How Prostitutes and Ex-Slaves Saved Us from the Protestant Work Ethic

a renegade history

A Renegade History of the United States

by Thaddeus Russell

2010 Free Press

Book Review

I absolutely adored A Renegade History of the United States. Historian Thadeus Russell offers a totally unique but compelling perspective on the expansion of personal liberty in the US and other English speaking countries.

Unlike Zinn’s The People’s History of the United states and similar “working class” histories, Russell argues that that most of the person freedoms we enjoy aren’t the result of political movements. In his view they originated from the refusal of renegades, degenerates and discontents to accept the puritanical work ethic the founding fathers tried to foist on us. In other words, we should thank America’s drunkards, prostitutes, pirates, slackers, “shiftless” slaves and juvenile delinquents for the unprecedented levels of personal freedom Americans enjoy.

Parts of Russell’s book really surprised me, especially where he describes the uptight, repressed social conservatives (including Martin Luther King) who led American campaigns for abolition, women’s suffrage, labor rights and civil rights. Despite their high profile campaigns for specific legal “rights,” the leaders of these movements expended enormous time and energy trying to correct the “inappropriate” behavior of the masses they claimed to represent.

The Role of Prostitutes and Ex-Slaves

The unquestioned heroes of A Renegade History of the United States are prostitutes and ex-slaves. In the 19th century the only women who owned property, had sex outside of marriage, performed or received oral sex, used birth control, wore make-up, perfume or stylish clothes were prostitutes. In fact, it was prostitutes who won these and other rights that modern American women take for granted. When women were barred from most jobs and wives had no legal right to own property, prostitutes, especially in the Wild West became so wealthy that they funded crucial irrigation and road building projects. Likewise when most states banned birth control in the early 1800s, prostitutes continued to provide a market for contraceptives that stimulated production and distribution.

The importance of slaves and their descendents in the expansion of personal freedom relates to the tenacious manner in which they preserved a culture characterized by sensuous music, rhythms and dancing in a culture that condemned these activities as depraved and harmful to the work ethic.

Following the Civil War, there was a strong expectation that slaves would renounce these pleasurable pastimes and embrace the work ethic as good American citizens. Many eagerly embraced the discipline and self-denial emancipation demanded of them. Most didn’t.

In 1865 Congress confronted this dilemma by creating the Freedman’s Bureau to train ex-slaves how to become “good citizens.” Most enrolled eagerly, thinking they would be taught to read and write. Instead the classes focused on the ideals the founding fathers had promoted – frugality, self-denial and most importantly a love of work, even poorly paid work, as a source of virtue.

Russell cites letters and interviews with ex-slaves who saw no point in being free if it meant they had to work harder than a slave did. Many northerners, who acquired southern plantations cheaply during Reconstruction, complained that ex-slaves made terrible workers. Not only did they come and go as they pleased, but they demanded days off and refused to work in inclement weather. Many ex-slaves also resisted pressure to adopt legal norms of marriage.

Martin Luther King’s Campaign Against Un-Christian and Un-American Blacks

For me, the most interesting section of A Renegade History of the United States is the chapter about Martin Luther King and his little known campaign to persuade so-called “bad niggers” to embrace the puritan work ethic and cult of responsibility and sexless self-sacrifice that has characterized the dominant American culture.

In 1957, Reverend King launched three projects simultaneously: the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), to coordinate a nonviolent campaign to desegregate buses across the South, the Campaign for Citizenship to campaign for voting rights and a church-based campaign to rid African Americans of what King referred to as “un-Christian” and “un-American” habits. In 1957 he delivered a series of sermons condemning blacks who led “tragic lives of pleasure and riotous living” (see Problems of Personality Integration).

In 1958 he wrote articles in Ebony and published his first book, Stride Towards Freedom, in which he claimed black poverty was as much due to laziness and a lack of discipline and morality, as to institutional racism. He also condemned rock and roll.

The Role of Violence in the Civil Rights Movement

Russell also weighs in on what “diversity of tactics” debate that ultimately split the Occupy movement. He lays out compelling evidence that 1) only a tiny minority of southern blacks participated in King’s nonviolent movement and 2) it was “bad niggers” and violence, rather than King’s nonviolent campaign, that won the first major civil rights victories in 1963.

