When I interviewed historian Dale Rosengarten for the ETV documentary The Baruchs of Hobcaw, I asked her to talk about Bernard Baruch’s relationship to the African American residents of Hobcaw Barony. She called him a “classic patrician,” and went on to say,
He had a sense of noblesse oblige. Surely he considered himself and his peers superior to people of African descent. Whether he believed it was biological or by social upbringing, I can’t say. He treated people with great benevolence and great condescension. Apparently he was unaware of the impact of his benevolence on the community, especially the people who lived on the Hobcaw estate all their lives who certainly were grateful, who enjoyed much of the fruits of his beneficence, but who resented being treated as – maybe not so much as children as like serfs. As people who were tied to the land who were his to manipulate in a sense, his to tell where to go and when to go.
She added that, “The Baruchs deserve to be remembered for all the good they did and all the evil they didn’t prevent. As characters of their time and place they are giants.”
Certainly Baruch was benevolent, and aware of the need to “do something for the Negro,” as he says in the first volume of his 1957 autobiography, Baruch: My Own Story. In the chapter entitled “The Negro Progresses,” his mother, who was raised on a plantation in antebellum Fairfield
County, South Carolina, pleads with him never to lose touch with the South and to “contribute to its regeneration.” He took her words to heart, donating to black colleges in South Carolina and providing scholarships to black and white students. When he paid for the construction of a hospital in Camden, SC, he had one stipulation – that there be a certain number of beds reserved for African American patients. This was in 1912, at the height of Jim Crow, when segregation permeated every aspect of Southern society.
At Hobcaw, Baruch built a school for the black children, hired a doctor to visit once a week, and renovated the village church. “As far as their creature comforts were concerned,” he wrote, “there never was suffering or want.” Yet the homes of the black residents had no electricity or running water, while the Baruch daughters had a playhouse with those amenities – as well as a set of fine china.
This disconnect – whole black families living in deprived circumstances versus two little privileged white girls playing house – is difficult to reconcile from the vantage point of 100 years later. Yes, Baruch cared for the blacks who lived on Hobcaw, up to a point, but the vast disparity of wealth, privilege and race was blinding. He writes that, “In those days, when a man bought a plantation in the South, a certain number of Negroes came with the place,” and he didn’t question that assumption, even though the relationship, as Dale Rosengarten points out, was essentially feudal. In 1905, when Baruch purchased Hobcaw Barony, what choice did the African Americans living there have? Basically, he was the baron and they were his serfs.
History, it seems to me, demands that we consider context; that being the case, we need to view Baruch through the lens of his times. Like many, if not most whites of his era, he didn’t grasp the full extent of his privilege and its relationship to power. Yet he wanted to do the right thing, and that made him better than some of his peers, who had no interest in the welfare of African Americans. Maybe the desire to be benevolent – with the condescension that it implies – grew from his Southern heritage. Certainly the relationship between Baruch and the black residents of Hobcaw exhibits all the contradictory elements that make up the shared history of black and white Southerners. As we learn and embrace this history, perhaps it can lead us toward greater understanding, even reconciliation, in the future.