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
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
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.