It is well known that land was initially central to freedpeople’s conception of freedom in the immediate aftermath of slavery. But why did landownership remain a durable aspiration for African Americans up until World War I? This paper evaluates the economic options open to African American men and women from the end of Reconstruction to the Great Migration and demonstrates that black leaders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries pointed to land as the best path forward for the majority. Given the bleak options available to them in the rural and urban labor market, landownership was the best path only because every other option was worse.
Black leaders and white observers of the late nineteenth century took note of the barriers rising against African American workers. They tracked the rise of black farm owners as one of the chief demonstrations of black people’s capacity to succeed in a hostile society and pointed toward the possibility of a prosperity for African Americans rising from the soil.
Respondent: Kate Masur, Northwestern University