Sometime in the late 1930s, Irene Robertson interviewed Mary Teel about her memory of slavery and her life since. Some of Robertson’s questions clearly made the formerly-enslaved Teel feel uncomfortable, like when she asked about the Klan, education, and voting. Nonetheless, Teel’s account of slavery and its aftermath repeated a theme common among her peers: years of hard work still left her “hard up.” She recalled picking cotton for, at most, a dollar per day after emancipation. Then she “cooked ten years ‘fore I stopped.” Her reason: “I cain’t hold up at it.” The days of grueling agricultural and domestic labor had taken a toll on her ability to work, but she still “washed and ironed till the washing machines ruined that work for all of us black folks.” In her old age, Teel reflected that her life had been marked by exploitation rooted in race and labor-saving machines.
Teel and other former slaves had lived through dramatic changes in technology and infrastructure that radically altered their working lives. Their early experiences as enslaved children were shaped substantially by revolutions in the application of steam power. The widespread use of the steam-powered boats, railroads, cotton mills, sugar refineries, etc. made slavery more profitable, and allowed it to expand more quickly, than anyone could have foreseen in 1800. The end of their lives, in the 1930s, was characterized by the wear and tear of years of manual labor, coupled with a declining need for that labor through automation. In many ways, Teel’s narrative illustrates Michael Denning’s famous observation that “under capitalism, the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited.” Like Denning, she attacked the injustice of capitalism’s tendency to discard the working people on which it purportedly relies. As she put it, “washin’ machines ruint the black folks,” taking the only work many former slaves and their children could obtain.
Tom Foley’s recent article, Energy and the Trump Administration: Pipelines, Promises, and the Third Energy Shift, fittingly reminds us that energy policy has been shaped historically by sometimes competing desires for cleanliness, efficiency, profit, and production. To that end, Foley’s observation that supplying oil “required less work by human muscle” than coal, which disempowered working people, struck me as particularly important as a labor historian. In those words, I recognized the struggle of working folk like Teel, who lost a demand for her energy to the washing machine. Using Foley’s work as a guide, I hope we can take a moment to reflect on the plight of working people like Teel. These men and women—often impeded by racism, sexism, and geography—felt the sting of capitalist advances in energy and technology that eliminated their ability to work. As our consumer-capitalist society continues to demand that each of us work to produce goods as well as self-respect while firms automate and outsource available jobs, it may be time to reevaluate the place of work in society.
When 76-year-old Mose Evans met his WPA interviewer, Mary B. Hudgins, he was carrying a bucket of charcoal in one hand, and supported himself with the help of a cane in the other. He told her that he was carrying the bucket of coal for his wife, a washerwoman, who used it to heat her iron. He explained that he couldn’t work anymore, and his wife was only able to get two or three days’ worth of washing per week. “My wife has to work awful hard,” Mose said, “to earn enough to buy enough coal and wood,” which fueled her washing business. The energy his wife expended washing and ironing was transformed into cash that her husband used to purchase charcoal to heat her iron and boil her water to support her own diminishing income. Increasingly, washing and ironing simply didn’t pay.
Men and women—often impeded by racism, sexism, and geography—felt the sting of capitalist advances in energy and technology that eliminated their ability to work. As our consumer-capitalist society continues to demand that each of us work to produce goods as well as self-respect while firms automate and outsource available jobs, it may be time to reevaluate the place of work in society.
The machines that replaced the labor of Teel and Mrs. Evans required labor of their own to create and disseminate the machinery of the modern household. Because of the racialized and gendered division of labor in early 20th century America, however, these jobs went almost exclusively to white men at the expense of African American women. And these changes in work depended on a host of others—coal-fired power plants connected by rail to coal towns across Appalachia; an electrical grid that powered factories and the homes of consumers; oil wells, pipelines, refineries and pumps—all of which were necessary to automate the manual labor of washerwomen.
