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Making Freedom Pay: North Carolina Freedpeople Working for Themselves, 1864-1900

Author(s):Holt, Sharon Ann
Reviewer(s):Virts, Nancy

Published by EH.NET (May 2001)

Sharon Ann Holt, Making Freedom Pay: North Carolina Freedpeople Working for

Themselves, 1864-1900. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2000.

xxiii + 188 pp. $30 (cloth), ISBN:0-8203-2170-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Nancy Virts, Department of Economics, California State

University, Northridge.

In this well-written volume, Sharon Ann Holt uses the public records of

Granville County, North Carolina and personal histories of its residents

during the initial period after emancipation to describe how newly freed

blacks worked to better their personal economic condition and to create

institutions to improve their community. She argues that home production,

rather than income from tenant farming, played a crucial role in their

attempts to accumulate wealth to buy farms, build churches and educate their

children. Home production was a less conspicuous method of wealth

accumulation, less likely to draw the attention of hostile whites and more

difficult to expropriate. Unlike income from tenant farming which was often

paid in goods, income from home production could be used in whatever way the

family desired.

Holt describes in detail how home production and tenancy coexisted. The tenant

contract gave black families access to resources that could also be used in

home production, the garden plot, tools etc. Her examples suggest that

families chose the tenure type that allowed them to make the best use of the

available family labor. The purchases of families recorded in the account

books of merchants suggest that freedwomen worked in the home sewing both for

their own families and for others as well as engaging in other types of home

production. The labor of women and children tended to be held out of the

agricultural labor market until harvest time when wages were highest.

In spite of the importance of household production, most families were still

forced to rely on the credit system. Holt’s extensive research into the

account books and other merchant records reveals a southern credit system that

was much more complicated than the traditional view. Her account does not

confine itself to the crop lien but also discusses the use the chattel

mortgages and store accounts. Store accounts were a record of purchases

secured by a crop lien. She finds that blacks did make payments in cash and

goods to pay down these accounts before the crop was brought in. They also

used chattel mortgages to pay for projects both small and large. Chattel

mortgages were an alternative source of credit to crop liens. The terms of

these loans, usually secured by tools and livestock, were more flexible than

the crop liens. However there were risks in mortgaging means of production. If

the loan could not be paid off, the family lost its ability to earn extra

income. Even though the structure of the credit system was biased against

blacks, some were able to use the system effectively to get ahead by acquiring


Holt finds considerable discrepancy between the number of black landowners

listed in the 1880 Census and the number of blacks listed as paying land taxes

in Granville County. Blacks who owned small farms and also rented or

sharecropped were often identified as renters or sharecroppers in the census.

Holt finds that once blacks acquired a farm, most did not add to it and their

use of the credit system became risk averse. The hostility of whites seemed to

limit blacks’ willingness to acquire larger amounts of property.

Freedpeople also used the surplus earned from home production to build

institutions to benefit their community, schools and churches. Holt argues

that blacks were initially successful at setting up schools with the aid of

northern philanthropists. Eventually these philanthropists allied themselves

with southern whites to encourage the growth of public schools. As a result

blacks lost control of schools to local whites. They were more successful at

setting up independent churches, which become centers of community life.

The strength of this book is its careful use of detailed primary source

material. This allows the author to paint a very detailed picture of how newly

freed blacks shaped their economic lives. She shows convincingly that they

made efficient use of family labor and the credit system available to them to

accumulate assets to better the economic condition of the family and to

finance schools and churches.

Ironically this book’s strength is also its major weakness. It is difficult to

judge to what extent its conclusions apply to other regions of the South.

Granville County is located in the tobacco region. As Holt points out the

conditions were more favorable to blacks here than elsewhere in the South.

Tobacco could be grown efficiently on small farms. The productivity of women

and children was high. Tobacco was not as vulnerable to pests as cotton.

In spite of this difficulty this is an important book which will be of

interest to both economists and historians who study this period of Southern

history. It provides a wealth of information about how blacks managed in the

hostile environment of the South after the Civil War. It also suggests some

potential problems with the use of census statistics, which should be

considered by researchers.

Nancy Virts’ publications include “The Efficiency of Southern Tenant

Plantations, 1900-1945,” Journal of Economic History, June 1991 and

(with Kenneth Ng) “The Black-White Income Gap in 1880,” Agricultural

History, Winter 1993.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century