Black Domestic Life In The Ouachita Valley 1900-1955


By:Robert Barton

Africans were, and are, primarily agriculturists, although they also practiced fishing, hunting, and cattle raising.

Torn from their native land, they were transported to America and thrust into a new alien culture.

Subjected to a new type of society, forced to assimilate a new religion, they were bartered for and sold as commodities.

Working the land must have seemed a blessing to them, when one is stripped of almost everything familiar any link with one's origins, even on one as tenuous as working the land, is of great comfort.

Indeed, until relatively recent years, the majority of Blacks in the South lived in rural areas and worked the land as farmers, either as small landowners, tenant farmers or sharecroppers.

Before the coming of the Civil War, during the years of slavery, Blacks worked in the fields raising cash crops such as cotton and tobacco, which enriched the landowners but did little to improve the lot of the slaves.

Following the Civil War, during the years before Reconstruction, the South was in utter chaos, its currency worthless, its commerce destroyed, and its laborers. As southern whites struggled to rise from such ruin, their first impulse was to impress the Blacks into servitude again, this time in a form of peonage.

(Domestic Life revolved around the family and making ends meet.)

In order to insure the subjugation of Blacks in the South, state after state began passing laws known as the Black Code.

Some of the codes were thinly disguised as measures for the regulation of farm labor or the control of vagrants; some were openly labeled as applying only to Blacks. All were addressed to the proposition that Blacks had to work for whited in a servile capacity.

In Louisiana, farm laborers were bound to the land with a law requiring them to sign annual contracts. They were allowed subsistence rations, but all cash payments were withheld until year's end, and any money due them was forfeited if they quit. If they claimed sickness and were judged malingerers, it cost them double the time lost. Additionally, the employer could fine them as much as a week's pay for disobedience, the impudence or leaving the premises without permission.

The repression aroused northern radicals and brought on the brief period called Reconstruction. During the years of Reconstruction, there existed a brief period of unprecedented freedom for Blacks in the South.

The period was marked by Black participation in the political process, upward economic mobility for blacks and the beginnings of free mass education.

Following the brief respite offered by reconstruction, white southerners moved quickly to reassert their dominance over Blacks and erase the gains made over the preceding few years.

In the rural South, race repression went hand in hand with an intricate master servant relationship which embraced every area of life.

Through the passage of so-called "Jim Crow" laws, the doctrine of separate but equal, the altering of state constitutions and voting requirements, black were disenfranchised and reduced to a serf like state.

For example, in Louisiana, the number of Blacks registered to vote went from 130,344 in 1896 to only 1,718 in 1904 a change that resulted in the white voting majority increasing from 56 percent to 98 percent.

Blacks were also tied to the land by the sample and effective means economic necessity and laws restricting the ability of Blacks to leave the land and migrate to the North is in search of better wages and living conditions.

In the years after Reconstruction, Blacks found themselves as sharecroppers and tenant farmers and each year saw them going deeper into debt. The Blacks remained on the farms however, because they knew nothing else.

Most Blacks, from the period of Reconstruction to the 1940's, in the Ouachita area made their living as farmers. There were a number of reasons for Blacks staying on the farms and among these were the lack of proper education, lack of job skills and discrimination.

Following the depression, however, the number of Black farmers steadily declined.

In 1930 there were some 1,385 Black farmers, owning land consisting of 43,144 acres and having a value of over 2 million dollars.

By 1950, the number of Black farmers had declined to 520 and they owned only some 18,215 acres.

Despite some migration, the majority of Blacks in the South remained chained to the land until World War II.

And even the migrations by Blacks to the north, both before and after the war, were motivated by the mechanization of farming and the fact that landowners could make more money through government subsidies than through sharecropping, as much as by any changing social trends.

The migration away from the farm and to the urban area of both the North and South changed radically the way of life for Blacks.

Times have changed. The majority of Blacks are no longer farmers living in rural areas. Mechanization, migration to urban areas, the decline of small farms in general, a desire to achieve better things; all these factors have resulted in the formation of a new type of society and culture of Blacks.

Remembering the old ways is still important, however. Each person is the sum of his experiences and the same is true of a people. What Blacks were, the way they lived and progressed shaped Black culture as it is today.

The old South still remains relevant because for generations it was the formative Black experience

Basic Heritage foods around the farm

While many things have changed there is one area of our Black heritage that has not changed much over the last 100 years...Soul Food.

Some names have changed and methods of preparation have changed, but the basic dishes that come to be known as "soul food" remain the same.

Many affluent whites, during slavery, compelled Black women to do the cooking on the plantations. Of course these women prepared what they knew how to cook for themselves, they adapted the slave recipes and "Soul Food" gradually became known as "Southern Cooking."

But as a part of our rich heritage it is important to remember who pioneered the delicious food that we enjoy in the South. Even the heavy, black cast iron stoves and ovens were made with the help of the Black man. As were many of the tools that the slaves used on the plantations and eventually their own farms.

Out fore parents knew nothing of Soul Food as a title. What we now call Soul Food was known simply as "Southern Cooking."
A Glimpse of Domestic Life
Since most Blacks in the Ouachita Valley lived on the farm until the early 1950's, most shared the same "farm" experience of their Black neighbors.

From historical profiles and stories passed down through generations the following bits and pieces have been learned about domestic life in the Ouachita Valley.

-A hearty breakfast on any given day might consist of grits, ham and red-eye gravy.

- In the summer months, cooking and washing was often done outdoors in large pots over open flames.

-Cooking pots as well as washing pots were usually made of cast-iron.

-Meat was usually preserved by smoking in a smoke house.

-Gathered vegetables that would not spoil easy were often kept in a small house filled with straw. These included corn, sweet potatoes and white potatoes.

-Shucking corn, shelling peas and picking greens were often a family affair, performed in the coolest place they could find, often the front porch.

-Most of the meat was either poultry or pork and there were plenty of fresh eggs.

-The family men slaughtered hogs in winter months, and often they kill was shared with neighbors from miles around.

-The hog kill provided many of the food items which became standard in Black families: ham, bacon, chitterlings, salt pork (for seasoning green and beans), pig ears, pig feet, pig tail, snout for pickling. Nothing went to waste, even the head was made into hog head cheese.

-Since most of the necessities were provided by the farm, there was little need for money.

A typical Sunday in the Black family home would find mothers and daughters preparing the Sunday meal which had begun on Saturday evening. If there was a cake to be baked, it would certainly be done Saturday and put far away form the hands of little would-be-tasters.

Family was center of Black life.....

Sometimes it was hard for the men folk to tell when the cooking started. On Sunday morning perhaps two pans or rolls may be covered on the kitchen table while they rose to just the right height and big pot of collard greens would simmer slowly, filled with big pieces of salt pork. The Sunday meat, nearly always chicken, would be done by this time.

No matter how tight times were there was always enough for an occasional Sunday visitor. It was tradition, or as they called it...neighborly... for the nearest neighbors to stop by every now and then to have a piece of chicken, a slice of pound cake, and a cup of coffee after the Sunday "meeting."

Importance of family

Many important events centered around the Black family meals. Not only was it a time for the family to be together, for the first time all day long, it was also a time when good news was shared and laughter exchanged.

It was often a meal time that mothers and fathers succeeded in teaching their children the effectiveness in the socialization of young men and women to become adults.

In the simple setting of the black farm home there was peace, joy, and harmony. That life was represented mostly by "soul food", which is not a word renowned cuisine, but it is a genuine symbol of a way of life for a race of people...it's and important part of our Black Heritage.