Popular Science Monthly/Volume 60/February 1902/Theology versus Thrift in the Black Belt

1411009Popular Science Monthly Volume 60 February 1902 — Theology versus Thrift in the Black Belt1902Charles Bartlett Dyke




THE negro's real menace to the South lies in the paucity of his earthly wants. His few demands upon the world can be met with little exertion, and the outgrowth of his indolence is vice and crime. Generations of slavery have crushed out the spirit of accumulation. The 'collecting instinct' so prominent in the early life of the white child, is almost lacking in the average negro child of the South. Poverty, even though it may entail dishonesty, is too often accepted as a dispensation of Providence, to be compensated for later by the glories of Heaven.

A recent study of twelve hundred negro children brings out strongly their limited ideas of what constitutes wealth, their lack of thrift, and the sanction placed upon poverty by their religious teachers.[1] These children returned written answers to the following questions:

Would you like to be rich? Why? How much money of your own did you have last week? What did you do with it?

One half of the replies came from the cities of Wilmington (Del.), Baltimore, Washington, Norfolk, Newport News and Hampton. The other half came from the most enlightened rural districts of Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and Alabama.

To all these children, from city and country alike, wealth means only the satisfaction of the simplest and most legitimate wants. To wear shoes and an overcoat when it is cold, and to have a hot fire in the winter, to have enough money to pay the landlord and the grocer, to own a horse or a cow or a mule, to assist the mother, so that she will not have to go out washing every day—this is their idea of riches. A boy of twelve wants wealth "So I could be more comfortable and have a better home than I have at this time. If I was the writ kind of a man I would spen it for food or wood or coal for to burn."

Girls of thirteen write, as reasons for wanting to be rich: "When you want anything you get it, and you don't hafter sit down and wish for it because you don't get it when you wish." "Poor people cannot have anything they want because they have to pay store bills, and the landlord is running to the house every Saturday night for rent."

Several children wish for wealth 'because so many white people are rich' and a boy of thirteen explains, 'If I were rich the white man would not cry my name down but would be my friend.'

It is a regrettable fact that one fifth of the children who desire wealth, expect to 'live bedout working,' as a nine year old boy puts it. Aladdin's lamp is sadly missing from the lives of these twelve hundred children. Their most extravagant desires are as limited in scope as the children voicing them are limited in number. Ten children would travel if wealthy, seven would run a store, two would be conductors on street-cars, five would own pianos, four bicycles, one a 'five-dollar doll' and one a horseless carriage.

But pathetically limited as is their idea of wealth and the wants which it would supply, half of the older children from the rural districts reply with a decided negative to the question 'Would you like to be rich?' Their religion has forced them to choose between comfort in this world and bliss in the next. A girl of sixteen expresses the prevailing sentiment in her answer. "No, I would not like to be rich. Because the Bible say it is just as impossible for a rich man to get to heaven as it is for a camel to get through a cambrac needle eye." [2]

As is shown by the following table, the hostility toward riches is an increasing factor in the lives of both city and country children.

The Attitude of Negro Children toward Wealth.

Ages. 6 to 10. 11 to 13. 14 to 20. All ages.
City. Country. City. Country. City. Country. City. Country.
desiring wealth.
93 82 90 70 83 50 91 65
desiring poverty.
7 18 10 30 17 50 9 35

While fewer than one fifth of the older children living in cities repudiate wealth, one half of the country children from fourteen to twenty years of age distinctly declare their preference for poverty.

The children of the city poor usually see the ordinary comforts of life in evidence among their more fortunate neighbors and often their ambition is aroused to acquire equally desirable property. On the other hand, in the rural districts the standard of living varies less widely, and there is less evidence of prosperity to stimulate the desire for wealth. However, the disproportionate number of country children who exalt poverty does not depend upon the merely passive effect of neighborhood conditions. Their papers bear proof of positive teaching that the accumulation of property is opposed to religion. Almost all who repudiate wealth do so on religious grounds. Between the civitas diaboli of the wealthy and the civitas Dei of the poor a sharp distinction is drawn. The wealthy are declared to be sickly, discontented and unhappy, spending their nights sleeplessly guarding their treasure. They are wicked and cruel, and 'get their wealth by stealing from the poor.' A girl of sixteen sums up the general impression in her statement that 'A rich person never feels happy, they is always sad and unhappy.' 'Them that is not rich is happy Always.' The attitude of the great majority is that 'God don't leek rich folks.' The following replies are typical of this sentiment:

Girl, 11. Rich people is always sickly and poor people has good health.
Girl, 12. No, because I would not be good to my little brother.
Boy, 15. No, I wouldn't do justice to every one.
Girl, 15. No, I would not like to be rich because a rich person will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I would rather be poor and be kind and gentle in my manner.
Girl, 16. I would not like to be rich for—

I care not for riches.
Neither silver nor gold,
I would make sure of heaven,
I would enter the fold.

Boy, 17. No, I would forget the Lord and put my whole heart and mind in my riches.
Boy, 20. I don't care to ever be rich. If I were rich it might come to me to turn to the things of the world, and not on heavenly affairs.

Bearing in mind that wealth in the Black Belt means merely a decent standard of living, we must regard the religious ban placed upon its accumulation as a positive encouragement of unthrift.

