Chapter Seven


We have been faithful in the field up to the present time, and think that we ought to be considered as men, and allowed a fair chance in the race of life. It has been said that a black man can not make his own living, but give us opportunities and we will show the whites that we will not come to them for any thing, if they do not come to us. We think the colored people have been the making of them, and can make something of ourselves in time. The colored people know how to work, and the whites have been dependent upon them. They can work again, and will work. A white man may talk very well, but put him to work, and what will he say? He will say that hard work is not easy. He will say that it is hard for a man who has owned so many able-bodied negroes to have the Yankees come and take them all away.


“OLD LETITIA is with me still on the old terms and declines to make any change in consequence of her freedom,” William L. DeRosset, a former North Carolina slaveholder, informed his brother. “I can see no difference in her at all, and I notified her when I first saw the order freeing them, that she was at liberty to go, but that if she staid with me it must be as she had before & if she misbehaved I would not hesitate to flog her. She acquiesced fully & I have had no trouble.” With several of the other servants, however, he had been less successful. “Susie became impudent & I drove her off,” while Louisa “wanted to make a change” and left. To replace them, he managed to hire “two of the best servants I ever saw, both young mulatto women, & real niggers.” Having already surrendered the use of his right leg, the still unrepentant DeRosset remained willing to sacrifice his right arm if it would help to ensure the ultimate triumph of the Lost Cause. With blacks in his region abandoning the rice fields for more desirable labor, he recognized that unwelcome changes lay ahead. But DeRosset remained confident of the outcome and he would manage his laborers in that spirit. “The Negroes over the entire South are beginning to awaken to a sense of their still dependant position towards the whites and consequently are much more respectful and steadily improving in this respect. So that in a few years I think every thing will be about as it was except that we can not control their entire time.”2

To listen to the former slaveholder, emancipation had changed only the method of compensation, not the basic arrangement, not the mutual understanding that had underlain the old system. If he continued to meet his obligations to his freed blacks and provide for their daily needs, if he agreed to pay them in some way for their labor (whether by wages or shares), he expected them to maintain the old demeanor and to comply with his expectations, regulations, and demands. “My own servants on the lot have not said a word about wages nor changed at all in their deportment or duty,” a Florida farmer and physician advised his cousin in North Carolina. The one problem he had encountered was a former slave who “was very idle & a little impertinent to my wife,” but he resolved the matter quickly and in a familiar fashion. “I gave her a moderate thrashing a few days ago and we have had no more trouble yet.” That same remedy, when coupled with the traditional reliance on mutual obligations, provided a Mississippi planter with all the security he needed to continue his agricultural operations. “We go right on like we always did,” he explained, “and I pole ’em if they don’t do right. This year I says to em, ‘Boys, I’m going to make a bargain with you. I’ll roll out the ploughs and the mules and the feed, and you shall do the work; we’ll make a crop of cotton, and you shall have half. I’ll provide for ye, give ye quarters, treat ye well, and when ye won’t work, pole ye like I always have.’ They agreed to it, and I put it into the contract that I was to whoop ’em when I pleased.”3

Even as Henry W. Ravenel argued that both whites and blacks now needed to unlearn the old relationship, he had nothing drastic in mind. He insisted that the freed blacks were to show “deference, respect & attachment,” while their former masters, in return, would exercise “kindliness, care, & attention.” But there was little question as to where the ultimate authority lay. Like most planters, William Henry Stiles of Georgia prepared to manage his working force much as he had in the past. If the blacks were no longer legally bound to him, as he finally and only grudgingly conceded, neither did he feel obligated to employ them if they proved troublesome. After reprimanding his newly freed slaves for their independent work habits, such as taking more time off for meals than he permitted, Stiles advised them that they were perfectly free to leave. But if they chose to stay, he made clear, “they should work as they had obligated themselves to do—that is to work in the same manner as they always had done.” This kind of advice became commonplace, and the phrase “to work in the same manner as they always had done” was often written into newly devised labor contracts. To many planters, in fact, the principle was sufficiently important to risk their entire labor force. “Our freedmen will leave us,” J. B. Moore, an Alabama planter, confided to his diary. “They will not agree to work and be controlled by me, hence, I told them I would not hire them.”4

Whatever the legal status of the freedmen, then, the planter class made every effort to retain the essential features of the old work discipline. To tolerate the slightest deviation, no matter how trivial, was to unhinge the entire network of controls and restraints and thereby undermine the very basis of the social order as well as the labor system. What most whites found difficult to accept was not so much the freedom of the slaves as the determination of the ex-slaves to act as though they were free. “Our Negroes remain in status quo,” Donald MacRae, a North Carolina commission merchant, observed in September 1865, “except that I imagine they feel a little disposition to show their freedom.” He determined to impress upon every one of his former slaves that there were restraints on that freedom. “Yesterday,” he related to his wife, “Zielu—without asking—told me she was going to church at Cool Spring. She did what work she had to do ahead, left at daylight, and did not return till after supper. I told her this morning that though I acknowledge her freedom, I do not acknowledge her right to do as she wishes without my consent, and that if she tried it again she should not come back.” He could hardly have been clearer, and few whites accustomed to the ownership of slaves would have dissented from his position. Even the most “humane” among them, “conscious of none but the friendliest and best intentions” toward their blacks, a traveler in Virginia observed in 1865, insisted on “nothing less than complete deference” and resisted “anything resembling independence and self-reliance in them.… In short, he wishes still to be master, is willing to be a kind master, but will not be a just employer.”5

If the former master preferred to view the new relationship within the old work discipline, the newly freed slaves were apt to have some different notions about how matters now stood. Although as slaves they had been subject to the arbitrary powers and caprice of their owners, even then many of them had managed to establish a line of toleration beyond which few masters or overseers might wish to move; and as freedmen, they sought to achieve a sense of personal autonomy while widening the area of maneuverability. No matter how many of them still worked for the same “white folks” and still depended on white men for support and protection, few were unaffected by the change in their legal status. Even if the aspiration of ex-slaves to eradicate the old dependency was but barely realized, the vast majority of them, according to the testimony of two black leaders in July 1865, “knew pretty well in what respects their present differed from their former situation. They all knew they were their own men.”6

The crucial difference could not be measured by the amount of compensation they now received but involved a different perception of themselves and their relationship to whites. The freedmen on the Sneed plantation, near Austin, Texas, expressed no desire to leave the place on which they had labored as slaves but they had every intention of moving out of their slave quarters. On the plantation of Joseph Glover in South Carolina, a slave named Abraham had served with considerable distinction during the war, managing the place in his master’s absence and even berating “the bad behaviour of some of the people.” With the advent of freedom, Abraham informed his former master that he neither wished nor intended to leave but would await his return “to hear what proposal you may make.” No less ready to assert her new status was a black woman named Rose, who worked as a servant on a plantation in Louisiana and also performed the duties of midwife, attending both the slaves and several “white ladies” in the neighborhood. For assisting the white women, she had been paid ten dollars each time, half of which her mistress had retained. With freedom, her new employer promised her the entire ten dollars. “Didn’t you say the black people are free?” she asked him. When he agreed, she inquired, “White people are free, too, ain’t they?” When he again replied in the affirmative, Rose both asked and demanded, “Then why shouldn’t you pay me ten dollars every time I ’tend upon the black folks on the plantation?” None of these instances constituted startling or even dramatic manifestations of independence, any more than the action of some Alabama slaves who chose to stay with “massa” but demanded and secured the right to celebrate each year the anniversary of their freedom. (“Every 19th of June he would let us clean off a place and fix a platform and have dancing and eating out there in the field.”) But in each case, if only symbolically, the freedmen had made their point; they had acted on their freedom, they had asserted their individual worth, and they had no doubt derived considerable personal satisfaction and pride from doing so.7

