Subsistence Homestead Colonies


W.E.B. Du Bois


March 1, 1934

The difficulty with the modern wage contract is that the contracting parties, the worker and the employer, do not meet with equal power to negotiate. The wage earner must accept in most cases any wage offer because otherwise he will starve to death; and since the employer’s profit depends on the amount that he can save from wages, he is tempted to reduce the wage as nearly as possible to the bare necessities for keeping the worker alive.

To attack this difficulty there have been many proposals, like minimum wage laws, the distribution of capital among workers and other socialistic and communistic experiments.

But one of the most feasible remedies is to make it possible for the worker to support himself with food and shelter even if temporarily he is out of employment or holding out for higher wage. The one method of accomplishing this is by small homesteads where the worker and his family by extra and healthful outdoor work can raise his own food.

It is a fine project and deserves all success; but like everything in the United States, it brings up the Negro problem. Such homesteads might be bought anywhere in connection with the present distribution of industry; but it would be cheapest and on the whole most feasible, if they were established in colonies, and this immediately brings up the question: Who shall be selected for these colonies?

We can yell our heads off and pass the bravest and most uncompromising resolutions and yet we know that most homestead colonies, and particularly those in the South, are not going to select any Negro participants, except as servants and casual laborers.

It would be fine if people were selected without regard to color, but in the United States this is simply impossible. The color of a man’s skin in a colony of this sort would mean more to the colony than any other characteristic. His integrity, his ability, his industry, his personal characteristics, would count for nothing, as set in all against the fact that he was of Negro descent.

So far then as these colonies are voluntary associations or incorporated bodies, the Negro would be given no chance to enter on equal terms with the whites. For the most part in the South he would be deprived of political rights; he would have to have separate social institutions, such as schools and churches, and his economic opportunities in various ways would be curtailed. Under these circumstances, it would be nothing less than idiotic for colored people themselves to refuse to accept or neglect to ask for subsistence homestead colonies of their own. They would have a chance to select the character of people with whom they wanted to live; they would have a chance of making these settlements model settlements of which anybody would be proud, and they would do more in the long run to break down the Color Line than they could by any futile and helpless denunciation of race prejudice. It seems almost impossible that honest, clear-thinking American Negroes can not see this patent fact.


For attribution, please cite this work as:
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1934. “Subsistence Homestead Colonies.” The Crisis 41 (3): 85.