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A new book celebrates the contributions of America's Black working class

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley.

Over the last few years, University of North Carolina professor Blair Kelley would often bristle when she heard the way TV commentators used the term white working class. She felt the news media was obscuring the existence of one of America's vital work forces. From slavery to the formation of labor unions as we know them, it is the Black working class, Kelley writes in her new book, that is also at the center of the American story. "Black Folk: The Roots Of The Black Working Class" gives a portrait of the laundresses, Pullman porters, domestic maids and postal workers who contributed to the wealth and prosperity of this country, playing major roles in organizing for better jobs, better pay and equal rights. Blair Kelley gives an expansive view spanning 200 years, from one of her earliest known ancestors to the essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Blair Kelley is director of the Center for the Study of the American South, a Joel R. Williamson distinguished professor of Southern studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her first book, "Right To Ride: Streetcar Boycotts And African American Citizenship," chronicles the litigation and organizing against segregated rails and streetcars.

Blair Kelley, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BLAIR KELLEY: Thanks for having me.

MOSLEY: Blair, what was it about that moment when you were watching television and you heard those commentators on TV talking about the white working class that you said to yourself, I need to write this book?

KELLEY: I mean, I think it's sort of an ongoing truth. I'm a historian of the African American experience. I'm a historian of Black people. And I think when you take Black Americans out of the American story, you start to miss things, and you start to forget the fuller and richer context. And so when you see every election season, they pile into some diner in the Midwest somewhere and start asking those voters exactly what they think as the working folks, you want to make sure that they're remembering that there's a broader working class that isn't all white, isn't all Midwestern and also has a lot to teach us about this country and what's possible.

MOSLEY: We're talking more than - it's estimated, actually, more than 15 million enslaved Africans were brought here for that sole purpose of exploiting their labor. Can you explain briefly the kinds of labor required to prepare the land for what would first be tobacco and later cotton?

KELLEY: Well, you know, it's important to remember that the first enslaved generations, they come well before the founding of the nation. And much of the country was in forms of wilderness settled by Native Americans, but not the sort of massive land clearing necessary for a plantation culture. So when you would visit a plantation today and you would see sort of flat vistas and, you know, runoff and little creeks and no trees in certain areas and trees in others, those massive trees had to be cleared, and they had to be cleared by hand. So the enslaved did that work. They dug ditches and canals. They figured out how to plat the land properly. They knew how to grow the crops. In South Carolina, for example, the rice culture there became so wealthy because it was a West African set of traditions. They knew how to grow rice in West Africa, and so they were purchased in particular to grow it there. So the ways in which the country became built up over time were about African skill and African knowledge.

MOSLEY: This was backbreaking work. And you're actually asserting that the way this country thinks about work and really what productivity looks like started with the assessment of productivity of enslaved Africans. What were the ways that slaveholders would measure productivity?

KELLEY: Often by the pound in terms of cotton or the ability to work continuously in sort of other circumstances - sugar, for example. In rice culture, it was more task-oriented and so left a little bit more space for culture and family among the enslaved. But all of it was quite brutal, quite controlled, tightly watched. And that culture of sort of trying to extract as much as possible from the enslaved created a set of circumstances that forced the enslaved to think creatively about how to fight back, about how to resist, about how to carve out time for themselves, space to speak to one another, to think, to strategize on how to survive. And so when we look at the work culture of slavery, we see the beginnings of a class consciousness.

MOSLEY: So as you mentioned, their worth was based on how much cotton they could literally pick. And slaveholders kept a log of this as a way to measure productivity. Can you describe what those slave logs were like and what was written in them?

KELLEY: Well, each hand was judged to be capable of a certain amount of productivity. So if you were a young man, there was a certain standard. If you were a young woman, there was a certain standard. So a prime - what they called a prime hand was responsible for a certain amount of productivity each day, with no account for sickness or disability or any other kind of personal difficulties, with no account for pregnancy or those kinds of things. And so the calculus of enslavement was quite brutal. But it made the Southern states, where staple cotton - long staple cotton was located, some of the wealthiest parts of the country.

MOSLEY: You remind us in the book that while a small number of powerful white men owned Black enslaved people in the South, it was the role of the overseer and the patrolmen that kept white working-class people invested in this system of slavery. What were the roles of an overseer and a patrolman?

