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    The history of the black middle class in America

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    Summarize 3 to 4 main points on the history of the black middle class in America.

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    The following excerpt, entitled 'The Black Middle Class: Toward a Paradigm of Unity in Afro-American Studies', taken from


    divides the history of the Black middle class into three periods; the Slave Period, the Rural Period, and the Urban Period. This should help you focus your assignment in to the main points that you want to have summarized. It also reviews the experience of Blacks in business and the professions, which you may or may not wish to include in your assignment. I will post the entire excerpt below in case you are unable to reach it through the link above.

    The Black middle class is a small part of the Black community, but it has more and lives with less hardship than the majority of Black people. Middle-class people have smaller family units, higher incomes, more homeownership, more education, jobs with more authority and independence, more and higher quality consumption of necessity items and luxury items, etc. The fact is that some Black people have always lived better than most. But it is also true that the Black middle class has been very insecure at every stage of Black history. Middle-class privilege has been rooted more in the shifting character of status than in the firmer base of economic ownership.


    The overwhelming reality of the slave system was that all Black people had the same basic class position, that of being a slave. This class did not own anything; most importantly, they did not own themselves. Therefore, in strict terms, most Blacks were in the same class during slavery. However, the objective differentiation that did matter was in the technical division of labor.


    The basic distinction between house slaves and field slaves was the difference between service work in the house and production work in the field. Some specialized production by skilled craft workers took place near the slavemaster's house (e.g., the blacksmith) but the main production was done as field work. Field slaves worked collectively (though not with a high level of interdependence, as later developed in assembly line factory-production) and had more limited contact with whites. House slaves were fewer in number and often developed very close ties with their white masters. This close association became the first basis for status distinctions among Blacks in the United States: an aristocracy based on color and style. The more "white blood" (the lighter in skin color), the higher the status; the more one was able to "mimic white behavior" (through hand-me-down clothes, speech, etc.), the more status one had.

    House slaves were conditioned to have commitment and loyalty to the slavemaster. This point is dramatically made by Malcolm X in a 1963 interview on the radio in Philadelphia:

    The house Negro was the one who lived in, the master's house, ate the master's food, at the master's table usually - after the master had finished with it. He dressed like the master, which means he wore the same type of clothing that the master did, but usually it was clothing handed down to him by the master. He identified the master's house as his own. If the master said, "We have a fine house here," the house Negro would say, "Yes, our house is a fine house." Whenever the master said, "We," he said, "We." If the master said, "We have good food on our table," the house Negro would chime in and say, "Yes, we have plenty of food, boss, on our table." The house Negro would also identify himself so closely with his master that when the master was sick the house Negro would say, "What's the matter, boss, we's sick?" When the master was sick he was sick. If the master's house caught on fire the house Negro would fight harder to put the flames out or keep the flames from enveloping the master's house than the master would himself.

    The other group of privileged Blacks within the slave system was called "freedmen." Some free Blacks owned land, but as E. Franklin Frazier pointed out in the The Negro in the United States, most were only subsistence farmers:

    In 1830 the free Negroes owned about 32,000 acres of land valued at $184,184, and by 1860 both the acreage and the value of the farms owned by free Negroes had doubled. Since nearly half (43%) of the farms owned by the 1,200 free Negro farm owners contained 25 acres or less, it may be assumed that these farms were used for subsistence rather than for commercial enterprises.

    Ira Berlin notes the slave system was so threatening to free Blacks that they were often uncooperative and decidedly conservative with respect to the well-being of their fellow Blacks who were in slavery:

    Standing a step above the slave, free Negroes simply had too much to lose to take the lead in breaking the bonds of servitude. They too suffered the pains of white oppression, but free Negroes could look down to slavery as well as up to complete freedom. They could see how their status might degenerate, and they knew that whites needed only the flimsiest excuse to take their liberty. Having learned to squeeze a few precious benefits from their caste status, they were not about to surrender them without a guarantee of something better. Freedom within the context of slavery gave free Negroes something to protect and transformed them into a conservative caste. The general insecurity of free Negro life, the sure knowledge that free Negroes suffered whenever whites felt threatened, and their growing material prosperity reinforced that conservatism.

    Berlin goes on to point out that the conflict between free Blacks and Black slaves was caused by slavemasters who were interested in preventing Black unity against the slave system:

    'Whites promoted these differences between free Negroes and slaves, just as they tried to divide field hands and house servants, unskilled bondsmen and slave artisans. They gladly rewarded free Negroes who informed on slaves, just as they almost always freed slaves who revealed impending insurrections.

    Some free Blacks were slaveowners themselves. Much of this can be explained by the fact that they often purchased their family members and friends. However, like white slaveowners, some Blacks did own slaves for their own economic advantage. Berlin provides further insight into how an economic system based on slavery functioned to divide Blacks:

    Economic success in the South depended largely on the ownership of slaves, and free Negroes were no more exempt from this than whites. Although most free Negro slaveholders were truly benevolent despots, owning only their families and friends to prevent their enslavement or forcible deportation, a small minority of wealthy freemen exploited slaves for commercial purposes. This small group of free Negroes were generally the wealthiest and best-connected members of their caste...

    Slaveholding free Negro planters identified...closely with the Southern ideal. Andrew Durnford, who owned a Louisiana plantation which he worked with some seventy-five slaves, was finely attuned to the planter ideology and considered himself a patriarchal master in the best tradition. Although he raided endlessly against the seeming incompetence and indolence of his "rascally negroes" he took pride in his role as their protector as well as their owner. When Norbert Rillieux, a French-trained free Negro engineer who had invented a new method of refining sugar, offered Durnford $50,000 for use of his plantation to test the vacuum process, the planter turned him down, noting that he could not "give up control of his people." Durnford's people of course were slaves and he treated them as such despite their similar complexion. With the exception of his personal body servant, he never showed any interest in releasing them from bondage. In 1835, Durnford traveled north to Virginia to purchase additional hands for himself and his white mentor, John McDonogh. During his trip, he confronted, perhaps for the first time, the Southern distaste for slave traders, as opposed to those who bought and used slaves, and he consciously manipulated that idea to obtain lower prices. Yet, throughout his lengthy discussion with McDonogh on what he called "Negro traders," he showed not the slightest understanding that the term when applied to him might have two additional meanings, for Durnford literally was a Negro trader and some blacks might consider his actions treasonable. These possibilities were lost on Durnford because he fully identified with the white slaveowning elite. Many wealthy freemen, like Durnford, considered themselves more white than black, no matter what their precise racial heritage. They showed little sympathy for the slave and had few qualms about the morality of slavery. Durnford's Northern-educated son, who urged amelioration of slave conditions - not emancipation - had no greater sense of identification with blacks than his father. He supported African colonization for slaves - but not for himself - spoke of colonization as reparation, and lauded the plan to return blacks to "the land of their fathers."


    These few Black slaveowners wanted to retain their class privilege.
    An additional group with special standing was the skilled craft workers (or artisans). Slaves were the dominant skilled craft workers in many areas of the South, and as such they were accorded certain privileges. Some free Blacks were skilled craft workers in both the North and the South. Marcus Christian provides an example of ...

    Solution Summary

    This solution offers some information to help with an assignment to summarize 3-4 points about the history of the black middle class in America.