systems and infrastructures had been preserved.  Yes, war had ended, and with war’s end some change had come.  Were they not free? A big change, for sure, but clearly not enough.

Word spread of a different place, a place with more opportunities, where one could make a fresh start.  It would be an all or nothing gamble. Not everyone was sure of such a gamble but some were.  Families mobilized.  All they need do to reach this promised land was to cross the river.  And they did.

Not everyone was happy.

This is how one group’s journey was described by an observer:

“… today there are sixty or seventy … of all ages and sexes on the river bank … singing and shouting … waiting for a government boat that will give them free transportation … These emigrants are the most lazy … too lazy to make a living in this warm and generous climate, where nature holds out to them her arms laden with rich and magnificent fruits that never fail. She points to her lakes … with unfailing yield of food from the waters, and can boast of a soil more productive than any other. Yet this lazy class of emigrants are compelled to go [elsewhere] to make a living or be fed by a magnanimous government.  The most important of these emigrants have abandoned comfortable homes, and many of them have no means to pay passage … and what money they had was expended … [They] have been deceived by designing rascals in our midst who have held out flattering hopes and promises for the future that can never be realized. …”

As for that elsewhere considered a promised land? It was Kansas. The river crossed was the Mississippi.  The emigrants were African Americans departing the south in what’s considered to be one of the first major migrations after the Civil War. The above excerpts were posted in the Boston Post on May 2, 1879 (just fourteen years after the end of the Civil War and two years after the end of Reconstruction) in a letter written by a resident of Vidalia, Louisiana to his client in Massachusetts. His client owned a Louisiana plantation.

While over six million people were freed by the end of the Civil War, many continued to work the fields where they had once been enslaved. Few other employment options existed.  By the late 1870s, white southern elites returned to power and quickly undid many of the advancements made with regard to voting rights and economic opportunities for blacks. As economic pathways disappeared and violence increased, people sought a promised land and that land was out west and especially Kansas, home of the mythic John Brown.

One concern sparked by the exodus of African Americans was, who would work the fields?  In his 1879 letter, the author includes a clipping from another southern voice reflecting upon this potential impact and proposed federal actions.

“The proposition of [President] Garfield to appropriate from the Treasury of the United States seventy-five thousand dollars for the relief of these emigrants … it is one the of most “cheeky”propositions, to use a cant expression, we have ever heard.  Here is a people, probably in combination with Garfield himself and other haters of the South, who leave their comfortable homes in the South, and under certain unexplained influences go voluntarily to the West to better their condition.  They there find only those who have persuaded them into such a wild goose chase … They find the conditions identical with what had been told them over and over again by intelligent men in the country they have left, they find the same difficulties and trials which every class of immigrants have to encounter when moving to a new country, and they are thrown on their own resources to no greater extent than the thousands of white immigrants who every year throng the Western Territories. Why does not Mr. Garfield ask the Congress of the United States to appropriate money for the temporary support of German and Irish and other European emigrants? They are as worthy …

“If this proposition to support this band of crazy wanderers should be adopted and money appropriated for keeping them in idleness, there would be created a drain on the public Treasury which hundreds of millions would not satisfy … and the time would not be long before our Western friends would have a surfeit of their colored brethren. … How long is this peculiar care for this class of our population to continue? … The colored people are as free as the whites … He has the same right as the white man has to emigrate but he has no further right than the white man for assistance …

“The place of those who go from the South will doubtless be soon supplied by the Chinamen, and what would Mr. Garfield say if the people of the South should apply to Congress for a year’s support for the almond-eyed Mongolians who may be brought here to develop our cotton lands?”

There are other letters from that time that echo the same sentiments about the roles of African Americans, the Chinese immigrants and more but I stop here. The history of that time — of emigration, migration and refugees arriving in a new land — is complex and is part of what makes America so darned unique.  Though no wall around Kansas or along the Mississippi was mentioned, as I read the words, I could not help but think of Trump. He is nothing new. Nor are the people who look up to someone like him, a man who puts down everyone, and who enables some peoples’ worse base instincts toward selfishness, fear of others and violence.

I do not find hope in these old letters but I am reminded that we as a nation have survived such people and attitudes before.  I have seen many stories of late debating whether or not Alex Haley’s Roots should have been remade. I don’t know but I do believe that there are always lessons to be learned from studying and remembering the past.