KELLEY: Overseers and patrolmen oftentimes were not landholders themselves. They didn't own enslaved people, but the economy of the South was dependent on everyone being invested in maintaining slavery. And so to watch and to control the enslaved at all times, it was necessary to have an infrastructure. And oftentimes, landholders themselves, if they held enough people in bondage over time, they didn't want the dirty work of tending to the fields themselves every day.

And we have to remember that most slaveholders held only a few slaves. Most enslaved people were held in holdings of 50 or more. So it reminds us that there were a few people who had concentrated wealth, and most people did not. But in those circumstances, the white working class was invested and also taught that they were fundamentally different than the enslaved, and a logic and a theory around who Black people were was created to divide the working class of white folks away from the enslaved.

MOSLEY: Part of your storytelling in this book also traces your own family's history, as I mentioned, and the kinds of work they did or were forced to do. And you were able to trace your lineage all the way to the early 1800s, before slavery was abolished. One particular ancestor - his name was Henry. How did you find him?

KELLEY: It's a funny story 'cause I had started, you know, on that part of my genealogical research, and I was really stuck on my grandfather. I couldn't find him. And then I found a gravestone of his grandmother, and it was of carved marble, like, very fancy, very elaborate. And I was like, wow, that's really extraordinary. And once I found that stone, that whole line began to open up, and I was able to get back to Henry.

And so I found the will of his slaveholder, and it was written in manuscript, so really hard to read, and very long. And so I was like, well, I know that enslaved individuals wouldn't be named by the person on here. He owned over 200 people. He wouldn't list them all out. He would just sort of say, you know, to this person, I give this many enslaved people, you know, like, in general terms. And so as I was reading, I saw Henry - what I thought was a Henry. I saw a big, looping H and then a comment - a blacksmith. And I was like, let me compare this H to other H's to make sure that this really says Henry. And then I looked and looked again, and I thought, well, wow, I think that's my Henry there named in the will.

MOSLEY: What did that mean for you to find that? I mean, that is such an early trace of your history as a person who is a descendant of enslaved Africans - almost, I mean, literally a needle in a haystack.

KELLEY: So I think, you know, the historian in me knew that this was interesting in that he was a skilled - what was considered a skilled slave, that he had special talents. And, in fact, he was named because he was going to be, in particular, handed down to a son who must have needed some help with infrastructure and building. And so having a blacksmith on hand would have been very helpful to him.

What was poignant to me as his descendant is that his wife and his children were not listed in that will. And I wondered, you know, what was the intention here? Was he to be kept with his family? Was he to be passed off without them? And the poignancy of those who were not named, both my ancestors and others, really started to stick out to me in that moment.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, we're talking with Blair Kelley, a Joel R. Williamson distinguished professor of Southern studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She's written a new book titled "Black Folk: The Roots Of The Black Working Class," which chronicles the stories of Black laborers who contributed to the wealth and prosperity of this country. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE NATURAL SPIRITUAL ORCHESTRA'S "WE LOVE ROLL CALL Y-ALL")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today, we're talking with Blair Kelley, distinguished professor of Southern studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She's written a new book called "Black Folk: The Roots Of The Black Working Class." Her first book, "Right To Ride: Streetcar Boycotts And African American Citizenship," chronicles the litigation and organizing against segregated rails and streetcars.

Another person in your family that you shared the story of is your great-grandfather, Solicitor Duncan.

KELLEY: Yes.

MOSLEY: He was a child of former slaves, and he himself was a sharecropper, which, you write, looked very similar to the conditions of slavery. Can you describe for us how this system of sharecropping really continued to subjugate newly freed enslaved people after emancipation?

KELLEY: I think the subjugation was unique in that the shape of Black people's lives had changed, right? You could live in your family unit. You could raise your own children. You could decide who went to the field and who didn't. But over time, sharecropping, which was intended to be a compromise, ended up being a real chokehold on so many generations of Black Southerners who were unable to fairly negotiate with landholders and at the end of any season were told what the crop was worth. And so you might work an entire season, get credit from the store to buy food or fabric or provisions for your family and then be told that you owed money after a year worth of laboring with your family, of pulling your children out of school so they could work, of having your wife be in the fields.

