The Rise of Cotton: Black American History

The Rise of Cotton

If you look at the tag  of the shirt you’re wearing,   you will probably find that at least a portion  of it is made of cotton. Cotton is everywhere!   It’s in our shirts, in our pants, in curtains,  in blankets, and so many other things   that many of us don’t even realize. But even  though that cotton on your back was meant to   keep you comfortable, the historical reality of  the United States is that the cotton industry   was built on the backs of Black folks. A lot of cotton is grown in the hot and humid   climate of the southern United States. And a lot  of this country’s wealth was built on the cotton   trade.

But it’s easy to forget that part of the  reason cotton was so lucrative in early America,   was because it was harvested with  the labor of enslaved people.   And even though the dirty work of the cotton  industry took place mainly in the southern states,   many white people in the Northern United  States gained their fortunes through the   exploitation of enslaved workers in the South. The reason that cotton became such a central   economic pillar was not just because of what was  happening in the United States, but because of an   entire global financial network that, whether they  sanctioned the use of slavery themselves or not,   incentivized the use of enslaved labor to satisfy  the enormous international demand for cotton.   

It’s time we learn about how cotton became  king in the United States. Let’s start the   show. INTRO   By the time of the Civil War, the United States  was WEAL-THY. I’m talking Scrooge McDuck swimming   in golden coins rich. It had become one of  the major slave trading capitals of the world   and a major exporter of cotton. According to scholar Henry Louis Gates,   cotton was the first mass consumer commodity  – which is just a fancy way of saying that   everyone in the world wanted it.  They wanted it for their clothes,   for their blankets, for their rugs, for their  socks. Demand across the globe was exploding.   The cotton industry was so powerful,  that it not only grew the US economy,   but many economies in Europe as well.

But most nations just couldn’t compete   with the United States’ production level.  According to historian Edward Baptist,   “the North American interior…had thousands  of acres of possible cotton fields,   thousands for each one in the Caribbean.” In order to develop all of this land,   there was a greater need for laborers to  work the cotton plantations of the South   and Mid-Atlantic United States. And as had  become standard practice in the US in the   18th and 19th centuries, the plan was for most  of those laborers to be enslaved Black people.   Enslaved labor and cotton went hand in hand  to produce profit. And the work, was more than   backbreaking. It was torture. Charles Ball,  a Black man and author who escaped slavery,   wrote that the brutality of the cotton industry  was enough to make an individual contemplate   taking their own life. He said in his 1837  autobiography, Slavery in the United States,

  “Surely if any thing can justify a man in taking  his life into his own hands, and terminating his   existence, no one can attach blame to the slaves  on many of the cotton plantations of the south,   when they cut short their breath, and the agonies  of the present being, by a single stroke. What is   life worth, amidst hunger, nakedness and excessive  toil, under the continually uplifted lash?”   It really doesn’t get more clear than that. In 1793, the cotton gin transformed the cotton   industry, the global economy, and, in  horrific ways, the lives of enslaved   people.

The cotton gin, significantly ramped  up cotton production in the United States,   especially in South Carolina and Georgia.  Let’s check that out in the Thought Bubble:   Before 1793, separating the sticky seeds  from cotton was a laborious task. Then,   the mechanical cotton gin, invented by  Eli Whitney, made the process much faster   and easier than it had ever been. What would happen is that the cotton   would be threaded through a wooden drum filled  with hooks that caught hold of the fibers and   pulled them through a mesh. The holes in the  mesh were too small to allow the seeds through,   but the cotton fibers themselves  were /easily/ pulled through.   While some larger gins would later be  powered by horses and even steam engines,   Whitney used a smaller version. “Whitney’s  hand-cranked machine could remove the seeds   from 50 pounds of cotton in a single day.”

This meant planters needed a way to grow and pick   more cotton to keep up with the new, accelerated  pace of processing. And at the same time,   market conditions in Europe meant cotton was  more desirable than ever. What this meant was   that planters needed even more labor from even  more enslaved workers than they did before.   Demand for other industrial  cotton machinery grew as well–   like new machines for spinning cotton or  steamboats to transport massive bales of it.   This drastically changed the American economic  landscape. By the 1850s, cotton provided   three-fifths of American exports. And the yield  of raw cotton doubled every decade after 1800.   By some estimates, the United States supplied  three-quarters of the global cotton supply by   the start of the Civil War. If cotton  wasn’t king before, it certainly was now.   Thanks Thought Bubble. The economic impact of  the cotton industry on the United States
–and   the enslaved people whose labor  sustained it
— is clear.   Historian Edward Baptist writes:  “All told, more than $600 million, or   almost half of the economic activity  in the United States in 1836,   derived directly or indirectly from cotton  produced by the million-odd slaves — 6 percent   of the total U.S. population — who in that year  toiled in labor camps on slavery’s frontier.”   And it wasn’t just the United States, it was the  world. /Most/ of the western world’s economies   benefited from the cotton industry. Historian  Gene Dattel

