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Joe Debro on racism in construction, Part 4

May 2, 2014

by Joseph Debro

A 1968 book-length report, titled “A Study of the Manpower Implications of Small Business Financing: A Survey of 149 Minority and 202 Anglo-Owned Small Businesses in Oakland, California,” was sent to the Bay View by its author, Joseph Debro, prior to his death in November 2013, and his family has kindly permitted the Bay View to publish it. The survey it’s based on was conducted by the Oakland Small Business Development Center, which Debro headed, “in cooperation with the small businessmen of Oakland, supported in part by a grant, No. 91-05-67-29, from the U.S. Department of Labor, Manpower Administration, Office of Manpower, Policy, Evaluation and Research.” Project co-directors were Jack Brown and Joseph Debro, and survey coordinator was Agustin Jimenez. The Bay View is publishing the report as a series. A prolog appeared in the December 2013 Bay View, Part 1 in January 2014, Part 2 in February, Part 3 in April, and this is Part 4 of the report.

In Ohio before 1865, Joe Debro writes, “Blacks had to have a certificate of freedom giving name, stature and complexion as well as details concerning the method of becoming free. In addition, a $500 bond as guarantee of good conduct was required of incoming freedmen, thus discouraging many Negroes from settling in the state.” Today, Ohio remains hostile to Black tradesmen – construction workers and contractors – who held a protest in late April, telling a major developer: “Black and other minority contractors and construction workers have been denied contracts and jobs on construction projects. Though entitled to an equal opportunity, we have been crushed and broken by the one sided, majority dominated and oppressive system which has neglected and/or confined Black and minority contractors to just the crumbs of the multi-billion dollar construction industry in the Greater Cleveland-Cuyahoga County area.” – Photo: Norman K. Edwards, American Center for Economic Equality, normankedwards@gmail.com

In Ohio before 1865, Joe Debro writes, “Blacks had to have a certificate of freedom giving name, stature and complexion as well as details concerning the method of becoming free. In addition, a $500 bond as guarantee of good conduct was required of incoming freedmen, thus discouraging many Negroes from settling in the state.” Today, Ohio remains hostile to Black tradesmen – construction workers and contractors – who held a protest in late April, telling a major developer: “Black and other minority contractors and construction workers have been denied contracts and jobs on construction projects. Though entitled to an equal opportunity, we have been crushed and broken by the one sided, majority dominated and oppressive system which has neglected and/or confined Black and minority contractors to just the crumbs of the multi-billion dollar construction industry in the Greater Cleveland-Cuyahoga County area.” – Photo: Norman K. Edwards, American Center for Economic Equality, normankedwards@gmail.com

Black labor and business in the North before 1862

Labor and business conditions were slightly better for Negroes in the North than in the South, but discriminatory practices were far from absent. Unlike the South, where slaves were protected in their crafts through the paternalistic assistance of their white masters, Northern free Negroes were faced with severe competition from immigrant Irish, German or other North European workers who were preferred over native Blacks.

As a result, free Blacks were excluded from many occupations in which they were formerly associated both as laborers and businessmen. Foley (1966) reported several Negro enterprises which flourished in Philadelphia before the Civil War, but which declined in importance or failed as a result of competition from immigrant labor, riots, political pressure, segregation and denial of voting privileges. Thus, by the time of the War Between the States, there was probably a decline in the percentage of Black businesses and laborers as compared with their relative strength prior to massive European immigration.

The patterns of free Negro labor and entrepreneurial activities in the North were by and large the same as those in the South. Prior to the Civil War, most Black laborers in Northern states were in agriculture. Those in cities and towns were, for the most part, confined to occupations which were of low socio-economic status, such as domestic servants and common laborers.

Northern free Negroes were faced with severe competition from immigrant Irish, German or other North European workers who were preferred over native Blacks. As a result, free Blacks were excluded from many occupations in which they were formerly associated both as laborers and businessmen.

A comparison of five cities will demonstrate the overall types of employment of free Negroes in the antebellum days, exclusive of domestic services. Most of the occupational categories represented are those requiring low levels of skills, but with a fair representation of skilled trades as well. The major Negro occupations represented in the five cities were: barbers, blacksmiths, boot and shoemakers and repair shops, butchers, cabinet makers, carpenters and joiners, coopers, dressmakers, laborers, mariners, painters and glaziers, seamstresses, sewers of carpet bags, tailors and tailoresses, waiters or tenders, and whitewashers.

Black women work construction too and are even more likely to be excluded, despite their skills, as Black men. – Photo: Norman K. Edwards, American Center for Economic Equality

Black women work construction too and are even more likely to be excluded, despite their skills, as Black men. – Photo: Norman K. Edwards, American Center for Economic Equality

No strict comparison is possible with native-born white and immigrant laborers and businessmen in these cities for the same dates, but there is little doubt that Black skilled labor was under-represented, considering their numerical proportion within the population. Negroes needing services of artisans at this time did not always rely on members of their own race to perform them. Whites who wished these same services almost invariably chose white artisans.

Even before the massive wave of European immigration was felt in the United States during the 19th century, restrictive legislation preventing Blacks from participating freely in business and labor was nearly ubiquitous. In Ohio, for example, Blacks were required to submit proof that they were indeed freedmen before they could even settle in a community, a custom practiced widely in the South; as a consequence, free Blacks had to have a certificate of freedom giving name, stature and complexion as well as details concerning the method of becoming free. In addition, a $500 bond as guarantee of good conduct was required of incoming freedmen, thus discouraging many Negroes from settling in the state.