And so that was what happened to my great-grandfather. He was frustrated at the idea that, again, he would be told he didn't have any money. He needed some money to take care of his family, and he wanted a future and had a vision for that and knew that sharecropping would never help him get there. And so he had to escape. My mother told this story to me many, many times, and she always said, they escaped like runaway slaves. They were free, but they had to run because the debt that he owed was considered something that he had to pay back and that he had to stay there until he could work that back. And he felt like it was a death sentence. So he packed up his wife and children in the middle of the night in the cover of darkness and ran.

MOSLEY: You know, we often hear about the 40 acres and a mule that was promised but never delivered to freed slaves. There were other promises, too. What were some of those other programs? I'm actually thinking about the Freedmen's Bureau. But what were some other programs that were established to help Black Americans enter society as free people?

KELLEY: Not enough. You know, people were freed, and the focus oftentimes was on finding a balance between slaveholders and the enslaved and really leaning toward the landholders, who still had power, who had to give up very little. They compromised on their political rights for a few generations, but with the close of Reconstruction, those compromises went away, as did much of the representation that Black people had built up during that time. And so overall, they were given little. And things like the Freedman's Bank collapsed, where people had deposited their small amounts of money that they had been able to earn, and then they lost them completely.

I did find one ancestor who had made deposits in the Freedman's Bank. And I was always told by my grandfather, don't trust banks. He kept money in his house - probably also not a good plan, but it was because his own grandfather had lost money. And so there was very little. If you think about it, the generations of people who toiled for others to make the country wealthy walked away with the clothes on their back and very little effort on the part of the country to make anything like a real start.

MOSLEY: I wanted to talk with you about some of the stereotypes that you actually counter, several myths that you counter in this book, as well. Throughout the book, you take us through the origins of the term lazy to describe Black laborers. Thomas Jefferson's 1784 "Notes On The State Of Virginia" uses this language to describe enslaved people. Can I have you read a passage from it?

KELLEY: And I went to the University of Virginia, so I always have a special interest in...

MOSLEY: Ah.

KELLEY: ...Jefferson.

(Reading) They seem to require less sleep. A Black, after hard labor through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are more ardent after their female, but love seems with them to be more an eager desire than a tender, delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath are less felt and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. To this must be ascribed their disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions and unemployed in labor. An animal whose body is at rest and who does not reflect must be disposed to sleep, of course.

MOSLEY: That was from Thomas Jefferson's 1784 "Notes On The State Of Virginia."

Blair, I mean, that passage basically encapsulates so many stereotypes of Black people and Black workers. There's little to no regard for their health beyond whether the body could perform the work. With this understanding, I mean, how do you see the term lazy becoming a descriptor and later a stereotype about Black people?

KELLEY: I think it's really powerful. If you go to Monticello, you can see where Jefferson worked most days. There was a window nearby, and he would've been able to overlook his fields and enslaved people moving about and laboring all day as he sat and wrote and thought and read books. And so I think it's really quite powerful to sit in a room and have people wait on you and bring you breakfast, lunch and dinner, to do the carpentry that built the home you sit in, the chair you're sitting in, and to look out at those other folks and say they're lazy. I thought - Jefferson just always astounds me with that one. His sentence, their griefs are transient, is always so powerful. I think that may have been his hope that he could be forgiven...

MOSLEY: As a way to justify?

KELLEY: ...'Cause I think he understood.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

KELLEY: Yes. As a way of saying they're not feeling life the way I would feel life as a white man, and so they're going to forget about all this. I think that insertion there is a tell on his part.

MOSLEY: You know, when I read that, I also was thinking about how much more we know about trauma and what trauma looks like. And so as he was describing these enslaved people, what I actually was reading were people who were deeply, deeply traumatized.

KELLEY: Absolutely. Of course - to lose family, to lose friends and colleagues to the occasional sale, to be tremendously skilled. You know, if we look at Monticello, it's a historic site. If you go to the University of Virginia and you see those beautiful serpentine walls, the skill that those folks had, and then to know that you had no value other than in a market of trade must have been very devastating for people because we knew our humanity all along. And so the idea of people being property and not valued for the workers that they were, the people that they were, the parents, the family members, the community members, must have been devastating.

