Monday, January 9, 2023

Jacqueline Jones's "No Right to an Honest Living"

Jacqueline Jones  is the Ellen C. Temple Professor of Women’s History Emerita at the University of Texas at Austin and the past president of the American Historical Association. Winner of the Bancroft Prize for Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow and a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, she lives in Concord, Massachusetts.

Jones applied the "Page 99 Test" to her new book, No Right to an Honest Living: The Struggles of Boston’s Black Workers in the Civil War Era, and reported the following:
If browsers opened to page 99, they would see that this book takes an expansive view of themes related to making a living in mid-nineteenth-century Boston. That page focuses on Joseph F. Clash (1808-1872). He was a Black barber and dance hall proprietor in Boston’s North End, a neighborhood of dockworkers and sailors, brothels and gambling dens. Clash was a man of many talents licit and illicit, mundane and violent. This page notes that “Clash had perfected the art of separating the naïve and unsuspecting from their cash.” On June 30, 1853, Clash and a card-sharp associate took advantage of a fugitive from North Carolina by first, besting him in a game called “Seven Up,” and then offering him what they promised was “some very good wine” as a consolation prize. The beverage induced a deep sleep, allowing Clash and his confederate (a brothel owner) to lift a tidy sum from the sleeping man’s pocket. The victim sued, but Clash and his co-defendant were acquitted. The rest of the page details Clash’s business interests as an employer of prostitutes, cooks, and musicians. “Joseph Clash exhibited the kind of ruthlessness that allowed him not only to survive, but to thrive—with some outside help including the legal counsel of Robert Morris [a prominent Black lawyer], the implicit tolerance of the local law-enforcement establishment, and the growing demands [for illicit services] of his grateful customers.”

This page is part of a chapter titled “Underground Commons,” an interracial space of entertainment and criminal behavior. Some Black men and women, denied the ability to earn an “honest living,” made money by providing illegal goods and services. Joseph Clash responded as any good businessperson would to a demand for bootlegged liquor, sex, and illegal gambling. He was not afraid to defend his interests with his fists or a pistol; over the course of his career, he was witness to, or at the center of, several high-profile murder and assault cases.

At times Clash faced threats from disgruntled customers, resentful competitors, and romantic rivals. His businesses were located in an area of the city where midnight knife fights and drunken brawls were routine. At the same time, he enjoyed an unusual degree of respect from white cops on the beat, judges on the bench, and men in the jury box.

In 1857, his grand new dance venue, “American Hall,” attracted a wide range of customers who partook of a menu of hard-boiled eggs, doughnuts, cake, mine pie, baked beans, cold chicken, lobster salad and sausage. A small orchestra, with Clash playing the bass viola, entertained the boisterous crowd.

Clash was a savvy marketer of his own services. The hall sponsored special themed evening events and featured Black and white women who danced with customers for a fee. The “Great Union Ball” of May 24, 1857, attracted a police officer and a reporter for one of the local papers, the Boston Herald. The reporter wrote admiringly of the hall’s lavish decorations, and described the assemblage there that night as “a miscellaneous crowd” consisting of “sailors, shippers of vessels, mates, butchers, negros, drovers, respectable store keepers, city officials, policemen, [and] thieves and garroters,” making it a true Boston “institution.” The popularity of the place, especially among Black and white men, helps to explain why juries routinely acquitted Clash of the various violent crimes for which he stood trial.

The book focuses on the barriers faced by Black men and women in earning a decent living; but it also explores the resourcefulness and resilience of workers who created their own jobs or who engaged in activities that risked harm to themselves or to others. The Boston city directory ignored a whole realm of jobs, including those of rat catcher, fugitive imposter, pickpocket, and fencer of stolen goods, to mention a few.
Learn more about No Right to an Honest Living at the Basic Books website.

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