Tag Archives: Racial Discrimination

Eric Foner Goes A Bridge Too Far

(January 9, 2017) From the first of his 212 YouTube Civil War lectures Dr. Eric Foner emphasizes:

The opinions of historians…[have] a practical impact on our lives…An earlier view of Reconstruction…was used to justify the exclusion of black people in the South from political rights.

He provides one example in his 207th lecture segment when endorsing an accusation that “racist” white Southern congressmen deliberately excluded blacks from benefits when Old Age Social Security was formed in 1935. “How do they do that?” the professor asks. “They eliminate the largest areas of black employment: agricultural laborers and domestic workers…representing 80% of black workers.”

Even allowing for Foner’s habitual anti-Southern spin, the accusation is a bridge too far.


First, three-quarters of the 20 million workers excluded from Social Security in 1935 were whites.

Second, agricultural and domestic workers (household servants) were excluded because the Internal Revenue Service doubted that it could enforce the required payroll tax in those sectors. Many such workers were—and preferred to be—paid in cash. The IRS worried that poor tax compliance in such large sectors might trigger widespread non-compliance elsewhere.

Third, an administrative committee of President Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet—not Congress—designed the Social Security bill. Although the committee originally recommended that agricultural and domestic workers be included, Connecticut resident and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. cited the IRS objections and advised against their inclusion when he testified before the House Ways and Means Committee.

Fourth, Southerners did not control the two pertinent congressional committees. They represented only 6 of 21 Finance Committee members in the Senate. Similarly, they accounted for only 4 of 18 Way and Means Committee members in the House. Both committees approved Social Security and the applicable exclusions with almost no dissent.

Fifth, even though Jim Crow still predominated in the South fifteen years after the 1935 Act, agricultural and domestic workers were brought into the program in 1950.

Sixth, initially after the 1935 bill was passed many—perhaps most—workers and employers wanted to be excluded. Almost all of the early lawsuits, protests, and disputes were attempts to gain exclusion.

As late as 1955, The Wall Street Journal reported that few domestic workers and their employers wanted to comply. A St. Louis housewife said, “I’m not going to pay it until someone yells.” As late as 1993 Connecticut lawyer and visiting Yale scholar Zoe Baird failed to win appointment as President Clinton’s first Attorney General because she did not pay the tax for her domestic servant.

Seventh, Foner exaggerates a little when claiming that 80% of blacks were excluded from the 1935 Act. The fraction was actually 65%, which was slightly below 66% exclusion ratio of other non-whites.

In sum, Dr. Foner’s habitual one-sided interpretations of the Civil War and Reconstruction underscore the old adage, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail” as well as the corollary, “The protruding nail gets pounded down.”

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Source: Larry Dewitt, The Decision to Exclude Agricultural and Domestic Workers from the 1935 Social Security Act

Union Leagues

The Union League is one of the most cryptic of Civil War and Reconstruction era topics even though it was a wellspring of tyranny. Together with the Loyal League identical twin, Southern chapters prompted the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to evolve from an obscure social club into a violent anti-Republican, and therefore anti-black, vigilante group.

The first Union Leagues lodges were formed in the North to support Republicans after Democratic gains in the 1862 wartime elections. According to historian Christopher Phillips the Leagues “demanded undiluted loyalty to the wartime polices of Abraham Lincoln.” They believed there was no such thing as a loyal opposition. Voters either supported Lincoln, or they were traitors. “Western Loyal Leaguers fought dissent with more than words. In central Illinois, one woman claimed that Republicans ‘were forming Vigilance committees to…[identify] every man and woman…not loyal to Lincoln.’” Even non-voters were not exempt from violence. In 1863 Leaguers tarred and feathered seven Ohio women, including one who was a widow of a recently deceased Union soldier.

At the end of the war, League chapters opened in the South to serve as rallying points for whites that had opposed the Confederacy. After Southern blacks were permitted to vote for state constitutional conventions by the dubious authority of the 1867 Reconstruction Acts, most Southern whites dropped out as blacks flooded into the Leagues. The remaining whites became Scalawags and were soon joined by Northern Carpetbaggers.

The new goal for the Southern leagues, which was shared with the Freedmen’s Bureau, was to make sure that blacks registered to vote and voted Republican. Under terms authorized by the Fourteenth Amendment, blacks ended up as a majority of voters in four or five of the eight former Confederate states permitted to vote in the 1868 presidential election. They composed a sizeable minority in the other three or four.

The Union League recruited members with a cult of secrecy and exaggerated promises. Members were indoctrinated to believe that their interests were perpetually at war with Southern whites that were falsely accused of wanting to put blacks back into slavery. Ex-slaves were told their continued freedom depended upon the supremacy of the Republican Party. Accordingly, they voted Republican like “hordes of senseless cattle.” Continue reading

Booker Washington’s Bucket

Post Civil War racial adjustment was a problem Southern whites didn’t want to face and Northern whites refused to share.

When the war started 40% of the Confederacy’s population was black whereas it was only 1% in the free Northern states. Even a century later blacks represented only 2% of the population of Massachusetts, which was the birthplace of abolitionism. Unfortunately, Reconstruction era black voters in the South were manipulated to provide a reliable voting block in order to sustain the Republican Party’s control of the federal government. Once the block was no longer needed, the Party quickly dropped the constituency. Thereafter, Southern blacks were on their own. One of their earliest leaders, Booker T. Washington, rose to prominence about fifteen years later in the early 1890s.

Four years after the collapse of the last Carpetbag regimes, Alabama allocated $2,000 to form the Tuskegee Institute as a college for black teachers in 1881. Twenty-five year old Washington, who was a former slave, became the school’s principal. He had learned his trade at Virginia’s Hampton Institute, which loaned him enough money to buy 100 acres of land for Tuskegee. Seven years later the 540-acre school had over 400 students. In addition to their academics, students were trained in skills such as carpentry, cabinetmaking, printing, and shoemaking. Girls learned how to cook and sew while boys were taught farming and dairying.

Teachers and students provided a large part of the institute’s needs through their own labor. They produced and sold bricks, lumber, furniture, wagons, tools, and clothing. To those who felt that such labor was beneath their dignity Washington answered, “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.” He also worked in the fields alongside his critics.


A year after the school was formed Washington travelled the North seeking donations. Although initially received coolly, potential benefactors gradually warmed-up, impressed by the school’s work to contribute to its own financial needs. At Madison, Wisconsin he gave an address to the annual convention of the National Education Association in 1884, which was scarcely three year’s after Tuskegee was organized. In 1893 a leading magazine profiled him, along with white teachers at Harvard and Yale, as a top American educator. He quickly became a respected African-American leader who spoke often to Southern blacks and mixed racial groups in the North. Continue reading