A vision of dignified work for African peoples


By Angelique Walker-Smith

Juneteenth, celebrated last month, is known as Independence Day for many people of African descent who are children of enslaved African peoples.

It commemorates the day when many formerly enslaved African peoples learned of their freedom as a result of President Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Two years later, Congress adopted the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery.

The proclamation ended approximately 250 years of unpaid labor by African descendants in the United States.

This unpaid labor produced wealth for those who enslaved them. The National Humanities Center states:  “unpaid labor was at the heart of slavery in America. Enslaved people usually worked from early in the morning until late at night. Women often returned to work shortly after giving birth, sometimes running from the fields during the day to feed their infants. On large plantations or farms, it was common for children to come under the care of one enslaved woman who was designated to feed and watch over them during the day while their parents worked. ” 

July’s devotional in “Lament and Hope” is a reminder of how policies have not always benefited African Americans. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was a significant piece of the New Deal legislation that established a national minimum wage, maximum work, and prohibited most employment of children under 16.

According to Bread research, during that time period, 60 percent of African American women were working as domestic workers and 41 percent of African American men were still working as farmworkers. Others primarily worked as servers, shoe shiners, Pullman porters—considered tip-based professions.

Thus, most African Americans were not able to access the benefits of the Act of 1938, widening further the racial hunger, income, and wealth gaps.

Sadly, the labor and racial inequities persist today. As recently as 2018, the Economic Policy Institute reported that black unemployment was at least twice as high as white unemployment at the national level. The same report found that in 14 states and in the District of Columbia, African American unemployment rates exceeded white unemployment rates by a ratio of 2-to-1 or higher.

Advocacy matters today! The historic and stubborn structural vestiges of the enslavement period, colonialism, and many years of racial inequities contribute today to the lack of full work with benefits and living wages for all peoples of African descent nationally and globally. 

May this Quad-Centennial year help us to renew our commitment to advocate for work with dignity with and for all people (James 5:1-6) so that all may be fed.  You can help Bread for the World do this by e-mailing your comments about how this can be done to [email protected].

Angelique Walker-Smith is senior associate for Pan African and Orthodox Church Engagement at Bread for the World.

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