19 thoughts on “How Prostitutes and Ex-Slaves Saved Us from the Protestant Work Ethic

  1. Hie Doc – It is incredible how the violence and the burning of cities has been white washed from history, turning the entire civil rights struggle into a “non violent” campaign. What rubbish. It was the Panthers, Malcolm, Bobby Seale who made Martin Luther King look “reasonable” to white folk. We were there – we saw it with our own eyes. Regards.


    • You betcha. This book is brilliantly written but received nowhere near the attention it deserved. Because it told the truth about King and nonviolence, it languished on the shelf. The same thing happened with Mark Kurlansky’s 1968 – because he told the truth about the Civil Rights movement.


  2. This book seems to be proof that ‘history” can be seen from lots of different perspectives.
    This is what Wikipedia says about the ‘Wild West’: “Enormous popular attention in the media focuses on the Western United States in the second half of the nineteenth century, a period sometimes called the Old West, or the Wild West, frequently exaggerating the romance and violence of the period.”
    The movie industry thrived on these stories. Often the bar ladies were depicted as freedom loving, prosperous, fun loving and sexually available. I am not surprised, that they apparently often became wealthy property owners!
    I am glad that the black man’s music survived despite protestant ‘work ethics’


    • The other point the book makes is that this so-called Protestant Work Ethic was a very convenient ruse for early American capitalists to get workers to come to work in dirty dark factories for wages that were insufficient to provide for their basic needs.

      In the early American factories, people just came to work when they felt like it. They usually skipped Mondays altogether because they had a big hangover from drinking all day on Sunday.


      • In any case, Stuart, I find it interesting to compare conditions in the past with today’s conditions. Were there enough jobs for people in the past, (even if drastically underpaid)? The jobless today are they comparatively better off or are they also just driven to drink and to drugs?
        This work ethic thing, does this apply only to certain people in the community? Do some people overdue this, thinking if they do not work, work, work and perhaps more than anybody else, then they are no good? Do some people think their reason for living is just to work, eat and sleep? Do some people think they are not entitled to get any enjoyment out of life other than the enjoyment they might happen to get out of working?


  3. I take exception to Black people being lumped in with prostitutes. I am sick and tired of some white man coming out with a book that’s about HIS take on Black people and that ex-slaves were lazy, lay-a-bouts with no work ethic and that’s why we have ‘personal liberties’ and that prostitutes were just having a grand old time getting filled with disease after disease because let’s just overlook the fact of STDs while the whores were getting it on with every cowboy and miner in town and anything and everything that could still get a boner after chugging down a fifth of rotgut and yet, the prostitutes still managed to survive drinking like a fish and contracting STDs to get rich and own businesses and such like. And today’s prostitution is the same. Look at all the whores that have their own business. They’re not still selling their wares on every street corner in America. They’ve managed to change the laws due to their connections with their highfalutin clientele to get a whorehouse on every corner right next to a liquor store and a Chinese takeout joint. <–Heavy on the sarcasm) Because make no mistake, strip clubs are owned for the most part by men. So, where are these prosperous whores? What happened to all of those businesses that they owned from getting all rich from whoring?

    Now, I also take exception to being considered a shiftless, lazy and "bad nigger!" I have worked two goddamn jobs, walked back and forth to work with the soles of my shoes gone but I still managed to find time to get to the bar after work and dance to some rock and roll sung by Black artists. Oops, my bad, sung by "bad niggers!"

    So far, everyone that's commented has had a grand ole time exclaiming over this book by some white dude that's once again, slamming Martin Luther King Jr., because he strutted around in a suit and tie and didn't sag his pants thus causing the whites to get the lynching party together. Well, newsfuckingflash, the whites still got the high powered hoses and hosed him and many other "good niggers down," they also did sic dogs on the "good niggers" and they of course did indeed, jail the "good niggers." What the hell difference did it make as to whether we were perceived as a "good nigger," or a "bad nigger" to the whites. We's all "bad niggers," according to the whites. And excuse my lack of grammatical skills and all. I'se just spent so much time down at the bar being all lazy, shiftless, amoral and, you know, being a "bad nigger!," that I've just bungled my edumacasion and all, doncha know!

