AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post has been edited to reflect updated information available later on Wednesday.
Do a Google search today for Alamance County Commissioner Tim Sutton. Make sure to add the Alamance County commissioner part in order to avoid confusion with the movie director of the same name. Here’s what you find. He’s famous.
Yes, the Tim Sutton who Monday night referred to Antebellum slaves as “workers” during a meeting of the Board of Commissioners, is a well-known figure today, and I’m talking nationally. Probably not the best or most positive economic and cultural news Alamance County has had lately. Then again, this area hasn’t had much to crow about in a while in that regard.
This Google search today will uncover links to stories about Sutton in the Washington Post, New York Times, Sacramento Bee, Raleigh News & Observer, Charlotte Observer, Durham Herald, Boston Herald, TWC News, RawStory.com, Miami Herald, the Associated Press, and, well, the list goes on and on. His sudden celebrity is related to what used to be all the wrong reasons. In today’s America who the hell knows?
The Burlington Times-News story about Sutton’s comments — and I’ve written about him for years prior to this — landed late Monday night online and early Tuesday morning. It spread like a poison oak infection. I wrote about it yesterday. in a post called “The disturbing disconnect of a county politician.” Tuesday night Sutton sent me an email with a link to a follow up story in my former newspaper. The email was slugged the same as the headline to the TN story, “Sutton: I was talking about one farm.” The only note to me in the email stated, “Good article . . . perfect context.” I told him I would check it out.
While I’m certainly no expert on the subject of Antebellum history, I think the fresh context doesn’t help him much. First and foremost, he has no documentation to back up his contentions. No criticism intended of that. It’s not unusual. Families have always relied on oral histories to report their stories to generations of members. I’m relatively sure it’s what he was told. At first I thought Sutton had no true idea of whether those on his ancestors’ farm were enslaved or free men and women working farm jobs for actual pay (I’d bet on minimal pay, too). And my first thought was that he was actually referring to life after the Civil War when slavery had ended. Wednesday night Sutton confirmed in another email that this was indeed the case. Then workers would be the correct application, even if his view of their lives is somewhat unrealistic.
For the record, though, based on my quick research it was possible for free black people to be employed before the end of the Civil War. In North Carolina the free black population was a little more than 30,000 in 1860 or 10 percent of the black population in the state, according to Walter Boyd, a historian in Alamance County. That’s higher than I suspected. In fact, upon further research it appears the free black population in that same period was higher in the South than the North.
During our back and forth on social media Boyd wrote, “I haven’t researched the laws of that period, and while restrictions were placed on free blacks following Nat Turner’s rebellion in Virginia, I haven’t heard of a law restricting whether a free black person could work for hire.”
But conditions were not significantly better just prior to, during and immediately after the Civil War for free black people in the South. I found this passage on the PBS website headlined, “Conditions of Antebellum slavery” to be interesting in terms of discussions about the pervasive nature of what is now known as “white privilege” that still exists. There is little doubt that it began with slavery but it extended beyond the parameters of actual slaveowners. Here is the paragraph.
The standard image of Southern slavery is that of a large plantation with hundreds of slaves. In fact, such situations were rare. Fully 3/4 of Southern whites did not even own slaves; of those who did, 88% owned twenty or fewer. Whites who did not own slaves were primarily yeoman farmers. Practically speaking, the institution of slavery did not help these people. And yet most non-slaveholding white Southerners identified with and defended the institution of slavery. Though many resented the wealth and power of the large slaveholders, they aspired to own slaves themselves and to join the privileged ranks. In addition, slavery gave the farmers a group of people to feel superior to. They may have been poor, but they were not slaves, and they were not black. They gained a sense of power simply by being white.
That led me to another site and a post by university professor, literary critic and historian Henry Louis Gates who analyzed why free black people remained in the South when all evidence indicated that moving North would be better. This passage is interesting in his view that it laid the groundwork for Jim Crow laws after the Civil War.
Laws, especially in the Upper South, reflected whites’ suspicion (very often hatred) of free blacks, and there were repeated attempts to deport them, to register them, to jail the indolent and tax and extort the wage-earner, to disenfranchise the free black caste altogether from voting or testifying in court against whites. To leave little doubt, as Berlin quotes the saying at the time, that “even the lowest whites [could] threaten free Negroes … with ‘a good n—– beating.’”
This created perverse incentives for free blacks to try hard to distinguish themselves from slaves, sometimes even to “pass” out of the “black” caste as “white” if they could. Throughout the region, repressive laws helped create the conditions for a vast underclass that for most free blacks meant living along a very thin line between slavery and freedom, debt and dependency, poverty and pride. In fact, many of those same laws would lay the groundwork for what would follow after the Civil War and Reconstruction during the Jim Crow era.
Sutton contends, contrary to his original statement, that those working on his family farm before the Civil War were not enslaved but employed, paid and treated like family. This is very much a post Civil War white claim that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, especially since black Americans were denied equal rights- — including the right to vote for decades and even today encounter roadblocks to the polls. They were denied equal access to education for a century and as a result quality jobs and economic independence. Institutional racism only grew after African-Americans were no longer enslaved.
I also wonder how many one-time black employees who were “like family” said the same of their white employers. My hunch would be not many. Put it this way, they seldom attend the same family reunions.
Sutton’s contextual clarification — and he spent some time yesterday wrongly referring to my highly professional and decent former colleagues as “yellow journalists” — doesn’t really blunt the overall message he delivered on Monday that he truly doesn’t understand the issue of race in this country then or now and at this point isn’t likely to, nor do I believe he cares to. For a public official this is a shame and tragedy.
And for Sutton, it’s a lifetime disconnect from humanity — by choice.