But in that quote, I also see community 'cause he says, you know, they might have been working all day, and then they come together and they stay up and they talk even though they know they have to get to work. Well, boy, that staying up and talking is an important space, as well. And we have to remember that part.

MOSLEY: It was part of that resistance that you brought up earlier. And...

KELLEY: Yes.

MOSLEY: ...Resistance also sometimes was self-harm. You actually write about a woman on the New Orleans slave market that took drastic measures. Can you tell that story?

KELLEY: There was a man who was enslaved who recalled a woman who did not want to be traded away to New Orleans, away from her children. And so she set her hand down and chopped off her hand at the wrist because she knew that she would no longer be valued as a prime female hand if she didn't have her right hand and that she would be kept with her children. And so her desire to mother was greater than her fear of harming herself.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, we are talking with Blair Kelley, a Joel R. Williamson distinguished professor of Southern studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She's written a new book titled "Black Folk: The Roots Of The Black Working Class," which chronicles the stories of Black laborers who contributed to the wealth and prosperity of this country. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "TUNJI")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today, we're talking to Blair Kelley, distinguished professor of Southern studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She's written a new book titled "Black Folk: The Roots Of The Black Working Class." Her first book, "Right To Ride: Streetcar Boycotts And African American Citizenship," chronicles the litigation and organizing against segregated rails and streetcars.

So fast-forwarding after emancipation, after millions of enslaved people were freed, they were met with violence. And that's when we started to see the seeds of organizing. You write about the dawn of political awakening for the Negro, as it was called. What are some examples of how that early political awakening shaped worker protections not only for Black workers but for all workers?

KELLEY: Well, in their first generations, they have very little protection, right? So they come out of enslavement, but they try to organize. They participate in politics. They register to vote. Much of that gets stripped away, initially, replaced by what we have all been taught was called the radical Republicans in Congress. And so they upbuild a political society. I can find Henry, who was once enslaved, as my ancestor, registering to vote in 1867. I found a document with his X on it, and above it, it was written, his mark. And so it is wonderful to see those who were held in bondage so bravely push toward citizenship and voting and having their voices be heard. What a world change. And the anger that so many people had toward them was profound. And yet they pushed toward their own freedom, their own voices, their own policies, their own politics.

MOSLEY: You give us several examples of this political awakening. One that you write extensively about is the role of the washerwoman during the early 1900s. They were important in the evolution of domestic work in the United States. First, can you describe what a washerwoman was during the turn of the century?

KELLEY: So washerwomen wash clothes. This is before the advent of the electric washing machine that most people now have in their homes that makes it sort of just a regular household task. Before the advent of these machines, it was an arduous set of tasks. People were boiling water, making their own soap, hanging clothes to dry and then ironing those clothes by hand - not only those clothes but also sheets and linens and napkins and towels - so that they could be used week to week. That work was considered beneath most white women in the South. Even working-class white families or poorer white families were ashamed to have their own clotheslines in their yard and would send out their laundry. So families that would never have had, necessarily, a maid cleaning their home would have their laundry sent out.

And so Black women ended up with a monopoly on this work, and they quickly realized that it had power. They organized, most famously, in the Atlanta washerwomen strike of the - 1881, I believe, which was chronicled by Tera Hunter many decades ago in her brilliant "To 'Joy My Freedom." But when I went to do the research on this chapter, I found out that there were hundreds of these smaller protests, much like the Atlanta protest, which was a massive one, where Black women would come together to organize, to set prices, to determine where and when they would do the work, to take days off, to take holidays off. And their collectivity was powerful all across the South.

MOSLEY: They were desperately needed because, as you said, there were no such things as, like, washing machines or other types of things to help you wash quicker.

KELLEY: Yes.

MOSLEY: They were - but while they were desperately needed, there was a lot of contempt for them because they held that power, as you said. I mean, I was just struck by the section where you write about white bosses accusing them of padding their time, of wearing their clothes outside of - out - you know, out in cities and towns. But the thing that really struck me was that they were free to work from home.

KELLEY: Yes. Absolutely. I found an amazing study done around the turn of the century, which basically said that women who had their own children overwhelmingly preferred laundry work over domestic work inside white homes because of the ability to watch their own children. And the - even if those domestic jobs might have paid a little bit more, the ability to determine your own household, to decide what happened to your own family was such a powerful incentive. So although they made very little, they had themselves. They had community. They had safety. They also had protection from sexual assault. Many people who did domestic work inside homes would be attacked, and there was no recourse, no police to call. So that space was really powerful and important for them.