    Seriously Dr. Bramhall, I am surprised at you, posting this!

    Every Black body that's been in America since slavery brought us here has contributed in some way to any advances that some perceive that we have made. And to keep categorizing and labeling us is just the end of enough. How many times do white people get labeled and categorized? I am tired of white people defining us and writing our history. What the fuck do they know about our struggles and who did what? We know and that's all that needs to know because we will never get any acknowledgement from whites for what we do, no matter how much we accomplish. We'll just continue to get labeled, "good niggers" v. "bad niggers!" and I am frankly sick of this tiresome shit because according to whites, there really ain't no "good niggers!" They'd just as soon put ALL of us down for being "bad niggers!" And according to many whites, "The only GOOD nigger is a DEAD nigger!"


    • Shelby I don’t really think Russell’s intent was to put any kind of label on either slaves or black people in general. I believe the point he’s trying to make is that Martin Luther King was a very different person (at least based on his writings) than what’s normally portrayed in the corporate media and white history books.

      Russell strongly disagrees (as do I) with King’s view (as expressed in Stride Towards Freedom) that black poverty is due to black laziness and lack of discipline and morality – I can’t believe that you agree with this, either, based on everything you have written.

      I definitely didn’t get the impression that Russell is trying to minimize the role King played in advancing civil rights. He does, however, make the strong point that nonviolence was only a small part of the civil rights campaign. It was violence (rioting, looting, etc) that won the first major victories in 1963.

      I don’t think Russell is trying to make the point that slaves were shiftless and lazy, either. At the time of Emancipation, the normal work day in a factory could be 16 hours or more and you were expected to work even if you were sick or had a broken arm or leg – for a pay packet that wasn’t quite enough to live on. He cites letters and interviews from former slaves (who had been promised land following Emancipation) who strongly objected being forced to work on under these conditions. You have to feed and provide basic shelter for a slave – or he gets sick and dies. All you have to provide a factory worker is a pay packet.

      The issue, according to Russell, is this mind game that’s played on people to make them think they won’t go to Heaven if they don’t work themselves to death. He also covers a lot of white ethnic groups in his book, namely the succession of immigrant groups (Irish, Jews, Italians, etc) that were ghettoized until they, too, submitted to the Protestant Work Ethic.

      Some of the prostitutes he mentions who acquired great wealth include Eleanora Dumont, who ran a whole string of brothels saloons and gambling houses throughout the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada; Josephine Airey who used the proceeds from her brothels to purchase a sizable portion of Helena Montana; Lou Graham, who became one of the largest landholders in the Pacific Northwest and contributed enormous sums to help establish the Seattle public school system; Anna Wilson, who owned a substantial portion of Omaha’s real estate and donated her mansion for Omaha’s first modern emergency hospital; and Mary Pleasant, who invested in the California gold mines, made high-interest loans to San Francisco’s business elite and file suit to desegregate the city’s streetcars.


      • You need to do better research Dr. Bramhall because this is what I found regarding what Dr. King is purported to have said about Black people being lazy.

        “Some of his critics suggested that the plight of the Negro was his own fault and that preferential treatment and special rights were a form of reverse discrimination, no better than the discrimination he said he was fighting against. He answered:

        ‘It would be neither true nor honest to say that the Negro’s status is what it is because he is innately inferior or because he is basically lazy and listless, or because he has not sought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. Such thinking is a myth and it is of no use to cite comparisons with other races; there is no parallel. No other group was brought here in bondage. The Negro must have help to win his rightful place.. And there is no section of the country that can discuss the matter of brotherhood with clean hands’.

        Martin Luther King travelled many roads, he went to arid reservations, to the barrios, to the urban ghettos, to the rural countryside, to the poor of all color and asked why the affluent live insulated and isolated alongside the poor. He began to work to organize the poor of all colors and all kinds to demand economic justice and to challenge the unfair distribution of wealth, he raised questions people did not want to hear, and could not answer. By questioning the distribution of wealth and the plight of the poor he questioned the very basis of the American system and in so doing became a much greater threat and earned him the enmity of those in power.

