“Self-mastery was seen as eroded by economic dependence,” Stanley told me.
Naturally, then, when emancipation came, the first thing formerly enslaved people wanted was land, which they rightly saw as a prerequisite for real independence. “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor,” a Baptist minister named Garrison Frazier told the secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, and the Union general William Sherman in a meeting in Savannah, Ga., in January 1865. Four days later Sherman famously promised 40 acres of land to each formerly enslaved family (the “and a mule” part came later).
But the federal government never followed through on its promise of land — and thus true independence — to formerly enslaved people. Economics entered into the picture, Stanley said: If African Americans grew subsistence crops on their own plots, who would cultivate and harvest all the cotton, tobacco, sugar and rice grown on the vast plantations?
After the Civil War, in lieu of land distribution, slavery was replaced by sharecropping, in which planters allowed tenant farmers to keep a portion of the crops they raised. That subjugated the tenants to the owners almost as surely as slavery did.
At the same time, industrialization in the North meant that more and more white Americans were working for wages — about two-thirds by 1875, according to Stanley. Many drew the connection between themselves and African Americans. Eugene Debs, who led the Pullman railroad strike of 1894, said, “The paternalism of the Pullman is the same as the interest of a slaveholder in his human chattels. You are striking to avert slavery and degradation.”
Today, the phrase “wage slavery” invoked by Debs and others has lost its punch. Many people who work for wages are doing very nicely, thank you. And many farmers and business owners, supposedly more independent, are buffeted by forces beyond their control, from bad weather to nasty customers. What hasn’t changed, 157 years after the Juneteenth proclamation, is that a majority of African Americans continue to lack wealth. The median wealth of Black families in 2019 was just $24,100, versus $142,500 for white families, according to a Federal Reserve survey.
Something needs to change, but what? The nature of the economy has changed, and few people still think that the solution to inequality is to give people plots of land to farm. We are enmeshed economically with one another in ways that Jefferson could not have imagined. Instead of land grants, the new protections for workers are unionization, government regulation and profit-sharing, Stanley said. One can quibble over her formula, but the motivation behind it is unquestionable. Freedom — which must include economic freedom — is just as important now as it was on the original Juneteenth.