The link between automation and the elimination of jobs was clear to contemporaries, historian Ruth Cowan argues, as “many people purchased appliances precisely so that they could dispense with servants.” In many ways, when we use “working class” as a euphemism for white working folk, we echo this same shift of work away from people of color and towards white men and machines.
Cowan and Lizabeth Cohen’s research on labor and consumerism finds a reliance on what Cowan terms “fuel-supply systems” that supplanted the need for worker-produced energy. Then, as now, revolutions in the distribution and application of energy brought about corresponding changes in the nature, location, and availability of work. In Teel’s day, jobs moved to sites of industrial labor—the factory and the mine—and to their products—the washing machine and the automobile—in the home. As Foley observes, many of these jobs are shifting to the green energy sector, and perhaps further investment there would produce significant growth and additional work that we may be unable to see from our present vantage point. Still, what economists often call the decoupling of growth and productivity, or what Mark Muro and Sifan Liu more recently identity as the low and high-output America, suggest that, if innovation produces new jobs, there’s no reason to think that it can’t do so asymmetrically. Indeed, this should be all-too-apparent to students of underdevelopment and colonial history. There’s a geographical component to development through which the “underdeveloped” areas facilitate the wealth and growth of the “developed” areas. Environmental historians, scholars, and activists often refer to these areas—sites of industrial pollution and energy production—as “sacrifice zones” where the well-being of inhabitants is sacrificed to the consumers in more “developed” areas. We, too, can be “sacrificed,” perhaps not to pollution, but certainly to chronic joblessness meant to subsidize the wealth of the elite.
Environmental historians, scholars, and activists often refer to these areas—sites of industrial pollution and energy production—as ‘sacrifice zones’ where the well-being of inhabitants is sacrificed to the consumers in more ‘developed’ areas. We, too, can be ‘sacrificed,’ perhaps not to pollution, but certainly to chronic joblessness meant to subsidize the wealth of the elite.
It’s also worth noting here that automation was hardly new in the first quarter of the 19th century. Roy Redfield recalled an early form of automated torture in the “whippin’ machine” to his WPA interviewer. If enslaved men and women failed to expend enough energy in their labors, their enslavers would, in the words of Redfield, “wind the whippin’ machine and beat you” as a way of more perfectly extracting the working energy of African Americans. In fact, American slavery was replete with automation and mechanization schemes that merged steam and human power to increase profits of southern enslavers and northern “capitalists” alike.
The key takeaway is that mechanization and automation often worked in tandem to help employers and enslavers extract more labor from workers, a pattern that continues through the present. In fact, Redfield and Teel’s experiences merge here in an important way. Redfield and his fellow slaves were beaten to incentivize greater output because their bodies and labor were owned. After emancipation, however, Teel received a wage until she could be replaced by a machine. The underlying desire to eliminate the expense of waged work that characterized the experiences of both isn’t too difficult to grasp. So if we’re concerned with the plight of the poor and working people, the solution doesn’t lie in a world without machines, or in one powered only by fossil fuels. These worlds had racial, labor, and gender hierarchies of their own that patterned exploitation and unemployment. Many of them probably aren’t even too foreign to us.
“A time of worry”
Roy Redfield’s tale of the “whippin’ machine” provides an obvious example of coerced labor that most of us (hopefully) find objectionable. Perhaps a less obvious example lay in some of the respondents’ understanding of a jobless future. Eighty-year-old Isom Roberts, for example, worried that “slavery time was better for de average” black worker “than what they is gittin’ now.” To be clear, he also felt that, for many African Americans, slavery was the “worse thing dat has ever come upon them.” It’s likely that Roberts, who rented a one-room apartment in Jim Crow Columbia, South Carolina, was trying speak carefully about a time for which many of his white contemporaries were deeply nostalgic. However, he was also harshly critical of white Northerners and Southerners, both of whom he (correctly) accused of having profited from slavery while black workers “never got no money.” Nonetheless, a close reading of Roberts’ tale reveals a “frail” man who supported himself through intermittent yardwork who may have felt hopeless at his inability to obtain a regular wage or income. Perhaps fittingly, “I is so hungry” were the final words of Roberts’ interview.
