What Hope For The Rural Negro?
In 1930 the Census showed 6,697,230 or 56.5 per cent of the Negro population to be rural. Of that 4,690,523, or 39.3 per cent of the entire Negro population, were classified as rural-farm population. Of this number 1,987,839 or 46 per cent of the total number of Negroes over 10 years of age were gainfully employed in Agriculture; 182,018 Negroes owned and operated farms and 700,911 were tenants, 923 were managers and 1,112,510 were farm laborers of one sort or another.
Any program that is intended to reach the masses of the Negro population will undoubtedly have to do something about the Negro farmer. No lengthy research is necessary to know that the living conditions of this group are the worst on the North American continent, and far worse than exist in many European countries which we consider "backward."
Downtrodden and terrorized into peonage by those who claim that "white supremacy" must be insured by such measures, the majority of the rural Negroes are confined to abject servitude and hopeless poverty. Time and again it has been publicly stated by spokesmen of the exploiting land-owners that the only way to treat a Negro is to work him as hard as possible and give him just enough to live on. The economic advantage to the landowner of such a precept is only too obvious. When the prosperity of a group is considered to be dependent on the maintenance of serf labor, the hostility of that group to political rights, education, law and order can be understood.
Once having understood the motives which influence the oppressing group, those who are interested in the continued progress of our Negro population should develop a strategy for releasing the rural Negro from his serfdom. Strategy, to be effective, must be realistic, motivated by sentiment possibly, but based on observable facts. Any one familiar with the facts will hardly deny that the rural Negro, deprived of effective political power and subjected to taxation and farm assessments by agents over whom he has no control or influence, can expect little relief from his own efforts so long as the local government is left in complete control of the situation.
It is generally true that the greater the area of government, the less it will be influenced by local prejudices. It is certainly true that Negroes have received their fairest treatment from the Federal government. Now that the theory of laissez-faire is being buried alongside of the economic depression, and the Federal government is assuming the responsibility for the welfare of the citizenry, there is every reason to hope that the Federal authority will succeed in finding some way of rescuing the rural Negro.
Efforts to this end need not be, and indeed should not be special Negro undertakings. The white tenant-farmer in many places is almost as badly off as the Negroes. But every attempt to improve the agricultural situation in this country should result in benefits for the rural Negro. Whatever steps the Federal government takes in the direction of greater Federal control over agriculture should be welcomed by Negroes.
The first important effort of the government toward improving rural conditions was the crop curtailment scheme which was followed in the South by the government offer to loan money on cotton at ten cents a pound.
At the same time the Division of Subsistence Homesteads in the Department of the Interior has been planning for experiments in a new kind of rural life. Under the leadership of Dr. M. L. Wilson this Division is working out varied schemes to change the character of our rural slums. It is hoped that a method will be evolved for taking care of our stranded populations both in the cities and in the country. The government will buy the land, build the houses and equip the farm and the homesteaders will pay back the money over a long period of years.
Wherever a subsistence homesteads community is founded near a town or city it will be an asset. Therefore it has been urged that some be near Negro-controlled towns. This would be a boon to the Negro merchants in the towns, but it does not mean that only Negroes would be admitted into the homesteads community any more than into the towns, several of which already have mixed populations. The most important benefit of all would be the fact that the Federal government would be behind the people of these communities and would therefore inevitably assume the responsibility for fair play in them.
Already several of the subsistence homesteads projects call for mixed population on a perfectly fair and equal basis. It is the plan to give the homesteaders a real "New Deal" and those who get in, both colored and white, will be very lucky. There may be some projects in which there will be no Negroes and others in which there will be no whites, but there are lots of towns in the country in which there are no Negroes and some in which there are no white people. The principle usually adopted by the Subsistence Homesteads Division is to leave to the applying group the constituency of the particular project. This gives the same protection to Negro groups that it does to white groups and leaves them both free to admit members of other races that fulfill the qualifications of membership.
From the point of view of strategy, the subsistence homesteads should be welcomed by all who aspire to help the large basic group of Negroes. It is a step that may lead the government more and more into the field, and every advance is sure to improve their status. By encouraging the government in these efforts, and at the same time insisting on fair treatment for all, we can be most effective in raising the economic and social standing of the whole Negro race.
Recently President Roosevelt has gone even further and declared that the government will give relief to the "distressed families in rural areas." It is apparent that such a program on the part of the Federal government will be enormously important to both races.
This is such a crucial step on the part of the government and of such particular importance to Negroes that I think it would be well to give the new program in the President's own words. The following is taken from his statement on February 28:
"The care of needy persons in rural areas is a problem quite distinct and apart from that of the industrial unemployed. Their security must be identified with agriculture. They must be placed in positions of self-support. In many parts of the country this calls for a change from commercial farming and dependence upon a single cash crop, to the raising of the various commodities needed to maintain the families.
"Relief funds, therefore, will be expended on behalf of rural families in a manner and to an extent that will enable them to achieve self support. Work for wages from relief funds is not an essential part of this phase of the program and will be provided only in so far as it is necessary to accomplish the primary objective. No encouragement of an extension of competitive farming is contemplated, but rather the placing of thousands of persons, who have made their living from agriculture, into a relationship with the soil that will provide them a security they do not now enjoy.
"Some of the methods to be employed include building or rebuilding to provide adequate farm homes; the provision of seed and of stocks for other than commercial purposes, and opportunity ties to these workers to earn modest cash incomes through part-time or seasonal employment in small industrial enterprises. There should also be a planned distribution of the regular jobs on highways, in the national and state parks and forests and other public work prosecuted in agricultural communities.
"The plans call for complete cooperation with the Department of Agriculture and with the State and county agricultural departments throughout the country. They substitute for direct relief an opportunity to obtain and maintain self-support in an accustomed environment and completely divorce relief activities in rural areas from those in the cities.
"Only a careful survey can determine the number of families included in 'stranded populations' but there are sufficient data already collected to indicate a situation of substantial proportions. The solution of the problem of these families involves their physical transplanting, in a large majority of cases, since the areas in which they are concentrated offer neither future employment at wages nor opportunities for self support through agriculture.
"It is planned to explore this difficult situation and, in collaboration with the Subsistence Homesteads Division of the Department of the Interior, and with other Federal and local agencies, devise and apply definitely remedial measures which will affect an appreciable number of these families.
"These measures will be directed first at maintenance on small tracts of land and then at the development of supplemental or industrial opportunities to provide for a normal standard of living." . . .
The President's announcement has been vigorously followed up in the office of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. There, Colonel Laurence Westbrook, with the collaboration of Forrester Washington, is working out plans and programs that are revolutionary in their potential effect on the rural Negro population. At the same time, the addition of John P. Murchison to the staff of the Subsistence Homesteads Division shows that in that office, too, every effort will be made to carry out the President's plan in full.
What a year ago seemed an absolutely hopeless situation now appears as one of the most challenging problems of the "New Deal." Negroes on the farm and Negroes in the slums will realize with delight that the lessons we learned from the "crazy decade" have not been in vain.