I met a man at one of my book talks the other day who said he recalled his great-grandmother watching him as a little person. He said he believed he was about 3 years old, and he remembers waking up and seeing her with an iron over clothes, just pressing those clothes. And he said to me, I realized for the first time she was there because of me, and she did that work for me. And so that ability to care for their own, which was never possible as enslaved people, became central to their goals as free women.

MOSLEY: Our guest today is Blair Kelley, author of the new book "Black Folk: The Roots Of The Black Working Class." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLARK TERRY AND SWING FEVER'S "TOPSY")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and my guest today is Blair Kelley, author of the new book "Black Folk: The Roots Of The Black Working Class," which chronicles the story of Black laborers who contributed to the wealth and prosperity of this country.

Blair, after the country entered the Second World War, there was a demand for Black domestic workers and white woman workers. But how did Black domestic workers' labor actually allow for white women to succeed in this movement?

KELLEY: I think it's interesting. You know, Rosie the Riveter is our most powerful icon of this moment in which white women go into workplaces in place of the men who are drafted and abroad and fighting in the war. And we don't really think of, like, who is watching Rosie the Riveter's children? Who's cooking the dinner, getting the groceries together? Black women were not enabled to get many of those industrial jobs, which paid better, but were instead called on to be domestic workers quite informally, right? There's no national discussion of the fact that Black women will do this work. But as white women work, Black women move into their households to care for their families and children so that we can have the icon of Rosie the Riveter, but we don't think about the person caring for Rosie the Riveter's kids while she's gone.

MOSLEY: Thinking about the role of the Black woman in those households, you chronicle, in the book, the relationship between women of white households and the Black women who worked for them. What surprised you most about those types of arrangements? Because one thing that struck me was the disconnect about the perceptions of the arrangements. White families would often call their help like family, but many of the Black women who worked for them rarely felt that way.

KELLEY: Yes. I mean, most time, you would know your family's whole name. You would know where they lived. You would know their kids' names. You would have some sense of their everyday lives. But, you know, there was a dangerous anonymity that Black women lived, and oftentimes, household workers still live, where people don't know them very well and don't have very much concern for their everyday lives.

And many of the women during this time period who did domestic service had no lives and no time of their own. They might be called on to wake at dawn and start getting the household going. They might be called to work all day and into the night if the family was hosting a dinner party or wanted to go out and needed someone to watch their children. They oftentimes were housed in awful ways, put in basements or hallways or closets to sleep. They really had very little privacy, and, as I mentioned before, oftentimes were targeted by men in the household for sexual assault.

MOSLEY: What did this revelation tell you about, perhaps, the - maybe the perceptions of this imbalance of power and how it plays out today? Because, you know, our country often sanitizes this work. They - you know, we almost have romantic perceptions about relationships with the help during that time period. I mean, we even see these depictions in movies.

KELLEY: Absolutely. I think the anti-help came for me when I read an article in a Black newspaper in Philadelphia describing a woman who had died while she was at service in a white household. They didn't know her name, so they had to put a description of her - her clothing, her shoes and her coat - in the paper for the hopes that her family might recognize her. I think that's what the circumstances were oftentimes like - a terrible anonymity.

The work of Ella Baker in chronicling the Bronx slave market, as she called it, where women, during the Depression, stood on street corners being bartered down to work for pennies as day work - the danger of that, the anonymity of that, the kinds of awful jobs they'd be asked to do because of their desperation during a time of economic crisis - it really stands out in contrast to the romantic depictions we often have.

MOSLEY: Your grandmother, Brunell Duncan, played a significant role in your life in your early years. You actually had no idea that she worked in her younger years as a maid, and I'm wondering why this detail was important in the scope of understanding the choices Black women had to make during the Great Migration.

KELLEY: My mother and my grandmother told me stories all the time about where they were from, about - my grandmother would talk about being from South Carolina and being Geechee, as she called it, and okra, corn and tomatoes. And she would teach me how to cook and talk about different things from her growing-up years. And she would talk about her job at the Navy Yard. She was very proud to be a typist - an entry-level typist at the Navy Yard. And I had never knew that, for probably more than a decade, from what I can tell in my research, she was a live-in maid.