Illinois forced Negroes to provide a $1,000 bond, while Indiana prohibited Negroes from becoming state residents (Quarles, 1964:93). If a freedman lost his papers, he might be considered a runaway slave; whites were entitled to “jail him, hire him out, or sell him” (Quarles, 1964: 87).

Negroes could not vote in most Northern states. In those states where Blacks could vote prior to the Civil War (Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Vermont), the population of Blacks was quite small, with the exception of Massachusetts (Quarles, 1964:92).

Even before the massive wave of European immigration was felt in the United States during the 19th century, restrictive legislation preventing Blacks from participating freely in business and labor was nearly ubiquitous.

These and other types of restrictions had an indelible effect upon chances for Black businessmen and laborers in the North. Because of his identification with a lower caste, the freedman was confined to common labor and domestic service.

Jobs requiring skilled labor were difficult to acquire, in spite of the rich Southern slave heritage in the crafts. No white craftsman would offer apprenticeships to Blacks for fear of losing status among his peers or through fears that a Negro would steal from him (Woodson, 1916) or commit other mischief.

Many inflammatory articles and speeches were made against Blacks as skilled laborers and were to continue well into the 20th century. In many Northern states, educational facilities were not open to Blacks, so that they were prevented from acquiring new skills.

Between 1830 and 1860, 4,910,690 white immigrants are reported to have entered the United States (Quarles, 1964:93). These northern European newcomers further strengthened the prejudices against Negroes, refusing to work alongside them. As the immigrants swelled the ranks of unskilled labor (by the time of the Civil War, they far surpassed the Black population in the North), Negroes were forced out of many of the so-called “untouchable” occupations – those of maid, cook, porter, janitor, waiter – which traditionally had been theirs.

Many inflammatory articles and speeches were made against Blacks as skilled laborers and were to continue well into the 20th century. In many Northern states, educational facilities were not open to Blacks, so that they were prevented from acquiring new skills.

In spite of the extremely disadvantaged position of the Negro in the North, a few managed to amass small fortunes. Many examples of antebellum Black entrepreneurs were provided by Foley (1966), Baker (1964:119, 145), Greene and Woodson (1930), and Pierce (1947). Quarles (1964:94) succinctly cites a few cases for the North:

“Despite drawbacks, some Negroes managed to make a good living. In New York City in 1856, Negroes had $200,000 in bank deposits. Cincinnati Negroes in 1852 owned property valued in excess of $500,000. Host Northern cities had their well-to-do colored caterers and restaurateurs, food service being almost a Negro monopoly in some places. Barbering, too, was a wide-open field to Negroes, many of whom did very well at it … Prosperous Negro farmers were not uncommon in Indiana’s Rush County in 1857, having 46 such heads of families who owned a total of more than 3,000 acres.

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable

Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a trader from Haiti, founded Chicago, settling there in the 1770s.

“Negroes were conspicuous in the fur trade as conducted from St.Louis. Not only were they employed as cooks, voyageurs, hunters, guides and interpreters, but also as salaried traders … A few Negroes became independent entrepreneurs in the fur trade, the best known being Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, whose stations were located along the shores of Lake Michigan and who became the first permanent settler on the present site of Chicago.

“Among the self-employed Negroes were a few who gave employment to others. Railmaker James Forten hired white and colored workers in his Philadelphia plant; Stephen Smith and William Whipper were highly successful lumber merchants in Columbia, Pennsylvania, and Henry Boyd of Cincinnati was the owner of a bedstead factory with some 20 employees.”

These successes, as well as the many others reported elsewhere in the literature, are testimony to early Black endeavors to emulate white entrepreneurs in America. But no amount of small victories was sufficient to create an image of success for freedmen.

The racial doctrines concerning the natural transcendence of whites over Blacks, rampant in England and America during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries (Gosset, 1963), the long tradition of slavery with the natural outgrowth of feelings of racial superiority among Anglo Saxons both in the North and in the South, the theological justification for white supremacy emanating from almost all Protestant sects, as well as strong opposition to Negro participation from political and laboring forces, all conspired to keep Blacks in an intolerable economic and social condition.

Blacks were confronted on all sides with their inferiority vis-a-vis the dominant white stratum of society. It was virtually impossible to seek role models in the economic spheres from slaves or from common laborers or domestics. As a result, Blacks were shunted into that dark corner in American society which has characterized that group until today.

In an effort to save themselves from economic and moral doom in the United States, several Negro and white groups sought to abolish slavery and to convince at least some Blacks that they should build a new homeland in Africa. The latter was not very successful, but the abolitionist movement was one of the most dynamic forces for social change in America during the 19th century and inevitably was to become associated, part and parcel, with the Civil War itself.

Joseph Debro, born Nov. 27, 1928, in Jackson, Miss., and a pillar of Oakland until his death on Nov. 5, 2013, was president of Bay Area Black Builders and of Transbay Builders, a general engineering contractor, former director of the Oakland Small Business Development Center and the California Office of Small Business, co-founder of the National Association of Minority Contractors and a bio-chemical engineer.

 

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