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The Color Factor: The Economics of African-American Well-Being in the Nineteenth Century South

Author(s):Bodenhorn, Howard
Reviewer(s):Wanamaker, Marianne

Published by EH.Net (December 2015)

Howard Bodenhorn, The Color Factor: The Economics of African-American Well-Being in the Nineteenth Century South.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. xiv + 320 pp. $40 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-19-938309-2.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Marianne Wanamaker, Department of Economics, University of Tennessee.

Howard Bodenhorn’s manuscript faces two enormously difficult tasks from the onset.  First, in examining the nineteenth-century, the book is in danger of becoming just another book about slavery and its unwinding.  Second, in promising to provide an assessment of African-American “well-being,” it must necessarily take on the non-pecuniary elements of well-being that economists are frequently poorly equipped to discuss.  Bodenhorn’s accomplishments in overcoming both of these hurdles are laudable.

The opening two chapters make clear how the manuscript aims to avoid being just another book about slavery.  Bodenhorn is far more deliberate than the current literature in measuring the effects of color differences within the African-American community on a whole host of relevant outcomes.  The opening primer on the legal and cultural implications of mixed-race Americans is fantastically detailed. Most notably, it quickly contrasts the twentieth century “just one drop” racial definition with the more nuanced norms of the nineteenth century, both before and after the Civil War.  Although the U.S. Census failed to make accommodations for variation beyond black/white/mulatto, Bodenhorn draws on an impressive number of alternative sources to demonstrate the importance of racial composition distinctions beyond these three groupings for well-being.  The third chapter of the book, perhaps unnecessary for investigating well-being per se, is a highly informative effort to elucidate the wide variety of “science” and “philosophy” that informed these racial definitions and social norms.  The reader is better for having consumed this information as it helps to place much of the remaining discussion in the context of contemporary thought.

Having given a thorough review of the broad implications of color for African-American experiences in Southern society, Bodenhorn begins a systematic investigation of the ways in which race contributed to specific outcomes of interest: marriage, sex, fertility, plantation work assignments, manumission and escapes from slavery, property accumulation, health, height and, finally, mortality.  The thematic approach is clean and easy to follow.  Certainly the chosen categories represent a large proportion of overall well-being.  Where possible, the stage is set broadly by establishing a difference between white and non-white outcomes before moving on to more nuanced definitions of racial characterization.  For example, in the chapter on marriage, Bodenhorn examines assortative matching by color for 8,644 marriages culled from the Freedmen’s Bureau records.  In these records, ten separate race categories, ranging from black to white but also including “griff,” “light” and “quadroon,” can be identified and are transcribed for analysis.  Bodenhorn demonstrates that nineteenth century brides and grooms exhibited strong preferences for same-colored spouses, narrowly defined.

To overcome his second challenge, Bodenhorn relies, sometimes awkwardly, on economic theory to guide discussion.  But he provides remarkable narratives and primary source accounts to frame the discussion, giving the book a feel of “Cliometrics plus.”  If economic historians are guilty of too frequently reducing humanity and well-being to a measurable quantity, Bodenhorn skillfully weaves a story of people and families to surround the quantitative analysis.  For example, in a section on plantations, he highlights whether slaves had agency or bargaining power with respect to particular issues, not merely because these things mattered for economic outcomes but also as recognition that they independently impacted well-being.  The resulting work is highly satisfying and highly human.

Although the book is solidly a nineteenth-century discussion, it often feels like an antebellum study.  Perhaps this is because the literature and primary source availability in the postbellum South are weak relative to the pre-war years.  But it is more likely that the differences between mixed-race and black experiences were most stark prior to emancipation and therefore make for more interesting discussion and hypothesis testing.  The book’s epilogue briefly provides evidence of a narrowing scope for mixed-race individuals to find a “racial middle ground” in the early part of the twentieth century.  If the manuscript leaves an opportunity unexploited, it is drawing more clearly the arc between the situation in the immediate post-emancipation South and what would become the Jim Crow one-drop racial definition.   What elements of the post-war Confederate and southern Union states led to this erosion?  And why did it take a full fifty years for it to come to fruition in the form of Jim Crow?  Bodenhorn’s observation that racial-mixing and color are “recently resurgent” in the last few decades only serves to heighten curiosity.

The Color Factor is an all-encompassing assessment of the relationship between race and quality of life in the nineteenth century.  It is highly engaging and likely to become standard reading for scholars studying the economics of American slavery, southern labor markets, and household decision-making in the nineteenth century.  Bodenhorn relies on references from a wide swath of social science and humanities disciplines, and I fully anticipate the favor to be returned.

On the back cover of this manuscript, two prominent economic historians separately refer to Bodenhorn’s contribution as a “tour-de-force,” and I wholeheartedly agree.

Marianne Wanamaker’s publications include “Municipal Housekeeping: The Impact of Women’s Suffrage on Public Education” (with Celeste Carruthers), Journal of Human Resources (Fall 2015); “The Great Migration in Black and White: New Evidence on the Geographic Mobility of American Southerners” (with William Collins), Journal of Economic History (December 2015); and “Fertility and the Price of Children: Evidence from Slavery and Slave Emancipation,” Journal of Economic History (December 2014)

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Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century