This is an excerpt from the chapter "A Different American History." I have extracted only the portion that deals with my Mom Stein's story. It is a tribute to her. She passed away today.
A Different American History
I have three moms, my birth mother, Walterine, Mom Earnestine, “Stein”, and my dad’s current wife, Mom Valerie. I decided to interview my dad and my Mom Stein about their upbringing in the South. I especially wanted to learn about about their personal accounts of America’s sharecropping system…
Mom Stein: Mississippi was horrible. I was born and raised there and experienced things that you will never understand. To live under the reign of a white man. Black folks didn’t have anything except what white folks allowed them to have. I’m talking about slavery. The white man owned the land, the mules, the people. The black man lived on the white man’s land. It was a plantation. The white man built little houses, we called shacks, for the black people on his land. As far as you could see, the land was his. Every white person was called Mister. Mister Jones, Mister Smith. Some of us, because of lack of schooling called him Missuh. Even as little kids five and six years old, we grew up knowing white people as Missuh. They referred to us kids as their little black people or little niggers. As far as they were concerned, they owned the little niggers that worked for them. Only the white people owned the plantations. Everything was under his domain.
Me: Mom, why did you feel like you were a slave?
Mom Stein: When you don’t own anything, the horses, cows, houses, animals. They (the black families) worked his plantation. Slavery still existed in Mississippi. A lady came to where we lived; she wanted to write a book on what she saw. She stayed with one of the families.
Me: Did the plantation owner know that she was writing a book?
Mom Stein: Oh, child, please. No. We didn’t tell him.
Me: Mom, you said slavery. You were born in 1943, so we’re talking about the 1950s. Slavery ended in 1865, so do you mean slavery like that? Did the owner beat the people with whips?
Mom Stein: Yes slavery. Beatings, they didn’t happen that often but every now and then, when it became necessary to get his point across, he hit them. The ones who were rebellious or got out of line.
Me: Why didn’t they leave? Run away?
At this point, my Mom Stein began to describe a “mindset” that she said, “I wouldn’t understand.” She said, “there’s a life you have no concept about because you have to be a part of it to understand.” She referred to the people as slaves born on a plantation. But she was talking about the 1940s and ‘50s. She talked about people being bought and sold not at slave auctions but in transactions between what she called sharecroppers. I asked her if that happened to her parents, and she said no. But she added that she knew of people who had been sold. I asked her again in shock and unbelief if she meant people being bought and sold, and she said yes.
I knew from my research for this book that in the South, black prison inmates were sold to landowners to work the land. These inmates had no rights and were the property of the landowner who bought them. My research also introduced me to the term “peonage” (see below), but I had never heard anything like what Mom Stein described. Douglas A. Blackmon’s book, “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II” is “a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the “Age of Neoslavery,” the American period following the Emancipation Proclamation in which convicts, mostly black men, were “leased” through forced labor camps operated by state and federal governments.” Here’s an excerpt from that book:
Slavery v. Peonage
“Peonage, also called debt slavery or debt servitude, is a system where an employer compels a worker to pay off a debt with work. Legally, peonage was outlawed by Congress in 1867. However, after Reconstruction, many Southern black men were swept into peonage through different methods, and the system was not completely eradicated until the 1940s.
In some cases, employers advanced workers some pay or initial transportation costs, and workers willingly agreed to work without pay in order to pay it off. Sometimes those debts were quickly paid off, and a fair wage worker/employer relationship established.
In many more cases, however, workers became indebted to planters (through sharecropping loans), merchants (through credit), or company stores (through living expenses). Workers were often unable to re-pay the debt, and found themselves in a continuous work-without-pay cycle.
But the most corrupt and abusive peonage occurred in concert with southern state and county government. In the south, many black men were picked up for minor crimes or on trumped-up charges, and, when faced with staggering fines and court fees, forced to work for a local employer who would pay their fines for them. Southern states also leased their convicts en mass to local industrialists. The paperwork and debt record of individual prisoners was often lost, and these men found themselves trapped in inescapable situations.” (Blackmon, n.d.)