Sources

Boston Post, May 2, 1879, page 2, “The Negro Exodus”

National Archives Exodus to Kansas

 

 

 

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Blues 1

Blue Rose in the Hall

Maybe it was fear that made the young men shout “Nooooo!” as I stood next to a For Sale sign in front of a house in a suburb outside of Boston.  Fear of change, fear of something different coming into their midst.  And maybe it was fear that made a woman look me up and down as I questioned her entrance into a building (part of my job at the time).  As she left the building she made sure to look at me in that same way and I had to think, “Well, if looks could kill, I’d be six feet under.” And maybe it was fear that made the waitress do some things during a meal, such that once I’d left the restaurant with my friend (whose favorite restaurant it was), she said, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t expect that to happen.”

Now if I were to say that all of those fairly recent events happened, in part, because all the other individuals were white and I am black … well, I think there are folks who might say, as is often said today, why does everything have to be attributed to race?  Because race does matter.  As does class, gender, and economics. It all matters.  But here’s why race stands out for me:  slavery. “Slavery ended,” someone said to me once. “Why keep bringing that up?”

Born in the 1970s USA, I have never been a slave.  I have never been shackled or forced to give up a child or beaten if I tried to put pen to paper or pick up a book.  I’ve never stood in a market while an overseer pointed out my attributes so that someone might buy me as a companion for their children or an extra servant in the kitchen.  Never needed to carry papers proving freedom (or ownership), nor been branded, or had to hope that my master would free our children in his will.

As former slaves did about 150 years ago, I’ve never been in a position of celebrating freedom and, on the other hand, having to deal with the realities of having little but the clothes on my back and waiting for forty acres and a mule.  Never had to deal with “separate but equal” or segregated schools (my older brothers did who were born in the 1950s and 1960s).  Never been in a position or location where I had the right to vote but other forces, those perhaps suffering from fear of change, were putting strategies into place to prevent me from voting (my parents dealt with that).

Nor have I had to watch a loved one (or even a stranger) brutally beaten, mutilated, hung from a tree or a telephone pole, and burned.  I’ve heard a few stories from older family, watched the documentaries and read quite a few articles.  When I read the stories of lynching, especially in old newspapers recently digitized, and see the images, I cry.  I cry for the people who died, the people who watched and tried to help, and even for the people who watched and did nothing.  I did wonder what the people who did nothing were thinking? And what about the people who sang and danced and even cut off parts for souvenirs or mailed those parts to white politicians trying to effect some change?

For some, did the actions they witnessed mean nothing because the people to whom the deeds were done looked nothing like them?  Or was it just that they did not know what to do? Were some people truly scared or were they simply seeking pleasure in establishing control over another?  All of those incidents are part of the fabric of this country, as are the people, of all races and backgrounds, who fought to end slavery, the people who fought to end routine lynchings and the people who continue to fight for economic and voting rights for all people.

Yes, I do indeed bring up slavery and other injustices from the so-called past because of present-day incidents like in Ferguson.   Slavery is an institution, one of many, that this country has yet to deal with. I don’t care about politics or how people choose to identify themselves in this country as Republican, Democrat, Tea Party, Libertarian and so on.   Political labels and tenets change over time.  But what about human behavior?  How has that changed over time?  Or has it?  Why do we treat people the way that we do?

You can “follow the money” in terms of why slavery was entrenched in this country for so long.  Economics, economics, economics.  In too many venues of late, I have read people saying stop talking about race and focus on the economic issues in a Ferguson.  Of course, economics is an issue and powerful factor leading to injustices happening in many communities.  But it comes down to a bit more than money to treat people as inferior or to hear their screams of pain and laugh or to make assumptions about their children’s ability to learn regardless of resources provided for education.  And it is about more than economics to see all those things taking place around you and to do nothing. To some extent, I feel little right to judge others because I do not always know what to do as I learn about the horrors around me, in this country and abroad.  I do know with regard to slavery and the seeds that were planted that continue to sprout, I do not want to forget.

I’ve been researching the past, including slave times, quite a bit of late for various projects as well as to better understand current events.  In the remembering, and rediscoveries, I don’t come to hate people who look different than me.  Not at all.  A part of me mourns.  I mourn the horrors, and I also celebrate the courage of so many different peoples, their hopes, their activism and their creativity in finding the beauty in this life.  And I celebrate such in the people who are active today.

As a final note in my Sunday ramblings, if you chose to read so far, … I came upon a 1920s newspaper article about a lynching. The reporter recounted that witnesses heard the dying man sing a song with his last breaths as the flames consumed him.  I looked up the song and came upon the following 1950s rendition by Sam Cooke.  A powerful piece.

 

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