Family Life Of The Negro In The Small Town

E. Franklin Frazier, Director, Atlanta School of Social Work, Atlanta, GA

Editor’s Note: This entry is a Presentation at the National Conference Of Social Work (Formerly National Conference of Charities and Correction),  Fifty-Third Annual Session Held In Cleveland, Ohio May 26-June 2, 1926 (pp.384-388)

It is the object of this paper to give an account of the Negro family in the small town of the South. This account, while necessarily including a brief mention of the important historical factors in the situation, will concern itself mainly with the present economic and social forces affecting the integration of this primary social group.

Even the briefest account of the family life of the Negro must include a consideration of the history back of the present Negro family. This history naturally divides itself into three periods: Africa, slavery, and freedom. While the African period, it must be remembered, does not claim our attention because an unbroken social tradition still affects the present formation of the Negro family -although traces of the African tradition were detected in marriage ceremonies near the opening of the present century —it is necessary to call attention to this period because of subsequent events. In Africa the Negro lived under regulated sex relations which were adapted to his social and physical environment. It was through the destruction in America of these institutionalized sex relations that slavery was able to bring about complete subordination. The consequent sexual anarchy that prevailed in slavery must be taken into account in any attempt to study family life among Negroes, especially in the rural South. This holds even when we take into consideration the capricious sentiment of masters who, in spite of the absence of legal authority, kept families together. On the other hand, the ideal of the monogamous family, while out of the question in the case of the field hands, where both sexes were herded in small huts, was often set at nought in the house of the master. Thus the Negro emerged from slavery burdened with 250 years of sexual promiscuity and debauchery. Since emancipation, the Negro family, while it has shown remarkable progress toward integration, has been subject to the same influences which are tending to destroy the semi-patriarchal family in America.

From the foregoing brief sketch of historical considerations we pass on to statistics concerning the Negro population in the small towns. A census analysis2 of forty-four villages in eleven southern states showed that among Negroes the proportion between ten and thirty years of age is 4.4 per cent higher than the corresponding group among the whites. This fact indicates the place which the small town plays in the life of the Negro, for the age pyramid for the villages generally is normal, while the age pyramid for Negroes shows somewhat the same distortion for the age group between twenty and thirty as the cities. It is generally in the small town that the younger Negroes find an escape from the dullness and economic pressure of the country and at the same time lead a life free from the more exacting demands of the cities. From the same source’ we get figures relating to the marital conditions. While among Negro men we find the proportion of single men i per cent higher and the proportion of married men 3.5 per cent lower than among whites, among the Negro women we find both the proportion of married and single less than among white women. Of especial importance to us is the fact that the proportion of married Negro women is 6 per cent lower than the proportion of this class among the whites. Below we shall call attention to the significance of this fact. The proportion of widowed and divorced among Negroes is higher in both sexes than among the whites. Among the Negroes the proportion of divorced men is four times as large and the proportion of divorced women twice as large as among the whites. These figures give an indication of the extent of family disorganization among Negroes in the small towns.

The economic basis of Negro life in the small town and its influence upon family life will next engage our attention. The economic position of the Negro farmers, the majority of whom are the poorest types of tenants, has a direct influence upon the population of the towns. There is a constant pressure upon the means of subsistence that is relieved either by the high death-rate or migration to the towns as the first station on the way to the cities.2 Although many of the older farmers give up the struggle and move to town, where they find work in sawmills and as laborers, it is mainly the children who migrate to the towns because of the economic pressure in the country. The decrease in the proportion of Negro women in agriculture from 52.2 per cent in 1910 to 39 per cent in I920, and the increase of the proportion in domestic service during the same period from 42.4 per cent to 50.3 per cent, indicates the movement toward the town, although the absolute number in domestic service had declined. The new opportunities for Negro women in northern cities can account for this decline. The analysis of the occupation of Negro women in the forty-four towns of the South showed that 8I.I per cent of those employed were in domestic and personal service. Moreover, we find that the proportion of Negro women at work in the towns is slightly higher than in population as a whole. These women are employed chiefly as cooks, washerwomen, and nurses. Their wages range from $I.50 to $2.50 per week. The occupational class in which we find the largest number of Negro men is manufacturing and mechanical pursuits. The proportion is about twice as high as in the country as a whole. The reason for this is because the Negro artisan in the small town of the South has retained more of his former hold on trades than in the large cities. Negro bricklayers receive 80 cents per hour. The next-largest occupational group is agriculture, in which 22.4 per cent are engaged.

Many of these are neither farm owners nor tenants, but laborers who divide their time between agriculture and town employment; or, if they are less thrifty, they constitute the class of loafers in the small towns. These economic factors have a direct influence on the character of the family life. The small town in regard to the Negro has very aptly been called by Mr. DuBois a clearing house.x Those who are successful in the struggle move on to the cities, while the unsuccessful lose out and sink into the slums. Yet many lead a precarious life with the country to fall back on. In such cases the family life is insecure and the children live on the brink of poverty. A crisis in the family often means desertion on the part of the father. Another effect of the economic forces is the taking of the mothers out of the home. Between 40 and 50 per cent of the married Negro women are gainfully employed. The foregoing percentage does not include the widowed, comprising I8.7 per cent of the Negro women, who have more reason to be employed. The nature of the employment means that the children receive very little attention from the mother. The fact that many of the men live on such a low economic level prevents many from assuming the responsibility of a family through marriage. This must account for much illegitimacy.

