The black elite in the South of the United States started forming before the American Civil War among free blacks who managed to acquire property. Of the free people of color in North Carolina in the censuses from 1790 to 1810, 80% can be traced to African Americans free in Virginia during the colonial period. Free blacks migrated from Virginia to other states as did their neighbors. Extensive research into colonial court records, wills and deeds has demonstrated that most of those free families came from relationships or marriages between white women, servant or free, and black men, servant, free or slave. Such relationships were part of the more fluid relationships among the working class before the boundaries of slavery hardened.
During the 19th century, there were additional relationships between whites and blacks, not always of a consensual nature. What is notorious is that white slaveholders could take advantage of slave women because of their power. There were also slaveholders who had caring relationships, common-law marriages, and real marriages with black slave women, and who sometimes freed them and their children. Some slaveholders did provide for their mixed-race children by ensuring they got education although, in other cases, they were simply apprenticed to a trade or craft. Whatever property the father passed on to the child was important in helping that person get a start in life.
The mulattos patterned their lives after "polite" white society.
In the South, because of their head start in acquiring property, the black elite began to exercise leadership roles within the church, black schools, and community, but as in any society, there were natural leaders who rose up from many classes.
Catering services and other skilled employment were important because they had the white contacts needed to remain within the “status quo”. The black elite also enjoyed the benefits of living within the white neighborhoods which further isolated them from the darker-skinned African Americans which caused them to blame them for the downward shifts in life-style choices. They felt that by “emulating” the white man could social standing and class be achieved.
The Civil Rights Movement and affirmative action brought about many changes for the black elite. As the old elite died away, it made room for the new black elite to emerge. Within its realm are the educated, the entrepreneurs, actors, singers, and those who comprise the top nine percent of the elite status.
- Benjamin, Lois; The Black Elite, Nelson-hall Publishers/Chicago, 1991.
- Landry, Bart.; The New Black Middle Class, University of California Press, 1987.
- Birmingham, Stephen. Certain People: America's Black Elite, Little Brown & Co., New York, NY, 1977.
- Frazier, E. Franklin. Black Bourgeoisie, Fress Press, New York, NY, 1997.
- Gatewood, Willard B. Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880-1920, University of Arkansas Press, Arkansas, 2000.
- Graham, Lawrence. Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class, HarperCollins Publishers Inc., New York, NY, 1999.
- Major, Gerri. Black Society, Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., Chicago, 1977.
- Educating the Black Elite Retrieved April 30, 2007
- Probing the Black Elite’s Role for the 21st Century-Issue 134. Retrieved April 30, 2007.
- The Black Elite in America