To remain on the same farm or plantation, to work for the old master or for any white man, was not necessarily to forfeit, postpone, or compromise their freedom. No matter how each ex-slave chose to express this fact, many of them insisted that it be understood and acknowledged, even at the cost of severing the relationship altogether. “Whose servant are you?” the Reverend John Hamilton Cornish, an Episcopalian minister in Aiken, South Carolina, demanded to know of his former slave after reprimanding her for using profane language in his presence. “My own servant,” she replied. Seeking clarification, he asked her if she intended to remain with him. “I am willing to live with you as I have always done, & know you will pay me proper wages,” she replied. Not satisfied with that answer, the minister insisted, “If you remain with me, you will be my servant, & conduct yourself accordingly, & will receive just what you have been accustomed to receive. Nothing more.” If this had been calculated to impress her with his undiminished authority, the result must have been discouraging. “I’ll leave then,” she promptly announced. Having stood enough of her “impertinence,” the clergyman told her to “seek a better place” and to have her belongings removed by the end of the week. And still to his surprise, she did precisely that.8

Whether in the fields or in the house, the most disturbing manifestations of black freedom were the breakdown of the old discipline, the refusal to obey orders promptly if at all, and the disinclination to regard “massa” and “missus” with the same degree of fear, awe, and respect previously expected of black subordinates. “My niggers used to do as I told them, but that time is passed,” a Louisiana planter lamented. The number of black laborers dismissed for “bad work & insolent language” may have been limited only by the difficulty in replacing them. Neither the formerly free Negroes nor the freed slaves, a northern observer wrote, “seem to recognize any obligations they may be under to employers.” Not only had they “appropriated” chickens, eggs, milk, and vegetables “to an amount fully equal to their wages” but any attempt to discipline them proved futile as long as some neighboring planter was anxious to hire them. Where slaves had behaved “outrageously” during the war, as on the Louisiana plantation of Governor Thomas O. Moore, the efforts of local whites to restore the old discipline met with only partial success. The conduct of black workers on the Moore place had become so “disobedient, defiant, [and] disrespectful” that the manager preferred to deal with them through an agent. “I go but seldom where they are at work,” he confessed.9

Comparisons of productivity under slave and free labor, a favorite pastime of postwar commentators of all persuasions, clearly favored the old system. With near unanimity, the planters themselves testified in the aftermath of the war that their former slaves did “half their former work”; the estimates ran both higher and lower but that average tended to prevail.10 A Mississippi planter told of a slave who had once picked thirty bales of cotton in one season but freedom reduced that figure to three bales; on the other hand, he praised three black families (also his former slaves) “who from nothing, are worth from $1,000 to $1,500 in money, stock, etc., to-day. They yielded to my advice. This number, out of 225 (which I was relieved of without any effort on my part); the balance are all trash, paupers, consumers, worse than army worms, and strange to say, they are quite as intelligent as the prosperous ones; but generally good slaves made poor freedmen.”11

To place any considerable weight on these initial assessments of the productivity of freedmen would be to minimize the ways in which a destructive war might have disrupted any kind of labor system. The statistics of output, moreover, could tell different stories, depending on who collected them and for what purpose. Abolitionists and Union officials eager to prove the advantages of free labor were not necessarily more accurate in their computations than those who looked back with nostalgia to the old days and the Lost Cause. No doubt productivity declined under freedom, but to many of the ex-slaves comparative labor efficiency seemed less important in 1865 than the conditions under which they would work as free men and women and the rewards they would reap from their labor.

With the scarcity of laborers in many sections of the postwar South, the former slaves appeared to be in an excellent bargaining position. “The cry on all sides, is for laborers,” a much-perplexed Mississippi planter observed, and yet the freedman, “finding himself master of the situation,” preferred to use his new power to reduce his labor rather than increase his compensation. The problem, most observers agreed, lay not so much in the number of working hours (the ten-hour day, six-day week still prevailed) as in the inclination of the freedmen to labor less arduously. Even as patient and systematic a planter as Edward B. Heyward, who prided himself on his unique understanding of the rice-field blacks, almost despaired of extracting more labor from them.

The work progresses very slowly and they seem perfectly indifferent. Oh! no one away from “the scene of operations” can have any conception of the difficulties we have to encounter.… I allude especially to our Rice field negro, a real gang worker, a perfect machine or part of a machine rather. He never thinks, never did, perhaps never will. The women appear most lazy, merely because they are allowed the opportunity. They wish to stay in the house or in the garden all the time.… The men are scarcely much better. They go out, because they are obliged to. They feel bound as a slave and work under constraint, are impudent, careless and altogether very provoking.

What most planters suspected and many freedmen readily conceded was a general and deliberate slowdown—the development of a work pace consistent with and reflective of their new status as free men and women. “Their idea of freedom,” a Federal official reported from Bolivar County, Mississippi, in July 1865, “is that they are under no control; can work when they please, and go where they wish.”12

With careful training, and with force if necessary, the planter class thought it could instill a discipline and attitude in their slaves that would overcome the blacks’ traditional notions about work and time. But to listen to the former masters in the aftermath of the war, that discipline came unhinged the moment their blacks began to act on their freedom. “Negroes know nothing of the value of time,” a Texas planter proclaimed, and on countless farms and plantations that seemed to translate into less work and lost days, with laborers reporting to the fields late, remaining out longer at mealtime, and refusing to labor on Saturday afternoons.13 Pierce Butler, the large Georgia rice planter, wondered how he could possibly make a crop when most of his hands left the fields in the early afternoon, even at the busiest time of the season. When his daughter returned to the plantation after the war to assist him, she shared his exasperation, particularly in view of the loyalty the blacks had shown him as slaves.