A third energy shift brings with it significant potential to rework our economy into a more equitable, livable space . . . the present system may belie a technological fix to problems of inequality that tend to generate capital for the wealthy elite at the expense of ‘sacrificed’ workers and communities.
If Roberts’ story of his life since slavery revealed certain frustrations with the past and the present, it also conveyed deep concern with the future that was common among formerly enslaved workers interviewed by the WPA. As he told it, “flopin’ ‘bout in dese automobiles, a drinkin’ and carryin’ on” was an “abomination in de sight of a decent person, much less dat One up yonder.” While he may have simply been very religious, his critique of what were essentially expressions of excess capital and leisure time, when paired with his own poverty, suggests additional motives for his observations. Roberts had been left behind by the growth that his contemporaries, black and white, flouted when they displayed their wealth so conspicuously. So while it might be hard to imagine why he would view “slavery time” as positive, it’s easy to see how being excluded from the asymmetrical growth of modernization made him bitter about what he was “gittin’ now.”
For many formerly enslaved people, the connection was more explicit. Mary Harris saw the massive changes in work and lifestyle facilitated by the expansion of the electrical grid and automotive infrastructure as inaugurating “a time of worry.” Harris had been “washin’ and ironin’” for her adult life and “did sewing before machines come to this town.” By the time of her interview, however, machines had taken her ability to earn a wage through either occupation. Harris claimed that these changes, the cause of her worry, were “told about in the scripture,” an allusion to the apocalypse.
Mittie Freeman, interviewed in Little Rock Arkansas, also felt that something was deeply wrong with modernity. As she put it, “people makes more money than in old days, but the way they makes it ain’t honest.” She argued that the only honest work was to “bend the back and bear down on the hoe.” For Freeman, the electricity and mechanization that afforded her granddaughter a sewing machine, while it allowed her to make a dress over the course of a single day, amounted to Biblical “days of tribulations.” Freeman and Harris had been pushed out of the labor force. Their energy no longer brought a wage while those around them reaped the benefits of new systems of distributing and applying energy that—due to race, class, age, gender, and geography—they could not access. And while it may be easy to chuckle at their sense that mechanization might mean the end of the world, we must also concede that our current political environment has been ruptured by similar forces and ideas.
Beneath these former slaves’ concerns for the future, their frustrations with automation and a world powered by coal and gas, and their sense of having been cheated out of their ability to survive lies Denning’s observation that the tendency of capitalism to generate joblessness represents its most significant mechanism of exploitation. The inability to find regular work might seem like the end of the world, and to many men and women who had survived slavery, I’m sure it did. The growth of automation and mechanization that accompanied massive changes in energy infrastructure certainly foreclosed the only sectors of employment open to many African Americans in the first quarter of the 20th century. And with a few adjustments, the frustrations of black workers recorded in the WPA narratives sound eerily similar to those of Trump supporters who want the president to bring back coal, steel, and manufacturing jobs. Broadly speaking, these changes, then and now, have disproportionately impacted those doing the most exploitative work: yesterday’s washerwomen and agricultural laborers, today’s coal miners, factory workers, and service-sector employees, and perhaps tomorrow’s truck drivers.
So where does this leave us, as participants in the system?
Like Foley, I believe that a third energy shift brings with it significant potential to rework our economy into a more equitable, livable space. However, as Foley’s work also implies, the present system may belie a technological fix to problems of inequality that tend to generate capital for wealthy elites at the expense of “sacrificed” workers and communities. Rather than simply trumpeting the value of work, perhaps we should ask what values work ought to reflect. Maybe the answer will point to a universal basic income. Maybe a shorter work week. Or some sort of federal job guarantee program. Whatever we choose, likely when making a choice becomes unavoidable, I hope it’s something that working men and women like Roberts and Teel wouldn’t see as the end of the world.