(DAH-tuhl) argues that cotton   produced by enslaved people “was the driving force  for territorial expansion in the Old Southwest   and fostered trade between  Europe and the United States.”   Major northern cities like New York City  needed raw cotton for their own industries.   New England was also seriously dependent on  raw cotton for the textile revolution. New   England mills consumed 283.7 million pounds  of cotton, or 67 percent of the cotton used   by U.S. mills in 1860. So any notion that the  North wasn’t intimately involved in slavery   is something that we should  immediately toss out the window.   Abroad, countries like Britain and France also  depended on raw cotton.

According to Gene Dattel,   “Britain, the most powerful nation in the world,  relied on slave-produced American cotton for   over /80 per cent/ of its essential industrial  raw material. English textile mills accounted   for 40 percent of Britain’s exports. One-fifth of  Britain’s twenty-two million people were directly   or indirectly involved with cotton textiles.” And it didn’t stop there. One of the main causes   of the Civil War was cotton (and the status of  the enslaved laborers who produced that cotton).   Southern slaveholders were so financially  attached to the cotton industry,   that they were willing to go to war over it. At the end of the war, cotton was one of the   bargaining tools that the South used to  assure that they would still have a place,   and political power, in the Union. The US economy,  still relied on cotton. But we’re getting ahead   of ourselves. We’ll get to the Civil War soon. Let’s do some deeper thinking about the economic   implications of slavery.

In 1860, in large part tied to   the explosion of the cotton industry, the four  million enslaved people in the United States   were worth more than all the railroads  and factories in the nation, combined.   Those enslaved workers were worth more than all of  the manufacturing in the United States. So Black   people’s labor has played an enormous role in  America’s ascent as a global economic superpower,   but the enslaved people themselves  didn’t get to reap any of the benefits   of the economic explosion they created. The vast majority of Black folks were not allowed   to own any property and if they did, it could be  seized from them, without them being able to do   much about it. Even when slavery was abolished,  the sharecropping system in the South worked   similarly – plunging Black Americans  and their families into devastating debt   while they owned nothing of their own.

The implications of this   are profound. Let’s step back and consider that  integenerational chattel slavery in United States,   in which Black people rarely owned their own  land, lasted for 250 years before ending,   technically at least, in 1865. Let’s then consider  that sharecropping, in which enormous numbers of   Black people continued to not own their lands,  lasted well into the 1950s (and arguably later).   This directly impacts generational  wealth in the United States.   If your family was able to accrue income, equity,  and mobility by owning land that produced cotton   (or any other crop for that matter) and pass it  down across generations, it would quite naturally   leave your descendents in a more economically  secure position than those who came before them.

But Black folks, despite working the land,   cultivating the land, and picking the cotton and  crops that grew on the land, for the most part,   didn’t have the opportunity to reap  the financial benefits of the land.   This left many Black families, well after slavery  ended and into the 20th century, with little if   anything to pass down to their children, something  that shapes the sort of opportunities that their   descendants would or would not have. And this  gap between white and Black people is compounded   decade after decade after decade, until it’s  no longer a gap in wealth, it’s a gulf.   

Cotton was the United States’ biggest export for  more than a century. That’s more than 100 years   of wealth creation and industry that Black  Americans not only carried on their backs,   but were designated to never profit from. I  mean, calling it a head start for white people   doesn’t even accurately capture it. It wasn’t  just a head start, it was like you started running   while the person you’re racing against had chains  on their feet and death threats in their ears.   So, when we talk about creating a more equitable  nation, part of what we have to think about   is how to account for and make amends for what was  done to people, and what was kept from people, for   generations.

How can we compensate those who we  purposefully left behind? Thanks for watching.   Crash Course is made with the help of all these  nice people and our animation team is Thought   Cafe. Crash Course is a Complexly production. If you’d like to keep Crash Course free   for everybody, forever, you can  support the series at Patreon;   a crowdfunding platform that allows you to support  the content you love. Thank you to all of our   patrons for making Crash Course possible with  their continued support.  

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