Labor Day is viewed as the last long weekend to enjoy the company of friends before the end of summer. Just like many other things that we take for granted now, Labor Day began as a holiday for American workers to gain relief from the harsh working conditions they lived under during the middle of the Industrial Revolution. As I reflect on Labor Day and the importance of black labor in building this country, two things come to mind. First, from a historical perspective, we are among one of the first generations of blacks that can do what they love and still make a living doing so. Second, people making up the “labor” have always been less valued than those individuals who are owners.
Make sure you are not only a laborer forever — set out to own valuable assets as well. My goal with this essay is to give a history of how black labor contributed to the early building of the United States, so we can appreciate where we came from; but let’s never forget the potential of where we can go as wealth builders — not just paid workers.
Slavery in America
Slavery can be traced back many thousands of years. Dr. David P. Forsythe states in one of his works that “at the beginning of the nineteenth century an estimated three-quarters of all people alive were trapped in bondage against their will either in some form of slavery or serfdom.” This is a startling number. One of the biggest beneficiaries of this free labor was America.
In a capitalist society, a few things need to occur to create the opportunity to generate profits. There needs to be a demand for what you are selling, infrastructure (resources) to produce the product, and labor to work the resources. In a free market, the price of labor is determined by competition between workers who gradually raise the price of their services until it hits its natural state, or market value. Furthermore, workers voluntarily choose to work for certain wages under difficult conditions, if they feel that the extra money outweighs the circumstances endured while laboring.
Through slavery, an entire race of people was systematically denied these abilities as wages for slaves were artificially kept at zero and slaves could not choose whether they wanted to work. And their owners — and thus the country — benefitted tremendously economically, without that wealth “trickling down” to the African-Americans who labored to physically create it.
Of course, the results of this can still be felt today. For centuries, blacks were paid below market value, which prevented them from investing in the resources needed for owning a piece of the pie. Whites were able to reinvest their profits for many generations, whether it be in property, human capital, or technology.
Blacks much more recently gained this luxury. Yet, the fact that whites had a 300-year head start in creating generational wealth is often ignored when discussing economic inequalities in this country today.
Labor Day certainly has a different meaning for African-Americans in this context. One day off can never compensate for the hundreds of years of unpaid work, and the chance, forever lost, to pass on the value of labor for generations.
Reconstruction and The Industrial Revolution
There was a glimmer of hope of equality for African-Americans during the years immediately following the Civil War called the Reconstruction. This was a time when numerous black officials were elected to public office while the south was occupied by Union soldiers. However, the majority of blacks were still suffering in all facets of life.
Sharecropping became the new way that people in power kept control. Instead of being directly forced to work, black sharecroppers’ options were greatly limited to the point that this farming system became de facto slavery. Former slave owners saw sharecropping as an opportunity to take advantage of the uneducated freed slaves by drawing up contracts that saw these workers give up as much as 70 percent of the crop harvested.
Being kept in ignorance meant remaining almost free labor. Another lesson for blacks on Labor Day.
But, African-Americans weren’t the only laborers who had conflicting interests with property owners at the end of the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing at this time. There were laborers of all races working 16 hour days in sweatshops all around the nation. This was good for the total economic vitality of the country, but led to a situation in which very few people got rich at the expense of the masses. These conditions inspired some workers to organize labor unions to balance the power between the capitalist owners and labor.