The negroes talked a great deal about their desire and intention to work for us, but their idea of work, unaided by the stern law of necessity, is very vague, some of them working only half a day and some even less. I don’t think one does a really honest full day’s work, and so of course not half the necessary amount is done and I am afraid never will be again.… I generally found that if I wanted a thing done I first had to tell the negroes to do it, then show them how, and finally do it myself. Their way of managing not to do it was very ingenious, for they always were perfectly good-tempered, and received my orders with, “Dat’s so, missus; just as missus says,” and then always somehow or other left the thing undone.14

Few planters appeared to comprehend fully why this was happening, only that their experiences confirmed what they had long suspected—that black slaves were productive laborers while free blacks were not. After thirty-seven years devoted to raising sugarcane and cotton, a Louisiana planter found himself unable to induce his seventy-five blacks, almost all of them his former slaves, to produce even a fraction of the prewar crops. Not only did they work slowly but they took no interest in maintaining the plantation fences (“all rotting down”) or buildings (“decaying and going to ruin”). It was as though they no longer cared. “Wherever you look the eye rests on nothing but the relics of former things fast passing to destruction.” Neither “moral suasion” nor wage incentives had induced them to work harder. “The nature of the negro cannot be changed by the offer of more or less money,” he concluded, repeating the familiar excuse of employers everywhere, “all he [the Negro] desires is to eat, drink and sleep, and perform the least possible amount of labor.” But even if the ultimate responsibility lay with racial characteristics, that made the experience no less wrenching, the humiliations endured no less trying. “I have the heartbreak over things,” one disillusioned planter wrote. “I see this big plantation, once so beautifully kept up, going to rack and ruin. I see the negroes I trained so carefully deteriorating every day. We suffer from theft, are humiliated by impertinence; and cannot help ourselves.… This is the first rule in their lesson of freedom—to get all they can out of white folks and give as little as possible in return.”15

Where planters, overseers, and managers failed to induce the blacks to maintain the old pace of labor, the black drivers fared little better, provided they were tolerated at all. On a Louisiana sugar plantation, Jim had long held the position of driver, and he was proud of the way he had exercised his duties—no prouder than his master, who thought him the most intelligent and skillful slave he had ever known. After the war, however, Jim found his people unresponsive to his demands, and he could only shake his head in disbelief:

I sposed, now we’s all free, dey’d jump into de work keen, to make all de money dey could. But it was juss no work at all. I got so ‘scouraged sometimes I’s ready to gib it all up, and tell ’em to starve if dey wanted to. Why, sah, after I’d ring de bell in the mornin’ ’twould be hour, or hour ’n half ’fore a man ’d get into de fiel’. Den dey’d work along maybe an hour, maybe half hour more; and den dey’d say, “Jim, aint it time to quit?” I say, “No, you lazy dog, taint ten o’clock.” Den dey’d say, “Jim, I’s mighty tired,” and next thing I’d know, dey’d be pokin’ off to de quarters. When I scold and swear at ’em, dey say, “We’s free now, and we’s not work unless we pleases.” Sah, I got so sick of deir wuflessness dat I sometimes almost wished it was old slavery times again.

That was the driver’s view of how matters stood; the remaining field hands, however, thought him a hard taskmaster—“harder on them than white folks.” Few of them, moreover, expected to contract for a new year unless they were accorded certain privileges, like their own tracts of land to cultivate for their own benefit. Nevertheless, the driver expected that in time these freedmen would come to their senses, particularly with a white overseer now on the premises. “Dey wants a white man to gib orders,” he explained. “Dey wouldn’t min’ me las’ yeah, ’cause I’s nigger like demselves. I tink dey do better dis yeah.”16

Although the rate of “desertion” appears to have been lower in the fields than in the households, few planters could assume in mid-1865 that any of their hands would be on the same plantation at the end of the year. Within a period of five months, the Beaver Bend plantation, a once flourishing enterprise, was brought to a point of virtual ruin. Before the war, Hugh Davis had reaped substantial profits out of his 5,000 acres of rich Black Belt land; in 1862, he died of an apoplectic stroke, and an administrator and overseer managed the plantation while Hugh Davis, Jr., eighteen years old when the war broke out, served in the Confederate Army. After the war, Davis found that the slaves in this region had “all become monomaniacs on the subject of freedom,” thousands of them flocking to Selma “to be free” and “to embrace the nigger lovers,” only to discover Yankee freedom to be a “delusion” and to hasten back to the old plantation. Of the seventy-eight Davis slaves, some thirteen men and thirteen women were persuaded to remain and contract to work “as they have heretofore done” for provisions and a share (one fifth) of the crop. Within several weeks after Davis’ return to the plantation, continual movement and malingering among the former slaves seriously interfered with the completion of the crop. “Negroes will not work for pay, the lash is all I fear that will make them,” he wrote on May 30, 1865. Five weeks later, the same problems plagued him, with seventeen of his “best hands” having left for Selma. The Davis plantation, like so many others, experienced a turbulent period in which freedmen—both the old hands and the newly hired workers—came and departed with an exasperating regularity. After sustaining still further losses, the young planter finally threw up his hands in disgust and left the plantation to take up residence in nearby Marion, where he remained the rest of his life. On October 3, 1865, some five months after his return from military service, Davis made his final journal entry as a prospective postwar planter: “Farewell Old Farm Book! to record the future work of free negroes beside your content would disgrace the past. The work and profits of the best labor system ever established have been written on these pages—the past was brilliant but the future is dismal, gloomy.”17

With undisguised smugness (as if they had anticipated precisely this outcome), punctuated with proper expressions of alarm, outrage, and exasperation, occasionally tempered with a degree of commiseration, the dispossessed slaveholding class observed the fatal effects of emancipation on the Negro character and the plantation economy. Everywhere he went in the South, a northern journalist reported, people talked about little else. “Let conversation begin where it will, it ends with Sambo.” Expecting the worst, the white South prepared to believe almost anything, and with few exceptions it heard only an accumulation of irritations, grievances, and horror tales. The incidents and themes kept repeating themselves, resting as they did on long-held assumptions about the character and limited capacity of the African race. Released from the care and discipline of the master, “no longer stimulated by the ‘Must!’,” the freedman by his behavior revealed how necessary that bondage had been. He refused to work, preferring a life of idleness, dissipation, and vagrancy; and even when he worked, “what is done is badly done.” He entertained extravagant notions about his freedom—“idleness, plenty of good food and fine clothes,” not to mention that imminent forty acres and a mule. His natural inclination to theft manifested itself even more blatantly in freedom. “I’m sure they were all thieves in Africa. Wherever you read about them they’re always the same.” Freed from all restraint, he had become “fearfully licentious,” “saucy and rude,” “insubordinate and insolent,” “lazy, thieving, lying, ignorant, brutish,” “shiftless, improvident, idle,” “skulking, shuffling, and worthless,” and “an unmitigated nuisance.” After all that had been done for him, he evinced “not as much gratitude … as many of the inferior animals.” Although his legal status had been altered, his basic character remained the same, and that only invited future troubles. “Thar ain’t no good side to ’em,” an old South Carolina planter explained. “You can’t find a white streak in ’em, if you turn ’em wrong side outwards and back again.… All the men are thieves, and all the women are prostitutes. It’s their natur’ to be that way, and they never’ll be no other way. They ain’t worth the land they cover.”18