Special mention should be made of the housing of the Negro in the small town; for this is not only dependent upon the economic position of the family, but is dependent upon social forces as well. The housing of a people naturally influences the family life. While segregation is not absolute in most towns, and one may find white and colored people living in surprising proximity in some towns because of the past history of these towns, generally the Negroes are housed in one- to four-room shanties on the edge of the town. The houses are often without ceilings, unpainted, and poorly furnished. Pride of home is scarcely evidenced by the presence of flowers and gardens. The grassless and treeless places where these homes are found are baked by the summer suns and furrowed by the rains. Three and four are often found to a room, with the sexes mingled indiscriminately. At night the paneless windows are shuttered against the “night air.”

The migration of the young Negro to town produces a revolution in his whole social life. The presence of a large number of young women in domestic service, who are enjoying for the first time economic independence, as well as the young men who get their first jobs, together with the absence of parental control, brings a change in the whole viewpoint. Both get a glimpse of a new world. Already statistics have been cited to indicate the presence of a disproportionate number of such unmarried people between twenty and thirty. The church at the crossroads in the country that was once the center of social life must now compete with the moving picture house and the dance hall. New habits of consumption, in clothes especially, are adopted. The young men, with a new sense of freedom, are loathe to assume the responsibility of a family; while the young women without home ties give themselves to licentiousness 1 which the scrutiny of the country held in check. Consequently we have many sex irregularities and a large amount of illegitimacy. The church, under ignorant and bigoted leadership, evaluates all human behavior in terms of sin and righteousness, and cries out in vain against the sins of the younger generation.

Weekly the town becomes a mecca for the rural Negroes. Every Saturday they abandon all labor and come to town to enjoy themselves. Those who live in the town cater to the visitors. These frequent and periodic disruptions of the social life of the town contribute their share to the discouragement of permanent social relations.

The most distressing aspect of Negro family life in the small towns is the position of the children. When we find a large amount of illegitimacy and broken homes, as is apparent from the large proportion of widowed and divorced, we are sure to find many dependent children. Then, to this must be added a larger illiteracy rate in the towns than in the cities, being 25 per cent in the former, as compared with I8.4 per cent in the latter. Some of the lack of parental control incident to the large number of mothers employed could be compensated for by an adequate school system, but in the small towns of the South the colored schoolhouse, which is often no more than a shack on a barren lot near the edge of the town, is a mere excuse for public education. The school term is generally short, and the course is supposed to carry the pupils to the fifth or sixth grade. Attendance is seldom enforced. Poverty and the lack of skill force even young children into domestic service. Negro labor is so cheap that even the poorest whites can boast of a cook, who acts as nurse and general helper. Dependent orphans (the death-rate among Negroes being still inordinately high) and illegitimate children are given indiscriminately to relatives and friends. Then there are the offspring of unions between the two races, who, though not as numerous as formerly, contribute to the breakdown of Negro family life, since the weaker race must bear the stigma as well as the economic burden. Drunkenness and imprisonment contribute their share of dependent children, for with people living so near the poverty line the least disturbance in income precipitates a crisis.

This study of family life has attempted to show the effect of economic and social forces on the formation and vitality of the Negro family group. Only indirectly, except in the matter of education, has reference been made to the relation of the racial situation in the South to this question. But to neglect this factor would be to overlook one of the most important social factors. As the two races are related in the small towns it means the complete subordination of the black group to the white, without any compensating public opinion on the part of the latter to support a normal social relation as the one we have been discussing. Small town life at best is limited, but the complete circumscription under which the colored group lives discourages the growth of a class of educated and cultured Negroes. While we have examined the masses of the Negroes in the small town, in every such town of the South there is a small group of Negroes who, because of their economic standing and culture and the racial situation, dwell in almost absolute isolation. This class is generally composed of a successful merchant, a doctor, a druggist, one or two school teachers, and a few successful artisans. Their family life is on the level with the family life of the middle class. But this group is scarcely ever augmented. A private school nearby may give some social life. They must send their children away in order to get even an elementary education. The children, as a rule, do not return; even successful Negro merchants cannot look forward to their children carrying on their businesses, for the younger generation will not stand the intolerance which the unbending racial attitude of the whites exhibits. So the very class from which we should expect a leavening for the masses we see disappearing as soon as it rises above the masses.


1 “The Negro Family,” Atlanta University Publications No. 13, p. 2I. ‘

2. C. Luther Fry, A Census Analysis of Southern Villages. New York: Institute of Social and Religious Research.

3. Op. cit.

4. See Charles S. Johnson, “The Negro Migrations,” The Modern Quarterly, Vol. II, No. 4.

5. “The Negro American Family,” Atlanta University Publication No. 13, p. 58.

Source:  Proceedings of The National Conference Of Social Work (Formerly National Conference of Charities and Correction) At The Fifty-Third Annual Session Held In Cleveland, Ohio May 26-June 2, 1926 (pp.384-388) —




2 Responses to Family Life Of The Negro In The Small Town– 1926

  1. Leon D. Finney Jr. says:

    Excellent context piece as we look at the Black Family in 2012.

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