The Racism Behind Occupational Licensing Circa 1865

The following post was written by Kelly Barber,  University of Florida Junior and SFL Executive Board member.


While many people believe that protesting government regulations like occupational licensing requirements is merely a pastime for privileged, white middle-to-upper class businessmen with too much time and money on their hands, the Institute for Justice does great work fighting for the low-income, less-educated racial minorities that occupational licensing hurdles disproportionately hurt.

On average, licensing requirements force workers to spend almost nine months in training and to spend over $200 in fees. One-third of the required licenses take over a year to earn. The jobs most effected by licensure- interior designers, cosmetologists, florists, funeral attendants, home entertainment installers, and barbers- do not pose high health or safety risks. Many such workers are budding entrepreneurs and licensing requirements prevent the creation of new jobs in addition to increasing consumer costs.

While the percentage of the American workforce impacted by licensing requirements has greatly increased from 5% in 1950 to 33% today regulations aimed at racial discrimination, have a long tradition in American history.

Before the Civil War, 5.6% of African Americans worked in artisan careers as blacksmiths, carpenters, barbers, shoemakers, and vendors. After slavery was abolished, African Americans had many more opportunities for economic advancement. They were able to navigate the economy far more freely, had greater access to education, and increased consumption levels heightened demand for artisans’ services. Yet, by 1870, the black artisan population had actually decreased to 3.5% of the black population. In many areas in the South, the number was even lower.

While this decrease can be partially explained by broader changes in the economy, racism clearly played a role as well. In Competition and Coercion, historian Robert Higgs wrote that the benefits African Americans obtained from competitive forces in the private sector were limited by non-market discriminatory influences. In most cases, a white artisan would not hire a black artisan — even for reduced wages — if doing so would turn away racist clients. The effects of racism in the private sphere are also demonstrated by the fact that merchants charged African Americans exorbitant prices for credit, or denied them altogether.

However, racial discrimination in the public sphere was far more prominent. While a businessman might be incentivized by profit to break with the racism of the day, a Southern politician stood to lose his job for being perceived as sympathetic to African Americans. As a result, it was in politicians’ best interest to implement policies that would disadvantage black businessmen. And that is precisely what they did.

In 1865, the government of Macon, Georgia issued market ordinances in the name of “public health” to rein in black autonomy. They imposed quality requirements, restricted the sale of fresh meat and produce during set hours of operation and threatened to seize the goods of all violators. In Louisville, regulations placed minimum levels on amounts of meats and vegetables, which could be offered for sale and prohibited selling cooked provisions. The Daily Telegraph applauded the dispersal of fifty black vendors who were peddling their wares on street corners and said, “streets and pavements were made to ride and walk upon, and not for eating chicken pies and goober peas.” Vendors clashed with city inspectors up through July, requiring constant surveillance by the provost guard. These restrictions pushed many black vendors out of their traditional livelihood and by 1870, only four black household heads in Macon were vendors. By reducing the value of the market, the local government encouraged the proliferation of grocers; nearly all of them were white.

Many state and local governments also imposed licensing requirements on butchers and draymen (wagon drivers). In December of 1865, South Carolina passed a law forbidding African Americans from pursuing or practicing “the art, trade, or business of an artisan, mechanic, or shopkeeper…on his own account and for his own benefit…until he shall have obtained a license…which shall be good for one year only.” Black shopkeepers and peddlers had to pay $100 a year for a license and black artisans had to pay $10 while white men were required to pay neither fee. In Mississippi, draymen had to pay an astounding $500 for a license.

A writer in the Jackson News decried the discriminatory motivation of such requirements by pointing out that the saloon keepers, draymen and barbers of the city of Vicksburg, the majority of which were black, had to pay licensing fees while the lawyers, doctors and dentists, the majority of which were white, did not. The author wrote, “It is easy to see that a few turns of such screws as the above ‘license fees’ are sufficient to confiscate the negro’s property and drive him out of the State or into slavery. A new meaning will thus be given to pregnant text: ‘To him that hath (the ballot) shall be given but from him that hath not (the ballot) shall be taken away.’”

In Louisville, vendors had to pay between ten and thirty dollars each year for a license and an additional ten cents for each sale made without a license. Licensed peddlers and vendors were almost exclusively white, suggesting that these restrictions did discourage black artisans from selling, at least in popular public markets. Typically black artisan occupations were also often assigned unique taxes. For example, one letter in the Christian Recorder reported that barbers and draymen were taxed $5 a month, candy shops $6, and vendors $25. An article in The Jackson News noted that barbers had to pay a $10 tax for each barber chair, amounting to $50 to $100 per year. It stated that this was evidence of an attempt “to make free negroes pay all the taxes if they cannot make them do all the work.”

Unfortunately, the following quote from W.E.B. Du Bois is increasingly relevant for racial minorities today suffering from unjust economic regulations. Hopefully, the work being done by IJ and other organizations will change that.

When one group of people suffer all these little differences of treatment and discriminations continually, the result is either discouragement, or bitterness, or over-sensitiveness, or recklessness…The mass of the Negroes have so often been discouraged in efforts to better their condition that many of them say, as one said, ‘I never apply-I know it is useless…’ And this social environment has been built up slowly out of the disappointments of deserving men and the sloth of the unawakened. Few men will persist in knocking on a door that is usually slammed in their faces.