If planters suspected their blacks of deliberately slowing the pace of labor, few of them cared to deal with the more obvious implications of such a move. Rather, they preferred to assign responsibility not only to peculiar racial characteristics but to lax discipline, Federal interference, and, perhaps most critically, a rising generation of blacks who had not been inculcated with a proper regard for time, industry, and the Protestant work ethic. “The old hands are passing away,” a Texas planter lamented. “The young ones do not learn to work. No authority is exercised by parents to teach them to work or understand the value of time, industry and economy.” Under present conditions, an Arkansas planter concurred, the number of blacks “trained from childhood to hard labor” was rapidly diminishing and the new generation was therefore bound to be “worthless.” The same considerations prompted an Alabama planter to rely on his “old, trained hands” to make a crop. “Such as were once considered secondrate,” he observed, “are now the best.” Actually, these were simply variations on what had become a popular postwar theme among whites—that unless blacks were properly controlled and trained, the African race under conditions of freedom would revert back to barbarism.19

But if whites quickly interpreted the work habits of their former slaves as conclusive proof of racial degeneration, the newly freed black workers chose to view their introduction to free labor quite differently. What many planters defined as a slowdown was often the freedmen’s refusal to work up to their previous exploitative level. And what many planters viewed as an unwillingness to work and rebellious behavior proved in some instances to be nothing more than a well-earned, albeit brief respite from the rigorous plantation routines that had characterized the freedmen’s previous lives. “No rest, massa, all work, all de time; plenty to eat, but no rest, no repose,” was the way an elderly South Carolina freedman described his life as a slave; he was much happier now, he added, if only for the “chance for [a] little comfort.” How could the planter class, moreover, deny to their former slaves a privilege they had flaunted so often in their presence? If there were “lazy” and “improvident” freedmen, a black clergyman declared, they were simply modeling themselves after the masters and mistresses they had observed for so many years. “They never worked for their own living,” he said of the planters, “and hence their slaves imitate their former owners. Who is to blame?” Slavery itself, another observer noted, had taught that a gentleman was a person who lived without working. “Is it wonderful,” he then asked, “that some of the negroes, who want now to be gentlemen, should have thought of trying this as the easiest way?”20

Even if few ex-slaves had the wherewithal to aspire to be “gentlemen,” they did have certain strong convictions about the perquisites of their new status. What was freedom all about if not the chance to work less than they had as slaves and to have more leisure time for themselves, their families, and their garden plots? As one freedwoman in South Carolina remarked, she had not yet experienced any freedom, for she was working just as hard as ever. When pressed to work harder, a Georgia freedman “indignantly” inquired of his new employer, who happened to be a Northerner, “what the use of being free was, if he had to work harder than when he was a slave.” More often than not, the slowdown was a way for newly freed black men and women to dramatize to themselves the distinction between their former and present positions—to know “de feel of bein’ free.” The inclination to work at their own pace also reflected for many ex-slaves the limited possibilities for achievement as landless agricultural laborers—if freedom could not mean “getting ahead,” it could at the very least mean not working hard.21

While planters preferred to compare how many bales of cotton were produced under slavery and under freedom, their former slaves searched for ways to break away from a dependency and a day-to-day routine that seemed all too familiar. “Missus done keep me in slave times totin’ milk, an’ pickin’ cotton, an’ now de black ’uns is free, … ’pears like we hev tu tote all de milk, an’ pick de cotton, an’ work jes’ de same.”22 Within the closer confinement and supervision of the households, where it proved difficult for blacks to reconcile their new freedom with the demands of domestic service, the quest for personal autonomy and individual worth often took on an even greater urgency than in the fields.


AFTER THE WAR, Charles and Etta Stearns, both of them “uncompromising” abolitionists, came to the South, where they acquired ownership of a plantation in Columbia County, Georgia. The name they gave to their place, “Hope On Hope Ever Plantation,” signified their optimism about the transition to free black labor. Within days after their arrival, Etta began to reorder the household. That was when the trouble began. Margaret, the cook, was a woman of considerable independence and sensitivity, outspoken on behalf of her rights and prerogatives, and determined that no person should infringe upon them without her consent. It required only a minor incident—an order to wash the dishes in a different way—to bring to the surface her feelings about the new arrangements and her new mistress. Planting herself in the middle of the room, facing Etta Stearns, Margaret made it clear that she was “gwine to be cook ob dis ere house, and Ise want no white woman to trouble me. You white folks spose, cause you white, and we all black, that us dunno noffin, and you knows eberyting.” Removing her yellow turban from her head, and waving it in her hands, she declared in a voice loud enough to reach the more than attentive black laborers outside:

Now missus, youse one bery good white woman, come down from de great North, to teach poor we to read, and sich as that; but we done claned dishes all our days, long before ye Yankees heard tell of us, and now does ye suppose I gwine to give up all my rights to ye, just cause youse a Yankee white woman? Does ye know missus that we’s free now? Yas, free we is, and us ant gwine to get down to ye, any more than to them ar rebs.

Upon hearing “this harangue,” the overseer rushed in, seized Margaret by the neck of her dress, and dragged her out unceremoniously, while exclaiming, “Shut up, you damn black wench, or I’ll beat your brains out.” Turning to his employers, he remarked, “Never mind her, Mrs. Stearns; these niggers have no more sense or manners than a mule; but I’ll teach her not to insult white people.” When Margaret subsequently returned to the house, she was “mild as a lamb” and washed the dishes as ordered but when told the next day to clean the cupboards, rebellion flared again. “Black folks don’t work on Sunday,” she announced. Etta Stearns cleaned the cupboards.23

The refusal to take any more “foolishment off of white folks” (native whites and Yankees alike) reflected the determination of many freedmen and freedwomen to stake out a larger degree of personal autonomy for themselves. Families accustomed to servants and absolute obedience often had to look no further than to their own households to Observe the strange, ominous, sometimes shocking manifestations of black freedom. How was any family to know when a long-time black faithful had reached the breaking point, and as a free person no longer felt obliged to contain the rage and resentment within her? “You betta do it yourself,” a Charleston servant suddenly told her mistress after being ordered to scour some pots and kettles. “Ain’t you smarter an me? You think you is—Wy you no scour fo you-self.” On the Pine Hill plantation in Leon County, Florida, Emeline had served as the cook for many years; the white family thought of her as “a great pet,” a favorite of the children, and a faithful worker. On May 20, 1865, around dinnertime, the mistress’s daughter searched for Emeline (“who has always professed to love me dearly”) in her accustomed place in the kitchen but failed to find her. Hastening to Emeline’s house, she found her dressed in her best Sunday clothes, preparing to attend an emancipation picnic sponsored by three regiments of black soldiers stationed nearby. When reminded of her kitchen obligations and the expected guests for dinner, the long-time servant retorted, “Take dem [storeroom and pantry] keys back ter yer Mother an’ tell her I don’t never ’spects ter cook no more, not while I lives—tell her I’se free, bless de Lord! Tell her if she want any dinner she kin cook it herself.” Admittedly “hurt and dazed” by this encounter, the white woman left silently. “They are free, I thought; free to do as they please. Never before had I had a word of impudence from any of our black folks but they are not ours any longer.… I have learned a lesson today: we must not expect too much of ‘free negroes.’ ”24

Although such outbursts from servants were rare, many white families might have preferred them to the more subtle transformation by which their once faithful domestics became unrecognizable men and women. After five months with his freed slaves, a Georgia planter found them “obviously changing in character every day.” Even Frances Butler Leigh, who had been so impressed with the devotion of her father’s slaves, wondered if she had been premature in her judgment. Visiting the plantation on St. Simon’s Island, she found her household staff reduced both in numbers and in the quality of their service: Alex “invariably is taken ill just as he ought to get dinner,” while Pierce “since his winter at the North is too fine to do anything but wait at table. So I cook, and my maid does the housework …” Emma Holmes, on the other hand, described in admiring detail the faithful service rendered by “the few who remain with us,” including a servant who still asked permission to leave the premises and apologized profusely when he once returned late. But she added: “These things are so unusual, that I have noticed them particularly.”25

The rate of “desertion” among the house servants during and after the war should have given sufficient warning that this traditionally loyal class of blacks could behave in independent and unpredictable ways. That was no less true of those who chose to remain with the families they had served as slaves. Like Adele Allston of South Carolina, many a plantation mistress came away with mixed emotions about the postwar conduct of their household staffs.

