Debt and Dispossession: Racial Capitalism and African-American Economic Life in Historical Perspective

Justene Hill Edwards, University of Virginia

Shennette Garrett-Scott, University of Mississippi (@EbonRebel)

Amanda White Gibson, College of William & Mary

Calvin Schermerhorn, Arizona State University (@calscherm)

An idyllic image of an industrial sewing school in Richmond from an 1866 newspaper hides the capitalist relations that made the school a factory and the women students its workers. Source: “Glimpses at the Freedmen - The Freedmen’s Union Industrial School, Richmond, Va., from a sketch by Jas E. Taylor,” Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-37860

This session will take place at the 2020 OAH Annual Meeting | Conference on American History in Washington, D.C. Read the full abstract and speaker information here.

We would like the audience to think about structural racism in historical terms, as a process rather than as a 'thing'. Understanding the process of how racist structures persist and change over time is necessary to understanding how durable they have been, and how piecemeal solutions evade the problems. For example, we will discuss how access to credit and access to freedom were connected even before the development of modern financial institutions. Similarly, lack of access to credit and discrimination in lending were problems in the antebellum period just as they are now.

We also want attendees to take away two critically important points about the nature of historical research. The first is to acknowledge the politics of the archive and, second, to look at sources against the grain. We have to acknowledge that certain sources are preserved and certain voices privileged in the historical record. Looking for alternative meanings, though, is not enough. We also have to read the silences and gaps in perceptive but creative ways, which requires that we interrogate some of the shibboleths of our historical enterprise, especially to tell stories about people and experiences that where never really considered legitimate topics of historical interest.

We will also be discussing the connections between American wealth inequality and the legacies of slavery. Voters are locked in a presidential election cycle, and many of the presidential candidates have discussed reparations. What’s missing from the larger debate on reparations is the history of black economic life, not in the 20th or 21st centuries, but in the period of legal slavery.

Our panel will explore the various ways historical actors interacted with capitalism, building wealth, and balancing risk and opportunity. African Americans, in particular, were often victims of capitalist exploitation and expropriation. This panel highlights how African Americans just as often pushed back and asserted their own visions of economic freedom and reparative justice. We will examine the historical mechanisms that lie beyond the concepts and categories with which we have been working, especially connecting modern wealth inequality to the era of slavery.

We envision a fruitful partnership among fields that employ different methods. For instance, Calvin Schermerhorn’s work will help to sequence and contextualize the fruitful findings of stratification economists. He will ground sociological snapshots of (e.g.) the racial wealth gap in historical processes that explain what sociologists so precisely and meticulously describe, and his work will bring a rich historiography into conversation with social science research that gives ground-level assessments of the processes we investigate. Shennette Garrett-Scott’s work on racial capitalism goes beyond the typical references to colonialism to consider carcerality, recognizing spaces similar to the industrial sewing schools as institutionalized instruments of authority, surveillance, coercion, and violence. Amanda Gibson’s paper will connect the history of enslaved people in the United States to the history of credit and debt. By interrogating the experience of one African-American woman, Elizabeth Keckley, Gibson will locate (and challenge) the relationship between capitalism and freedom in the nineteenth century.

Posted: March 10, 2020
Tagged: Conference, Previews, AfAm