        No more eloquent testimony to his life can be found than in the fact that he died working in the cause of predominantly black garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there because he believed they had a dignity worthy of the respect of their employers and fellow citizens, despite their station in life. He was born privileged, he didn’t have to champion the cause of the poor, he choose to cast his lot with the poor and devote all that he had to the cause of justice. He was on his way to Washington to lobby for the nation to deliver on the Declaration’s promise of an inalienable right to life for the poor and the excluded.”

        This mess about he said/she said/ can go back and forth and on and on but I will NOT take away from what Dr. King and others had to go through and it did not matter whether he was perceived as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. He was Black and that was all he and others like him had to be to receive the hellish treatment that they did. I’m not going to argue with you about what Dr. King said about Black people. We all say things we regret and some things we may not regret, but I go by deeds. Let my deeds speak for me! Does that ring a bell? And his deeds spoke far more than his words. He had a dream, yes. But he also believed in doing more than just dreaming.

        Not you and not Thaddeus Russell can tell me about me and MY people! I know far better than you or that white author about the Black struggle. I live it! Do you?


  4. Oh and I believe I did state that anyone could do a google search and come up with what some whores accomplished. So, good for Eleanora Dumont with her brothels. Once a whore, always a whore and likewise Josephine Airey.


  5. Aunty, at the time the Protestant work ethic was first being imposed on people, factory hours were typically 16+ hours a day for men, women and children as young as six. They all had to work because pay was so pitiful. I think overall conditions are worse for all of us owing to the breakdown of community ties that are vital for human function. In a situation where people have enough land to produce their own food, they only have to work 4-5 hours a day. It’s my sense that people are biologically suited to work about that amount – anything more is exploitation to increase their employer’s profits.


    • Thanks, Stuart, this sounds about right to me. Owning your own land? How to achieve this, this is the big question. I think Henry George had all the answers to that. Will people ever be ready to take note of what he preached. I mean, at the time there were millions who listened to what he had to say. Did this change anything? Not really, for the big property owners naturally resist any changes.


  6. I did not read your review as a dismissal of Dr. King or an indictment of black people being lazy. It immediately brought to mind a discussion which I had with my husband in which I said Malcolm X actually had as great, if not a greater, influence on young black men, and continues to to this day. He was able to relate to the daily bigotry and racism experienced by young black men, the changes they go through, the prison experience. He went through the hateful period with the Black Muslims, but then he changed. He showed young black men how to overcome not only poverty, prison, and prejudice against white people. He showed them how to maintain their dignity, courage, and to understand there is a wide world with people of all colors. And really, integration actually destroyed many black communities, because the professionals left – that is why there is a poor, black underclass in many cities and rural areas. And the fact of the matter is, that this work ethic is a bunch of bull shit. Other countries around the world people work, but have longer vacations, universal health care, and in some places free education. As for the prostitutes – hey, they were brave and strong women. They recognized that men were after one of two things – sex or sex with a live in servant called a wife. Prostitution would not exist if men were not sexual animals too. And those who conduct their business as a business with dignity and cleanliness, are no more whores than the woman who sleeps around for free or has multiple children by different men. We are not here to judge each other but to understand that everyone has a purpose – and sexual workers are not like corporate capitalists, making people work unlivable wages, denying people health care, or exploiting the earth’s resources.


  7. Skywalker, I think you make some really excellent points. Especially about some of the negative effects segregation has had on splitting up the African American community. When I was secretary of Seattle’s African American Heritage Museum, it wasn’t white residents who destroyed the Museum and converted into condos – it was rich African Americans who didn’t even live in Seattle (they lived in the wealthy suburbs) who saw a chance to make even more money colluding with white developers. Many of the families who helped us by joining the Museum support committee were extremely unhappy about the negative impact bussing had in destroying neighborhood schools and any control black parents had over their kids’ education.

    I also like the point you make about prostitution, which is legal and regulated here in New Zealand. I was here when it was legalized – and the most important impact was providing a channel for women to escape exploitation and abuse by pimps. I also had the opportunity to work with COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) – the prostitutes’ union – when I was in Seattle. I was really surprised at the large number of single mothers (many openly gay) who worked as prostitutes because they couldn’t feed their kids on the low wage occupations open to women.


  8. Pingback: Alcohol and the American Dream | The Most Revolutionary Act

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