Peonage and post-Civil War slavery was also forced upon the Native Americans. Here’s an excerpt from William S. Kiser’s book, “Borderlands of Slavery: The Struggle over Captivity and Peonage in the American Southwest (America in the Nineteenth Century)”:
“Winner of the 2018 Historical Society of New Mexico Gaspar Pérezde Villagrá Award
It is often taken as a simple truth that the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution ended slavery in the United States. In the Southwest, however, two coercive labor systems, debt peonage—in which a debtor negotiated a relationship of servitude, often lifelong, to a creditor—and Indian captivity, not only outlived the Civil War but prompted a new struggle to define freedom and bondáge in the United States.
In Borderlands of Slavery, William S. Kiser presents a comprehensive history of debt peonage and Indian captivity in the territory of New Mexico after the Civil War. It begins in the early 1700s with the development of Indian slavery through slave raiding and fictive kinship. By the early 1800s, debt peonage had emerged as a secondary form of coerced servitude in the Southwest, augmenting Indian slavery to meet increasing demand for labor. While indigenous captivity has received considerable scholarly attention, the widespread practice of debt peonage has been largely ignored. Kiser makes the case that these two intertwined systems were of not just regional but also national importance and must be understood within the context of antebellum slavery, the Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction.
Kiser argues that the struggle over Indian captivity and debt peonage in the Southwest helped both to broaden the public understanding of forced servitude in post-Civil War America and to expand political and judicial philosophy regarding free labor in the reunified republic. Borderlands of Slavery emphasizes the lasting legacies of captivity and peonage in Southwestern culture and society as well as in the coercive African American labor regimes in the Jim Crow South that persevered into the early twentieth century.” (Kiser, n.d.)
It is hard to identify with the “historical” accounts of peonage; they seem too distant. But hearing them from Mom Stein’s accounts of her life isn’t any easier. It still seems unbelievable, yet as she shares it, I know it's real and all the more unnerving. She’s not even 80 years old. I’m 55, so these accounts are a just historical stone’s throw away from me. Yet, I can’t reconcile them with my own life and what I know about America and life in America.
Mom Stein: The black man didn’t own anything. There was a saying the white man owned the land, he owned the man, and he owned the mule. The black man didn’t own anything but his own black skin. They did auction off people to work the land. It wasn’t just one white family that owned the land. It was all of the white people and their families. They owned everything. We chopped cotton for $2 a day. There was eight of us. I was the oldest. The older four, me, James, Sonny, and Ethel, we started working on the plantation somewhere around the age of 10, 11, or 12. We went to school until we got old enough to chop cotton.
Me: Mom, what did you do before age 10? Did you go to school? Did they let you go to school? Who decided when you were supposed to stop school?
Mom Stein: When I was about 8 or 9, I learned how to cook. I was great at 10. My mom and aunt learned how to cook in the big house.
Me: In the 1950s they still called the white man’s house the big house?
Mom Stein: Yes, you see he had many houses. He owned all the little houses that we lived in, and his was the biggest one.
Me: So, when did you stop going to school?
Mom Stein. At 12 or 13. You could only go to school while you were little. When you became big enough to work in the fields, you had to go to work in the fields because the white man said so. I wanted my sisters and brothers to get away from there and go to school. I was the oldest of my brothers and sisters. Because I was the oldest, I used to work for the man in the house, instead of the fields where my sisters and brothers and the rest of the people were. My job was to cook and keep the house clean. I started saving. I didn’t want my brothers and sisters to keep working from sun up to sun down for $2 a day.
Me: Mom, you say you were the oldest, where were your parents? Your aunt?
Mom Stein: I was 14 when my mom passed. My aunt moved to St. Louis, right after my mom died.
