If you don’t know your history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree. – Michael Crichton
Knowledge is power – Francis Bacon
I recently attended a film screening for the history of women’s rights documentary, The Janes. At the film’s beginning, the MC stated, “We need to know our history.” This phrase gave me a reason to consider what is unknown in my life and how ignorance can create pain and loss.
As it applies to Black History Month, we at Colorful Connections decided to focus on the history of the African experience in the American workforce and how the experience has developed over time. Here we are focusing on the history of Black people and American labor.
Between 1619 and 1865, Africans and their descendants were seen as property. And the slave economy was the backbone of the US economy. In 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery.
While the end to official slavery was perhaps the greatest labor victory in U.S. history, 158 years later, we still have a long way to go.
After the end of slavery, Southern legislators passed a series of laws, also known as the “Black codes.” The codes were restrictive laws that intended to bar African Americans from skilled trades and living wages and allow white people to continue using them as a cheap labor force. And under Black codes, many states required Black people to sign low-paying yearly labor contracts; if they refused, they risked being arrested, fined and forced back into slavery as legal punishment. If they left before the end of the contract, they would be forced to forfeit earlier wages and were subject to arrest.
Black codes later became Jim Crow laws - laws created to maintain power dynamics and keep white people in complete control of information and resources like work and pay.
Reflecting on our leading quotes above, understanding these past laws can help you be a strong ally and equity broker today. We did some research on Jim Crow laws that have created generational setbacks (sources below) and sharing a few examples here:
Discussing Equality: Any person printing, publishing or circulating printed material urging public acceptance of social equality or of intermarriage between whites and negroes, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to fine of up to $500 dollars or up to 6 months or both.
Voting: Conditions of Black men voting were a fee required to vote that was not applied to white voters, owning property as a condition of voting and literacy tests requiring Black people to recite a portion of written material.
Education: Any instructor where members of the white and colored race both attend as pupils for instruction shall be deemed guilty and fined no less than $10.00 or more than $50.00 for each offense.
Healthcare: No person or corporation shall require any white female nurse to nurse in wards or rooms in hospitals, either public or private, in which Negro men are placed.
Marriage: No person having one-eighth part or more of Negro blood shall be permitted to marry any white person.
America’s pastime: It shall be unlawful for any amateur white baseball team to play baseball on any vacant lot or baseball diamond within two blocks of a playground devoted to the Negro race.
Jim Crow laws were not all abolished at the same time. And Black people, confirmed by research and news, were still enslaved well into the 1960s despite the rising Civil Rights Movement. Fast forward to today, we’ve made progress but again, we have a ways to go. Race and color discrimination cases remain prevalent, per the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
So, now what? We challenge you to be inspired by history. Understanding the history, intent and impact of past laws allows us to see opportunity today. It becomes a bit clearer to identify bias, prejudice, discrimination and microaggressions. Understand how this shows up within our daily lives and work. And how companies can support equity and be a positive force for change.
The CC team is here to help anyone who needs it. Our Empathy Building and Microaggression & Bias workshops can help you learn what unconscious biases you have, where the biases come from, how not to pass them on and how to overcome them to create an equitable workplace for all.
Note: If you are experiencing workplace discrimination, you can reach out to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for support. The EEOC is not a part of Colorful Connections and Colorful Connections assumes no responsibility for actions taken by the EEOC or readers. The EEOC is responsible for enforcing federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or an employee because of the person's race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy and related conditions, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.