The children's record of their expenditures for one week bears out this conclusion. The average amount possessed by each of the twelve hundred children, was twenty-five cents, earned by the majority in such ways as gathering com and hay, sailing a boat, selling oysters, papers and scrap iron, running errands and carrying packages, picking over cinders and 'writing a letter for a lady.' It is difficult for the children to account for the use of their money.

'I spen it honest,' 'I spent it for things,' 'I spent it for my use' indicate, not reluctance to divulge private affairs, but the fatal facility with which their money escapes them. Burial society dues,[3] school material, car rides and clothing, including such elegancies as 'a backing comb' and 'two yards of second moning' are among the expenditures mentioned. The largest item for expenditure is for dainties—candy, peanuts, pickles, cheese and cakes—to the average amount of about four cents per child. The same average amount is temporarily kept by each child. As it is often stated, 'When I get some more to put with it I will get something I want. The idea of putting money away for some definite future use is rarely found.

Booker Washington's 'great quadrivium' for his people consists in the arts of acquiring 'property, economy, education and Christian character.' The success of Hampton and Tuskegee lies in the habits which they form of thrift and industry, and in the new wants which their students can supply by the exercise of their trades. No graduate from either school will be contented without a home of his own, sufficiently roomy to ensure decent privacy, supplied with clean and comfortable furniture, with pictures and with books, and with a plot of land large enough for vegetables and flowers. But in the Black Belt this constitutes the wealth which is condemned by the theology of an uneducated ministry.

This theology is undoubtedly an outgrowth of slavery. It was most desirable to suppress in slaves any ambition to own property. But the great obstacle to useful citizenship to-day is this very lack of ambition. For sloth and extravagance are justified by the belief that God has placed a ban upon the fruits of industry and foresight.[4]

It is a significant fact that only three children find any religious sanction for accumulating property. A girl of thirteen declares that: 'The Lord put something on this earth for everyone,' and another justifies herself by the statement: 'My Father in Heaven is rich.' An Alabama boy of seventeen writes, 'I would like to be rich because I could serve God better., I wouldn't have to plow and get angry with the mules.' A girl of eighteen sends a beautiful specimen of casuistry. "I would like to be rich, then I would be able to live above wants. Though the Bible says it is impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But I would trust God. Because there is nothing impossible with God,"

The different religious teaching of city children certainly accounts largely for their different attitude towards wealth. Among the negro clergymen of the cities represented are men distinguished for broad training, for careful investigation of social conditions and for rare personal devotion. Realizing that the progress of their race depends largely upon its industrial development they constantly exalt thrift and a good standard of living in their teachings. There is no present danger that the growth of avarice will destroy the negro's religious sentiment. Sufficient to keep this alive for many generations is his inextinguishable brotherly love. The generosity of the Southern negro both in spirit and in deed is his most lovable trait. There is always room in the poorest cabin for the child of misfortune, and that family is a rare one which does not contain one or more adopted children—the orphaned or abandoned offspring of the unfortunate. In the hungry barren lives of these poor negro children the first thought of wealth is what it would do for father and mother or 'for my people.' Sixty per cent, of the children between fourteen and twenty, who wish to be wealthy, are actuated by thoughts of others.

The following papers are typical of this spirit:

Boy, 14. I would like to be rich so when any poor man come to my door, I would give him something.
Boy, 14. I would like very well to be rich because my father and mother would not hafter work. All they would do to eat and sleep.
Girl, 14. Yes, so I could take care of poor and motherless children.
Boy, 18. My home would be better and I would pay some of those children's tuitions who have to leave school, and I would try to make it possible for them to earn more money.

Scattered throughout the South are scores of educated negro men and women whose lives of noble devotion to their people are testifying to this spirit of brotherly love. Of inestimable value in their work would be the aid of pastors, industrially trained, who by teaching and example sanctioned 'property, economy, education and Christian character.' The inherent generosity of the negro character might easily be made the moving force in material accumulation, and so clothe it with righteousness. But perhaps the greatest foes of rational progress are the untrained preachers who destroy initiative and check energy.

This study certainly emphasizes the correctness of the statement recently made by the Hon. William T. Harris:[5] "The crying need at the present day is for an educated pulpit, among the colored people of the South. The majority of these ministers are illiterate and ignorant, and their congregations are filled with superstition, some acquired and some hereditary, as a characteristic of the African race."

  1. The writer wishes to thank for valuable material Miss Kruse, of Wilmington, Del.; Miss Grooms, of Baltimore; Mr. Cardoza, of Washington, and the members of Mrs. Dyke's Hampton Child Study Circle.
  2. The common 'reading' of Mark 10, 25, by illiterate preachers.
  3. The majority of negro children in the South belong to burial societies, which, in consideration of small weekly payments, agree to furnish them a funeral with certain desirable accessories, a hearse with plumes, a specified number of carriages, etc.
  4. A Georgia deacon is reported who was deposed from his official position in the church because he had acquired 10 acres of land and was therefore considered unable to 'keep his mind on heavenly affairs.'
  5. Quoted in Washington 'Post,' May 10, 1900, from Dr. Harris's address at the graduation exercises of the Training School for Nurses at the Freedmen's Hospital.