I can never feel kindly towards Nelly again.… Phebe gets into an ill humor occasionally and jaws me, but on the whole she is very good. I have agreed to give her $50 a year and Aleck the same, but Aleck has been gone for a week and I think he will possibly not return.… I fear Milly is tired being good and faithful. She appears discontented.

Within the intimacy and closeness of the Big House, the slightest incident, misunderstanding, or exchange of words could precipitate a confrontation, and in the aftermath of emancipation the sensibilities of both whites and blacks could be easily provoked. Even while ostensibly carrying on their normal duties, domestics had a way of irritating their mistresses or arousing their suspicions. “The servants torment me,” a South Carolina woman wrote her sister, “but I suppose they do the same to everybody.” The household in Augusta, Georgia, over which Eva B. Jones presided underwent a crisis when some money she had carefully saved and secreted suddenly disappeared. The only question was which of the servants might be the thief, and the evidence pointed to a freedwoman who was about to become a bride “and has therefore indulged in some extravagancies and petty fineries.” Upon hearing of this incident, Mary Jones, Eva’s mother-in-law, responded with that familiar sigh, “We cannot but feel such ingratitude.” If she offered little more comfort, that may have reflected preoccupation with her own persistent domestic irritations: Flora was “most unhappy,” working very little, and apparently ready to leave; Jack had moved into a Savannah boardinghouse, “where I presume he will practice attitudes and act the Congo gentleman to perfection”; and Kate and Flora, in “an amusing conversation” she overheard, talked about how “they are looking forward to gold watches and chains, bracelets, and blue veils and silk dresses!” To Mary Jones, it all seemed rather hopeless, and she had given up trying to anticipate the behavior of her domestics. “It is impossible to get at any of their intentions, and it is useless to ask them. I see only a dark future for the whole race.”26

As long as their servants retained the precious right of mobility, neither the master nor the mistress could determine or control the outcome of domestic conflicts. If servants felt insulted or compromised, or if the employer resorted to the whip, they often chose to leave. Until additional help could be hired, the mistress might try various expedients to fill the gap. Eva Jones distributed the household duties among the remaining servants and even assumed a few of the tasks herself. “Our menage has been frightfully reduced,” she informed her mother-in-law, “and of our numerous throng there remains a seamstress (who has had to lay aside her old calling to become cook, washer, and chambermaid) and one who attends to everything else about this unfortunate establishment.” Nor was it uncommon to transfer field hands to the house and make domestics of them. To replace the “faithful” Patty, the Grimball family of South Carolina hired a field hand and his family. With less success, Frances Butler Leigh employed several “raw field hands, to whom everything was new and strange, and who were really savages.” Sara Pryor, ill in bed and unable to care for her children, replaced her maid (who left on Christmas morning) with a field hand named Anarchy, but she soon determined that the new servant’s hands, “knotted by work in the fields, were too rough to touch my babe.”27

Unprepared for the frustrations that close contact with whites could provoke, some initiates into domestic service had brief tenures. On a Mississippi plantation, the wife of a field hand was transferred to the house; within a short time, troubles developed, words were exchanged, she claimed she had been insulted, and she left her household duties undone and remained in the quarters “doing nothing.” Some domestics, on the other hand, found even more traumatic a sudden transfer from the house to the fields to replace defecting laborers. Lizzie Hill, who had been a slave in Alabama, remembered vividly the change in her duties after she returned to the plantation to be back with “Old Mistis” again; the position she had previously occupied in the house had been filled, and “I’s had a hard time workin’ in de field.” The more typical experience was that of Dora Franks, a former Mississippi slave, who left her household duties to accompany her brother after the war. Upon resettling on a new plantation, she found herself in the fields and she would never forget her initiation into that kind of labor: “I’d faint away mos’ ever’ day ’bout eleven o’clock. It was de heat. Some of ’em would have to tote me to de house. I’d soon come to. Den I had to go back to de fiel’.” Such considerations may well have been in the minds of some domestic servants when they chose to remain in their same positions after emancipation.28

Now that the last vestiges of old-time fidelity and devotion—however tenuous these proved to be—were being stripped from the master-servant relationship, white families needed to develop new sources of labor. When Gertrude Thomas resorted to hiring, she found herself dismayed by the experiment, and yet she revealed more about her own exploitative standards than the incapacity of the employee.

Monday I had a woman to wash for me. Hired her for thirty cts a day. I think it probable that she was one of the recently made free negroes. I had no idea what was considered a task in washing so I gave her all the small things belonging to the children … She was through by dinner time [and] appeared to work steady. I gave her dinner and afterwards told her that I had a few more clothes I wished washed out. Her reply was that “she was tired.” I did not for a minute argue with her. Said I “If you suppose I engaged a woman to wash for me by the day and she stops by dinner time, If you suppose I intend paying for the days work you are very mistaken.” Turning from her I walked into the house. She afterwards sent in for more clothes and washed out a few other things. So much for hiring by the day.

But to her delight, she managed to hire a cook—an elderly mulatto woman who claimed that her previous employer had sent her off to procure a new position. Unfortunately, when Mrs. Thomas informed her husband of the new acquisition, he insisted that the woman obtain a note from her old employer before he would consent to hire her. This was not an uncommon practice among white families after emancipation, partly a matter of personal security but also intended to check the propensity of newly freed blacks to change or improve their positions. To no one’s surprise, the cook never returned.29

In view of the experiences of some women, Gertrude Thomas might have considered herself fortunate. After hiring new servants, several Florida women found it necessary to count their spoons and forks every night before locking them up in their bedrooms; Julia LeGrand of New Orleans wondered if there was any alternative to “locking up and watching,” and a South Carolina woman complained that her servants “don’t work very hard, but I do.” Emma Holmes would have little to do with her newly hired washer after the woman complained of arduous labor; “we have a constant ebb and flow of servants,” she noted, “some staying only a few days, others a few hours—some thoroughly incompetent, others though satisfactory to us, preferring plantation life.” Not surprisingly, the new servants simply reinforced for many white families the prevailing belief about the incapacity of free blacks for any kind of labor and even provoked some of the old wartime laments. “Three have run away during the last few months that we had clothed up to be decent,” the wife of a North Carolina planter wrote her mother. “They came to us all but naked. They are an ungrateful race. They drive me to be tight and stingy with them.” This woman, until recently a resident of New York, needed little time to learn that the frustrations of the employer class easily cross sectional lines.30