Me: You said your aunt moved to St. Louis after your mom died? She didn’t stay to take care of you and your siblings?
Mom Stein: She wasn’t the mothering type. There was eight of us. She had none and didn’t want none.
Me: What about your dad? Did your dad die?
Mom Stein: No, he ran away.
Me: Ran away from the plantation?
Mom Stein: Ran away from the plantation, from us. He ran away to Chicago.
Me: Did he send money?
Mom Stein: No
Me: Did he help before he ran away?
Mom Stein: Before he ran away, he was an over-the-road trucker. He worked for the plantation owner. He was delivering things from the owner to different cities. Sometimes he’d be gone 2-3 weeks at a time. Before my mom died, before he left, he contributed to clothing, food. My parents were allowed to plant. They planted and raised crops. Beans, greens, and corn and all of that. That’s how they fed us. They learned how to make cornbread and biscuits. He stopped contributing when he left. After he left, we never saw him again.
She told me that after her mother died, she and the older three siblings decided when each one would drop out of school to work the plantation so that they could take care of the younger ones.
Mom Stein: We got paid for chopping and picking his cotton. He took out of that what he thought was his due for picking his cotton, corn, and beans. We were the ones that took care of that plantation.
Me: Mom, my dad said that the sharecroppers owned a store on the land that his family sharecropped on. Did these owners have a store?
Mom Stein: He had a big store, and we’d buy clothes from him out of his store. He owned that store. That store had whatever was needed for his people, food, clothing. We bought everything we needed to survive.
Me: Mom, what about medicine, like aspirin, cough syrup?
Mom Stein: Aspirin, Tylenol, cough syrup, whatever you needed. Other owners had stores too.
I then began to ask my mom how she got out off of the plantation. She told me, “we saved up money to leave there and come to St. Louis.” I asked her how they could possibly save any money being paid so little and then having to buy everything from the sharecropper’s store. She laughed and gave praise to God for being able to get it done. She talked about how the two oldest boys came to St. Louis first and got jobs, one at a large “905” liquor store, paving the way for the others to come.
Mom Stein: The manager at the 905 was born and raised on the same plantation in Mississippi that we lived on. James got to St. Louis first and a job at 905. At 15, he was carrying out alcohol on carts to people in cars who bought by the case. James, the next oldest boy, left next and also got a job at 905. They sent money, and I saved it while taking care of the other six kids. I was saving to get the rest of us to St. Louis.
Me: Mom you were 16 when you went to St. Louis with your five younger brothers and sisters. Where did you find a place to live at 16? Don’t you have to be 18 or older to sign a lease?
Mom Stein: The manager at the 905 gave a reference for James. He was able to get us an apartment.
Me: For all 8 of you? How big was the apartment?
Mom Stein: All 8 of us. It was beautiful. It had four bedrooms. We had to double up. It had two bathrooms, a living room, dining room. God was helping us, blessing us, helping me. I had made up my mind we weren’t going to be separated.
Me: Did you start working right away?
Mom Stein: I started cleaning houses right away through people my brother knew. I started cleaning houses at 16 to take care of my brothers and sisters, “my kids,” and sent the younger ones to school. James and Sonny kept working. Sonny was his nickname. James was his real name. Down south, they would name three kids the same thing.
Me: Did you get to go back to school?
Mom Stein: I didn’t get to go back to school. I cleaned houses 6-7 days a week. I was just as grateful as I could be because I was able to feed my family. I was able to get the house cleaning job, that was just the Lord supplying. I was working for what we call “them white folks.” They were so happy to get someone to clean the way I did. “We ain’t never had anybody clean like you do Earnestine.” And they paid me well, above and beyond the minimum. I thank the Lord for what He’s done for us. Provided for us. None of us had been in high school. The Lord just opened up doors for me. And blessed me, a 17-year-old woman, who wouldn’t have been able to keep 7 kids. They stayed with me till they were old enough to be on their own.
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