Abstract

The real and personal property that African-American farm families accumulated between the 1880s and the 1930s can tell a lot about the political consciousness of the disfranchised at the height of African-American landownership. Farm women and their families invested their limited financial and labor resources into household equipment and furnishings, knick-knacks and personal adornment, land, and homes. They used the legal system to secure their property and convey it to heirs even as unscrupulous landlords conspired against them. But purchasing land could limit a family’s mobility, disrupt kinship networks, and constrain their ability to purchase other products of the modern consumer age, most notably automobiles. Irrefutably, the white middle class defined consumer culture and the characteristics of modernization in the rural South, not the black farm families, but rural African Americans still had to feed, clothe, and house their families. Their choices became the object of analysis and ridicule by reformers during the early twentieth century. By the 1930s the small homes that once housed aspiring families became the symbols of poverty even as rural reformers and the Progressive farmers they served celebrated a rural aesthetic that advocated recycling and thrifty management.

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Notes

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