None of this came as any surprise to Grace Elmore. “The negro as a hireling will never answer,” she confided to her diary in May 1865. “They have not principle enough, nor character enough to stand temptation. So long as master and servant were one you could find honesty among the race and even so it was a rarity.” But the times had clearly changed, the old ties had been irrevocably severed, the blacks entertained strange, crude, and false notions about work and freedom, and she doubted if they could really survive the curse of emancipation. “[N]ow that he has power to change his place, and to escape punishment when detected, now that his and the master’s interest are separate and there is no bond but dollars and cents between them, I think the house servants will be chosen from the whites, and that immediately.” Although she had not yet yielded to such logic, she thought it only a matter of time before blacks were forced out of domestic service altogether. After all, she asked, “Who would employ the negro, unless his slave, in any work that could be done by a white? … Who would choose the black in any capacity except to be held as slave and so bound to her obedient and faithful?”31


THE TROUBLESOME QUALITY of black labor, both in the houses and in the fields, encouraged experiments in the employment of whites for positions traditionally held by blacks. After hiring two white girls, both of whom had been seeking employment at a nearby factory, Donald MacRae, a North Carolina merchant and planter, exulted in that novel feeling of independence from his former slaves. His new servants were not at all disdainful about performing the daily chores, they willingly did the kind of work reserved for blacks, and they claimed competence in spinning, weaving, cooking, washing, housework, tending children, and even plowing. While they remained with him, MacRae felt no need to make any concessions to retain his increasingly restless black help.32

If nothing else, the absence of blacks in a household might soothe otherwise shattered nerves and be a much-welcomed relief from daily irritations. To Ethelred Philips, the Florida farmer and physician, emancipation had resulted in “worthless servants,” and he feared their continued presence in his household. Now that he had hired a white girl, however, “we find it so quiet and so comfortable to be rid of the negro.” He rested much easier about the safety of his family, and he gloated over his pioneering success: “The white women are taking the place of the negroes in our village,” he informed his cousin, “and I take some credit for being the first to make the experiment in the face of every body—not a man but declared it would never do, yet I took a girl about 18 as ignorant and poor as any cornfield negro, but respectable and willing to do any work to support herself and mother and 6 children.” To transform a piney-woods girl into an efficient domestic servant had been no inconsiderable task, but MacRae boasted that his wife, “one of the most industrious and skillful housewives I ever saw, has made her serve her purpose much better than a negro and no darky dares enter my lot for fear of my dog.”33

Within the first year of emancipation, and periodically thereafter, the introduction of whites, especially immigrants, into the fields and households of former slaveholders came to be viewed as a panacea that would surely strengthen the labor system, force the ex-slave to make a realistic accommodation to freedom, and provide white planters with an alternative to the increasingly humiliating and degrading dependency on black labor. That is, the employment of whites, or perhaps only the threat to do so, was a way to control the labor of the freedmen. “If white labor is generally introduced into the upper District,” a South Carolina rice planter vowed, “it will drive the Negro down, and then the competition for labor will oblige them to work for very little.” White labor, moreover, would provide the permanent and stable working force the South so desperately required for the successful cultivation of its crops. Compared to the freedmen, who “love change, and a month’s work at a place,” white people “love home, take interest in making it pleasant, comfortable—as the spot from which issue all their money and comforts.”34

For those who accepted these assumptions, the proposition made good sense, both racially and economically, and white Southerners certainly enjoyed talking about it. In northern Florida, planters eager for white laborers prepared to apply to New York City for help; a group of Tennessee planters welcomed immigrants from the “industrious Germanic race” to replace “the now indolent negro”; and the Virginia legislature resolved in March 1866 that “the recent radical change in the labor system of the South has rendered the introduction of a new class of laborers necessary.” Principal attention focused for a time on the bold efforts of Mississippi and Alabama planters to import Chinese laborers to work their fields. If racial peculiarities had made black slaves ideal workers, similar characteristics would enable the Chinese to answer the southern need for a docile, tractable, adaptable labor force, with superior enduring powers and less propensity than blacks to fraternize with or intermarry with whites. “We’ve got to change our whole system of labor,” an Alabama planter declared. “Why, I was talking, down to Selma, the other day, with Jim Branson, up from Haynesville. We figured up, I don’t know how many millions of coolies there are in China, that you can bring over for a song. It will take three of’em to do the work of two niggers; but they’ll live on next to nothing and clothe themselves, and you’ve only got to pay ’em four dollars a month. That’s our game now. And if it comes to voting, I reckon we can manage that pretty well!”35

This was bold talk, indeed, and it proved to be mostly talk. How to rid themselves of the presence of the Negro was always a favorite topic of conversation, permitting planters to share their frustrations, anger, and fantasies with others, but few took it seriously. To talk about it perhaps served a therapeutic need, if nothing else. “To get the privilege of governing him [the Negro] as they pleased,” a Freedmen’s Bureau official in Mississippi observed of the local planters, “they will express their anxiety to get rid of him and many other foolish things; but come to the point—they want and must have the negro to work the plantation.” Actually, some Chinese laborers were imported, and small numbers of Swedes, Germans, Dutchmen, and Irishmen were also induced to come to the South. But the results of these experiments were less than gratifying and more often than not failed to meet the expectations or needs of the planters. The new immigrants were no more tractable than many of the freedmen, and replacing troublesome blacks with troublesome immigrants not only made little sense but the cost was apt to be higher. “They cost me $35 each to bring them to Charleston from New York,” a South Carolina planter said of the Dutchmen he had hired. “I fed them far better than ever I thought of feeding my hands, even gave them coffee and sourkrout, when, what should they do but demand butter for their bread and milk for their coffee, and the next thing the whole crowd left me.” The Freedmen’s Bureau in Virginia concluded that recent efforts to recruit foreign immigrants to replace blacks had been unsuccessful, and an English traveler in that state thought he knew why: “Swedes, Germans, and Irishmen had been imported; but the Swedes refused to eat cornbread, the Germans sloped away north-west-ward, in the hope of obtaining homesteads, and the Irishmen preferred a city career. It seems that the South will have need of Sambo yet awhile …” Nor did the attempts to recruit native whites for domestic service successfully overcome the stigma that still attached itself to that kind of labor. “I tried to hire some white women to live with & assist my family with their work,” a South Carolina planter testified. “They do not like the idea of becoming ‘Help.’ ”36

