CHAPTER IX.

THE OCCUPATIONS OF NEGROES.

24. History of the Occupations of Negroes.--There early arose in the colony of Pennsylvania the custom of hiring out slaves, especially mechanics and skilled workmen. This very soon roused the ire of the free white workmen, and in 1708 and 1722 we find them petitioning the legislature against the practice, and receiving some encouragement therefrom. As long, however, as an influential class of slaveholders had a direct financial interest in black mechanics they saw to it that neither law nor prejudice hindered Negroes from working. Thus before and after the Revolution there were mechanics as well as servants among the Negroes. The proportion of servants, however, was naturally very large. We have no figures until 1820, when of, the 7582 Negroes in the city, 2585 or 34 per cent were servants; in 1840, 27 per cent were servants. Some of these servants represented families, so that the proportion of those dependent on domestic service was larger even than the percentage indicated. In 1896 in the Seventh Ward the per cent of servants, using the same method of computation, was 27.3 per cent.

Of those not servants, the Negroes themselves declared in 1832, that "notwithstanding the difficulty of getting places for our sons as apprentices to learn mechanical trades, owing to the prejudices with which we have to contend, there are between four and five hundred people of color in the city and suburbs who follow mechanical employmens." In 1838 the investigator of the Abolition Society found 997 of the 17,500 Negroes in the county who had learned trades, although only a part of these (perhaps 350) actually worked at their trades at that time. The rest, outside the servants and men with trades, were manual laborers. Many of these mechanics were afterward driven from the city by the mobs.

In 1848 another study of the Negroes found the distribution of the Negroes as follows:

Of 3358 men, twenty-one years of age and over:

Laborers

1581

Waiters, cooks, etc.

557

Mechanics

286

Coachmen, carters, etc

276

Sailors, etc.

240

Shopkeepers, traders, etc.

166

Barbers

156

Various occupations

96

3358

Of 4249 women, twenty-one years and over there were:

Washerwomen

1970

Seamstresses

486

Day workers

786

In trades

213

Housewives

290

Servants (living at home)

156

Cooks

173

Rag pickers

103

Various occupations

72

4249

Of both sexes five to twenty years of age there were:

School children

1940

Unaccounted for

1200

At home

484

Helpless

33

Working at home

274

Servants

354

Laborers

253

Sweeps

12

Porters

18

Apprentices

230

4798

 

Besides these there were in white families 3716 servants.

Just how accurate the statistics of 1847 were it is now difficult to say, probably there was some exaggeration from the well-meant effort of the friends of the Negro to show the best side. Nevertheless it seems as though the diversity of employments at this time was considerable, although of course under such heads as "shopkeepers and traders" street stands more often than stores were meant.

In 1856 the inquiry appears to have been more exhaustive and careful, and the number of Negroes with trades had increased to 1637--including barbers and dressmakers. Even here, however, some uncertainty enters, for "less than two-thirds of those who have trades follow them. A few of the remainder pursue other avocations from choice, but the greater number are compelled to abandon their trades on account of the unrelenting prejudice against their color." The following table gives these returns:

OCCUPATION OF PHILADELPHIA NEGROES, 1856.

Mechanical Trades.

Dressmakers

588

Barbers

248

Shoemakers

112

Shirt and dressmakers

70

Brickmakers

53

Carpenters

49

Milliners and dressmakers

45

Tailors

49

Tanners and curriers

24

Blacksmiths

22

Cabinetmakers

20

Weavers

16

Pastry cooks

10

Plasterers

14

Sailmakers

12

113 other trades with one to nine in each

305

1637

In the light of such historical testimony it seems certain that the industrial condition of the Negro in the last century has undergone great vicissitudes, although it is difficult sometimes to trace them. A diagram something like this would possibly best represent the historical development for a century:

 

 

Such a diagram must of course be based largely upon conjecture, but it represents as nearly as the data allow the proportionate--not the absolute--extent to which the Negroes of the city are represented in certain pursuits.

In the half century 1840 to 1890 the proportion of Negroes who are domestic servants has not greatly changed; the mass of the remainder are still laborers; their opportunities for employment have been restricted by three causes: competition, industrial change, color prejudice. The competition has come in later years from the phenomenal growth of cities and the consequent hardening of conditions of life: the Negro has especially felt this change because of all the elements of our urban population he is least prepared by previous training for rough, keen competition; the industrial changes since and just before the emancipation of the slaves have had a great influence on their development, to which little notice has hitherto been given. In the industrial history of nations the change from agriculture to manufacturing and trade has been a long, delicate process: first came house industries--spinning and weaving and the like; then the market with its simple processes of barter and sale; then the permanent stall or shop, and at last the small retail store. In our day this small retail store is in process of evolution to something larger and more comprehensive. When we look at this development and see how suddenly the American city Negro has been snatched from agriculture to the centres of trade and manufactures, it should not surprise us to learn that he has not as yet succeeded in finding a permanent place in that vast system of industrial co-operation. Apart from all questions of race, his problem in this respect is greater than the problem of the white country boy or the European peasant immigrant, because his previous industrial condition was worse than theirs and less calculated to develop the power of self-adjustment, self-reliance and co-operation. All these considerations are further complicated by the fact that the industrial condition of the Negro cannot be considered apart from the great fact of race prejudice--indefinite and shadowy as that phrase may be. It is certain that, while industrial co-operation among the groups of a great city population is very difficult under ordinary circumstances, that here it is rendered more diffcult and in some respects almost impossible by the fact that nineteen-twentieths of the population have in many cases refused to co-operate with the other twentieth, even when the co-operation means life to the latter and great advantage to the former. In other words, one of the great postulates of the science of economics--that men will seek their economic advantage--is in this case untrue, because in many cases men will not do this if it involves association, even in a casual and business way, with Negroes. And this fact must be taken account of in all judgments as to the Negro's economic progress.

 

From W.E.B. DuBois, The Philadelphia Negro. New York: Lippincott, 1899, Chapter VIII, pp. 141-146.


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