My mother would talk about living with her Aunt Sis (ph), who was a hairdresser. And Aunt Sis' husband was one of the earliest Black policemen in Philadelphia. And she grew up with them when she was little, and she often says, I wasn't quite my mother's child because I had different food tastes, and they spoiled me. And so I was irritating when I came to live with my mother again and my father again. And I always thought Aunt Sis was a relative. I was trying to figure out, like, how I'm related to Aunt Sis. And then I figured out, oh, Aunt Sis was just a woman who kept my mom because my grandmother couldn't keep her because she lived in a household in West Philadelphia and could not raise her for herself, so she didn't for years. She would come to visit her on the weekend.

And so the story was sort of submerged in the other details that I did know. And so in the years before my mother died, she began to say, well, you know, your grandmother was a maid. And she began to tell me stories that she recalled from her earliest childhood about her life and that work. And it was something she didn't want to do. She had a high school education. She had - she was bright and brilliant. She was interested in politics. They both read several newspapers every day. And she wanted a real job, a white-collar job, when she migrated, and she couldn't get one. And so it wasn't her vision. And certainly not raising her child was not my grandfather's vision. And so it's something I think they didn't want to pass down to me. But as my mother discovered my interest in history and interest in Black history, she wanted me to know that history, too.

MOSLEY: Yeah. Was part of sharing that history also to lift the veil from - of shame from this type of work? Because so many Black...

KELLEY: I...

MOSLEY: ...Women had to take on this work as a way for upward mobility.

KELLEY: I think it was shame, but it was also a sense of, like, not wanting me to think that I was limited. I remember my mother being told by her father that she had to quit a job at a Lerner clothing store. She loved clothing, and so she was so excited about that job. But she would have to clean the toilet in the Lerner. And he went down there and made her quit because he said, you're never going to be cleaning the white folk's toilet. I - you know, your mother had to do that. I didn't want her to do that. You're never going to do it. And so I think it was not necessarily shame but a sense that there was better.

MOSLEY: You know, reading about your grandmother reminded me of my grandmother, who's 97. And I actually learned about 10 years ago that when she migrated from the South to Detroit, she worked as a maid as a means of survival to get a footing in a new city. And it was not something that was part of us growing up. We had no idea about that. She didn't share that part of the story with us. It wasn't until we were looking at homes in, like, a wealthier neighborhood that she said, oh, yeah, I used to clean houses over here. And I was happy for the gift of understanding and knowing that about her. This was so common, but it also was not a detail that many - I guess, learning from you, many of our grandparents didn't share.

KELLEY: Yes. I think the degree to which Black families wanted to leave that story behind for their descendants tells us about what they visioned in their migrations, that they hoped that they could get white-collar jobs or industrial jobs and that those things would help build a life. And eventually, many of them did. You know, this was a place that they started. But the fact that they had to start there, I think, was a disappointment for so many.

MOSLEY: You take on the argument of reparations for descendants of slaves. How do you feel reparations should be measured? Who gets what, and what should it be based on?

KELLEY: You know, I'm a terrible mathematician, and I am not an economist. But for me, I think about the people. I think about the fact that Henry was probably a third- or fourth-generation person taken from Africa and on this land in the 1820s. I think about the work that the generations before him that I cannot know contributed to this country in building whole states and whole economies. I think about the sacrifices he made in his lifetime, the wear and tear on his own body to enrich others. He was in his late 40s when freedom came, so he must have been having aches and pains. And so in the moment of freedom, trying to build a life for his family, he had given so much of himself already. I think about his descendants who are still carrying those burdens. And I can't calculate. I can't begin to tell you what the value of all that is. But I do know that we owe Black workers today much more, that we owe Black descendants today much more in terms of access and equality and education and the ability to purchase homes and land and to actualize the things that their forebears wanted so desperately.

MOSLEY: Blair Kelley, thank you for this conversation and sharing your work with us.

KELLEY: Thank you so much for having me.

MOSLEY: That was Blair Kelley, author of the new book "Black Folk: The Roots Of The Black Working Class." Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Janelle Monae's latest album. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS'S "FABLES OF FAUBUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.

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