The more the white South experimented with white labor, the more the employer class came to appreciate the relative advantages of black labor, free or slave. Such admissions did not always come easily, and whites hastened to add that in “the professions, in the counting house, in the workshops of the artisan, in the factory, and on the wave,” the white man had no superior. But in the fields, as the cultivator of the great southern staples, the Negro remained “unequalled,” both for his skills and his enduring powers. The experience of a Louisiana sugar planter prompted him to estimate that “one able-bodied American negro of ordinary intelligence is worth at least two white emigrants. He understands the business, and he has the advantage of being acclimated.” Appreciative of this fact, he was willing to pay even higher wages for blacks than for whites. “You may think this extravagant; but during the unsettled state of affairs for the last two years, I have had to try both, and I base my opinion not on my prejudices, but on my experience.” With equal candor, the president of the Virginia Agricultural Society reminded the delegates to a State Farmers’ Convention in 1866 that “we have in the labor of the freedmen a decided advantage over other portions of the world.” After employing both foreign and native white workers, he concluded that “the world cannot produce a more skillful and efficient farm laborer than a well-trained Virginia negro who is willing and able to work.” And for all the difficulties he had encountered with his freedmen, Edward Barnwell Heyward, the South Carolina rice planter, remained convinced that he could turn them into a productive labor force. “The negroes themselves begin to see our superiority and recognise in us their true Master. We are the only people who can ever get them to do any thing, and I confess I do not look with much pleasure to the time when their places will be supplied by these still more savage Germans as white labourers.”37

Despite the experiments with white workers, despite all the talk about replacing blacks, despite the calumnies heaped on the freedmen, the conclusion reached by most practical-minded ex-slaveholders was that the Negro remained ideally suited for their purposes. He had already proven himself “peculiarly adapted by nature” to the cultivation of cotton, rice, and sugar, working under temperatures and conditions that would wilt any white man. “The African don’t mind it,” an Alabama planter noted, “the white man won’t stand it.” And so it came down to familiar discussions of racial traits. When a Virginia planter and manufacturer affirmed that the African race made ideal agricultural laborers, he enumerated their principal virtues as “docility, tractability and affectionate disposition”—that is, “just the material desirable and necessary.” Nor were blacks any less valuable, some insisted, as domestics: the black nurse was “more affectionate, more attached, and more devoted than the white,” while the black servant was “more faithful and has less thought of self in his devotion to his master and employer.”38

If a Grace Elmore still insisted that the “separate” interests of blacks and whites doomed the Negro as the principal laborer of the post-emancipation South, the argument made little sense to planters who chose to view the entire matter in businesslike terms. “There is now nothing between me and the nigger but the dollar—the almighty dollar,” a Florida planter declared, “and I shall make out of him the most I can at the least expense.” That was a principle to which any nineteenth-century American employer could have readily subscribed.39


TO DISCOVER ONE DAY, as did so many white women, that “I have not one human being in the wide world to whom I can say ‘do this for me’ ” had to be a most disheartening realization. “We have truly said good bye to being ladies of leisure,” Grace Elmore lamented, as she sought to adjust to her new daily routine. “My time seems fully occupied and often I do not have time to sleep even. My hour for rising is 5 o’clock.” Embittered by the continuing defection of their servants, exasperated by the behavior of those who remained, and unable to find satisfactory replacements, many families found themselves forced into the unfamiliar role of doing the housework themselves. No matter how they rationalized this change in their lives, and whatever the orgy of self-congratulation that often accompanied the assumption of household responsibilities, the unprecedented nature of their predicament provoked considerable dismay and disbelief.40

To assume responsibility for the daily chores—to cook a meal, to dust and sweep, to wash the clothes, to feed the horses and milk the cows—was to undertake tasks they had previously watched their black folk perform. “I always had thirty or forty niggers,” the wife of a Louisiana planter declared. “I never even so much as washed out a pocket handkerchief with my own hands, and now I have to do all my work.” With considerable anguish, a Virginia woman admitted to her cousins in the North that it would require “some time for us to get fixed to do our own house work or to do with a few servants”; if nothing else, she noted, the distances separating the kitchen, the spring, and the dining room seemed all too formidable. Like so many “ladies” she knew, Gertrude Thomas found herself sharing the household chores with the few remaining servants. The sheer novelty of the experience struck her with wonderment. Not only did she assist in washing the breakfast dishes—“a thing I never remember to have done except once or twice in my life”—but she startled one of the servants by announcing that she intended to do the ironing. “It was amusing to see his look of astonishment but indeed the necessity for it appeared qu[i]te im[m]inent.” That night, she described the experience in her journal, concluding, “I am tired and sleepy.”41

To hear white families relate their experiences, the initiation into domestic labor had its moments of self-satisfaction and even triumph. The spectacle of “fragile women,” left without any servants, “cooking and washing without a murmur,” moved Emma Holmes to extol the “heroism and spirit” of southern womanhood. With less flourish, a Virginia woman described how she missed “the familiar black faces” she had grown to love. “Domestic cares are making me gray! But I get some fun trying to do things I never did before.” Eva Jones had to tell her mother-in-law how she expected “to become a very efficient chambermaid and seamstress,” though she confessed that the sewing came “very hard to my poor unused fingers.”42

The first days of performing domestic chores could even be an exhilarating experience. Charlotte S. J. Ravenel took pride in “how nicely” she had prepared a meal, while another South Carolina woman, after scrubbing the wash “until my poor hands are skinned,” took some consolation in how “white and clean” the clothes looked. None of these women, however, matched in exuberance the triumph felt by William Heyward, the elderly rice planter who had taken up residence in Charleston. Disgusted with the familiarity, deficiencies, and insolence of the black waiters, he gave up boarding at a local hotel and resolved to cook his own meals. Although he kept an old Irish chambermaid to tidy his room, Heyward learned to do his own shopping, washing, and cooking. After a month, he claimed “perfect success” and hailed his achievement as a personal victory. “A part of the satisfaction,” he confessed, “is, that I am perfectly independent of having Negroes about me; if I cannot have them as they used to be, I have no desire to see them except in the field.”43

Few took up the challenge more diligently than the Andrews family in Washington, Georgia. Of the twenty-five servants who had formerly been their slaves, only five remained, and two of these were too ill to work. Young Eliza Andrews found herself cleaning the downstairs with her sister, while her mother washed the dishes. At first, it all seemed quite strange. “It is very different from having a servant always at hand to attend to your smallest need,” Miss Andrews confided to her journal, “but I can’t say that I altogether regret the change; in fact, I had a very merry time over my work.” To this proud young Georgia woman, the menial tasks she now performed were nothing less than a challenge to her race and sex.

I don’t think I shall mind working at all when I get used to it. Everybody else is doing housework, and it is so funny to compare our experiences. Father says this is what has made the Anglo-Saxon race great; they are not afraid of work, and when put to the test, never shirk anything that they know has got to be done, no matter how disagreeable.44

Whatever the enthusiasm that marked these work experiences, few white men or women who had once owned slaves could overcome the feeling that they were demeaning themselves in performing the tasks thought to be fit only for black hands. Having reassured herself that southern white womanhood had more than met the test, Eliza Andrews wondered why young ladies like herself should be placed in the predicament of performing labor that was clearly unworthy of them.

