American industry is slowly beginning to awake to the fact that there is in this country a great reservoir of labor which has been only partially tapped. The South has nine million black folk — of whom five million are productive workers. As a mass they are ignorant and unskilled, but they are ambitious, willlng to learn, and for the most part at present wretchedly underpaid. Lynching, lawlessness, lack of schools, and disfranchisement have slowly but surely made them ripe for change.
What is America doing with these black laborers? We may envisage four hosts who must deal with them — the planter, the manufacturer, the union laborer, and the Northern Negro. The planter inherits a tradition from which he seldom escapes. This tradition regards the Negro laborer as a serf, without a vote, with little education, low wages, and medieval conditions of work. The manufacturer, North and South, has as his ideal a surplus of common labor, whether black white, which will geep wages low by severe competition and periodic unemployment. The union laborer proposes so to restrict and monopolize skilled labor as to compel the employer to grant a living wage. These three hosts are pretty well known; but there is a fourth who is not so often thoughtof. He is the Northern Negro, the representative of the 1,725,141 Negroes established in the North either a generation or more ago or by more recent migration, who have, except in the case of the newest comers, found an industrial place and a racial philosophy and who are the first to be affected by a widespread migration from the South.
These, then, are the four hosts waiting to welcome or repel the Southern black laborer. What has been the resultof their and his interactions? We can perhaps best trace it by noticing the gyrations of a little black doton the map of the United States. This little black dot represents the, center of gravity of the Negro population in the United States. This little dot was near Petersburg, Virginia, in 1790. It moved south and then west until 1910, when suddenly and for the first time in American history it struck eastward, and in 1920 was nine and one half miles farther east and nineteen and one half miles farther north than ten years before.
What does this mean? It means that between 1870 and 1910 the Negroes sought economic salvation in the free land of the West and Southwest and that the migration in this direction offset the considerable migration north and east; but that with the beginning of the World War there occurred the greatest revolution in migration which the Negro has known for a century; and that by actual census figures, the net gain of the North and West and loss of the South between 1910 and 1920 was 334,526- black folk.
This northward movementof the Negro population renewed in the fall of 1922. The great Northern industrial plants sentout a call for semi-skilled and unskilled labor. Just as the cutting down of immigration during the war made a scarcity of common labor, so the new immigration laws together with expanding business are having the same effect at present. The result can be felt all through the South; not as a sudden movement, but as a gradual and expanding tremor.
It is emphasized by the attitude of the white South. There is still the slave-holding psychology. The Commissioner of Labor in Georgia openly declares that his department is going to stop the “enticing” of Negroes away by arresting “labor agent parasites” and “heavily fining” them; and by other methods of law and force. Can he keep Negroes in the South by,these methods? A colored spokesman for five families talked last December to a reporter of the Memphis “They claimed to have been kept in debt year in and out by landowners. One man, who refused to give his name, said he had worked ten years on one plantation, and this year in settling up he had only $50 coming to him. He claimed this would not pay for clothing for his family, let alone buying provisions. What live stock they had in the year 1921 was sold to help them through the crisis when cotton was, at its lowest price.” This debt-peonage have been added in recent years the ravages of the boll-weevil. The secretary of the American Cotton Association notes the depopulation of cotton plantations by both white and black farmers on his account and notes that no young mules have been shipped to the cotton belt since the spring of 1920.