William Horne is a PhD candidate at The George Washington University researching the relationship of race to labor, freedom, and capitalism in post-Civil War Louisiana. His dissertation, “Carceral State: Baton Rouge and its Plantation Environs Across Emancipation,” examines the ways in which white supremacy and capitalism each depended on restricting black freedom in the aftermath of slavery. He can be contacted here and followed on Twitter at @wihorne.
 Narrative of Mary Teel, Holly Grove, Arkansas, 1-3, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 2, Arkansas, Part 6, Quinn-Tuttle, Library of Congress (LOC), https://www.loc.gov/resource/mesn.026/?sp=287. The WPA Ex-Slave Narratives are notorious for interviewer instructions to record former slaves’ dialect, which leave the narratives themselves full of misspellings and odd turns of phrase. Most historians use these spellings and grammatical errors because they represent the best record we have of how the interviewees relayed their experiences. I’ve chosen to do the same here. Further, there’s a rich history of racial and gendered hierarchies of labor embedded in Teel’s narrative that I don’t really explore here. For more, see Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Tera Hunter, To Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).
 Michael Denning, “Wageless Life,” New Left Review (November-December 2010): 79. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 214-215, 563-569. Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 73-96, especially pages 85-87. Beverly Silver, Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 41-49.
 Narrative of Mose Evans, Arkansas, 4, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 2, Arkansas, Part 2, Cannon-Evans, LOC, https://www.loc.gov/resource/mesn.022/?q=%22work+no+more%22&sp=256. Hunter explores the changing work, limited job prospects, and organizational efforts of washerwomen in her fourth chapter, “‘Washing Amazons’ and Organized Protests,” 74-97.
 Lizabeth Cohen gives a sense of the breadth of the social changes brought about by interwar rise in consumerism in A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Knopf, 2003). See especially 22-28.
 Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work For Mother: The Ironies Of Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The Microwave (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 97-99.
 Cowan, 98. The economic theory on this is enormous, but I’ve provided a few below whose work I especially enjoy. Kari Polanyi Levitt, Reclaiming Development: Independent Thought and Caribbean Community (Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers, 2005), esp. 46-53. See also, Andre Gunder Frank, Latin America: Underdevelopment or Revolution (New York: Modern Reader, 1969), esp. 3-6; George Beckford, Persistent Poverty: Underdevelopment in Plantation Economies of the Third World (Kingston, Jamaica: University of West Indies Press, 1999), esp. xxvii-xxix, 9-11, 24-26, 44-51. For “sacrifice zones,” see Steve Lerner, Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), 2-6; Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), 169-177.
 Compilation, Richmond County and Augusta, Georgia, 13, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 4, Georgia, Part 4, Telfair-Young, LOC, https://www.loc.gov/resource/mesn.044/?q=machine&sp=308. For more on whipping machines, see Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 141-142. In fact, as Baptist argues, the mechanization of northern clothing production worked in tandem with the whip-driven increases in enslaved cotton production. Baptist, 126-130. See also Richard Follett, The Sugar Masters: Planters and Slaves in Louisiana’s Cane World, 1820-1860 (Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 2005), 4-5.
 Narrative of Isom Roberts, Isom Roberts, Columbia, South Carolina, 1-4 Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 14, South Carolina, Part 4, Raines-Young, LOC,
 Roberts, 3.
 Narrative of Mary Harris, 1938, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, 1-2, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 2, Arkansas, Part 3, Gadson-Isom, LOC, https://www.loc.gov/resource/mesn.023/?q=machine&sp=178.
 Narrative of Mittie Freeman, August 27, 1937, Little Rock, Arkansas, 6-7, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 2, Arkansas, Part 2, Cannon-Evans, LOC, https://www.loc.gov/resource/mesn.022/?sp=356&q=machine.
 Michael Denning, “Wageless Life,” New Left Review (November-December 2010): 79.
* * *
We here at The Activist History Review are always working to expand and develop our mission, vision, and goals for the future. These efforts sometimes necessitate a budget slightly larger than our own pockets. If you have enjoyed reading the content we host here on the site, please consider donating to our cause.