[I]t does seem to me a waste of time for people who are capable of doing something better to spend their time sweeping and dusting while scores of lazy negroes that are fit for nothing else are lying around idle. Dr. Calhoun suggested that it would be a good idea to import some of those man-apes from Africa and teach them to take the place of the negroes, but Henry said that just as soon as we had got them tamed, and taught them to be of some use, those crazy fanatics at the North would insist on coming down here to emancipate them.45

If some white women initially derived satisfaction from domestic labor, steady exposure to that kind of work took its inevitable toll, not only in physical and mental exhaustion but in frayed temperaments. After failing to iron some items properly, Julia LeGrand confessed to feeling “anything but spiritual-minded. I got angry with my irons which would smut my muslins, and then got angry with myself for having been angry—finally divided the blame, giving a part to Julie Ann for running away and leaving me to do her work …” The more the women worked, the more they came to resent these new demands on their time and the less able they were to enjoy the usual pastimes of “ladies.” When Eliza Andrews attended the “charming” party to which she had been invited, she found herself “too tired” to enjoy or partake of the dancing. And when she retired that night, she was too exhausted to sleep, her legs “ached as if they had been in the stocks,” and she wondered how long she could maintain this grueling pace. “[W]hen I become more accustomed to hard work, I hope it won’t be so bad. I think it is an advantage to clean up the house ourselves, sometimes, for we do it so much better than the negroes.” The next few days, however, hardly reassured her. The morning after the party, Eliza arose long before her accustomed hour and helped to clean the house. When guests dropped in that day as she prepared to take a nap, there was still more work to do. “I never was so tired in my life; every bone in my body felt as if it were ready to drop out, and my eyes were so heavy that I could hardly keep them open.” Finally, she confessed to herself, “I don’t find doing housework quite so much of a joke as I imagined it was going to be, especially when we have company to entertain at the same time, and want to make them enjoy themselves.” After dinner, Eliza reluctantly went off to a dance she had promised to attend. “I was so tired that I made Jim Bryan tell the boys not to ask me to dance.” The next morning, the same seemingly endless routine repeated itself. “I had to be up early and clean up my room, though half-dead with fatigue.” That evening, she went to bed as soon as she had eaten her supper.46

Like Eliza Andrews, the outspoken Emma Holmes of Camden, South Carolina, had performed her first household tasks with considerable zeal and a sense of personal commitment. “Of course it occupies a good deal of time,” she observed in May 1865, “but the servants find we are by no means entirely dependent on them.” That feeling in itself gave her immense satisfaction. Less than a month later, some of that enthusiasm had waned: “I was very tired yesterday, after my various pieces of manual labor, but hope they will drive off headache as medicine wont. I was up at five today …” Still, she persisted, trying to put the best face on her labors as still another servant left the household. “[W]e girls went to ironing, and though of course it was fatiguing, standing so long, it was not near as difficult nor as hard work as I fancied.” But by mid-August, after another day of household chores, she sounded a rather different note. “I dont like cooking or washing, even the doing up of muslins is great annoyance to me and I do miss the having all ready prepared to my hand. I generally rise at five or before, though sometimes not till six, when very tired, but often rouse servants and household by going to sweep the drawing room.” Later that month, the initial excitement had all but vanished. “I am very weary, standing up washing all the breakfast and dinner china, bowls, kettles, pans, silver, etc. and minding Sims, churning, washing stockings, etc.—a most miscellaneous list of duties, leaving no time for reading or exercise …”47

Never once did Emma Holmes or any of the other women who described their admittedly difficult experiences with housework think to question how their black help had for so many years performed these same duties, day after day, while also caring for a husband and children. Perhaps the question never even entered their minds. This was, as they had discovered, labor suited only for black hands—or, as Eliza Andrews suggested, for “negroes that are fit for nothing else.” Mary Chesnut, who never suffered these ordeals, seemed to understand better than most what housework entailed. “Ellen is a poor maid, but if I do a little work, it is quite enough to show me how dreadful it would be if I should have to do it all.” Only many years later, when she reflected over the black folks who had served her, did Kate Stone begin to realize the monstrous demands she had made on them.

Even under the best owners, it was a hard, hard life: to toil six days out of seven, week after week, month after month, year after year, as long as life lasted; to be absolutely under the control of someone until the last breath was drawn; to win but the bare necessaries of life, no hope of more, no matter how hard the work, how long the toil; and to know that nothing could change your lot. Obedience, revolt, submission, prayers—all were in vain. Waking sometimes in the night as I grew older and thinking it all over, I would grow sick with the misery of it all.

Nor, as she now realized, had the domestics escaped arduous labor. The seamstress always had “piles of work ahead,” while the washerwoman labored all week to keep the family in clean clothes. And the cook needed to prepare three abundant meals a day for the thirteen to twenty whites who were almost always present, not to mention the more lavish dinners and entertainments. “Thinking it over by the light of later experience, I know our cook was a hardworked creature. Then, we never thought about it.”48

To the women who had been accustomed to domestic help, self-reliance never came easily, if at all. The early exuberance and self-congratulation turned into deep resentment and cries of despair, reflecting both physical exhaustion and psychic humiliation. “I am tired—tired tonight, will all the days of the year be like this one?” the young mistress on a Florida plantation asked. “What are we going to do without the negroes?” Many years later, she could still recall “the wearisome hours, when only pride kept us up! … oh, the trials of those days to the housekeepers who had always been accustomed to first-class service!” The women who had derived such satisfaction from “trying to do things I never did before” turned before long to more somber reflections and more realistic appraisals. That brave talk about Anglo-Saxon adaptability and how it had been “a great relief to get rid of the horrid negroes” turned increasingly to nostalgic recollections of how much easier and simpler life had been before the disruption of the labor system and the loss of their servants.49

“Slavery was bad economy, I know,” a Tennessee woman conceded. “But oh,” she added, “it was glorious! I’d give a mint of money right now for servants like I once had,—to have one all my own! Ladies at the North, if they lose their servants, can do their own work; but we can’t, we can’t!” The housegirl who had once served her so faithfully had now taken up dressmaking in St. Louis. “She could read and write as well as I could. There was no kind of work that girl couldn’t do. And so faithful!—I trusted everything to her, and was never deceived.” Although revealing how dependent she had been on black labor, this woman thought emancipation had been a cruel blow to the slaves who had served their white folks so well. “Emancipation is a worse thing for our servants than for us. They can’t take care of themselves.”50


RATHER THAN RENDERING THEM INDEPENDENT of their former slaves, the attempts of white families to hire white replacements or to work themselves only underscored their dependency. The incessant talk about ridding themselves of the ex-slaves may have impressed certain northern reporters but it never fooled the blacks. “Dey was glad to have a heap of colored people bout dem, cause white folks couldn’ work den no more den dey can work dese days like de colored people can,” recalled Josephine Bacchus, a former South Carolina slave. With equal cogency, a plantation mistress, in expressing gratitude for the blacks who had remained with her, acknowledged that “they can’t spare me, and I can’t spare them.”51

The sense of responsibility, obligation, and duty, invoked so often by the slaveholding class to justify keeping an “inferior, helpless and childlike” race in bondage, could obviously work both ways. The dependency of white families helps to explain the outrage and cries of ingratitude that greeted defecting and troublesome blacks, as it does the immense comfort those same families derived from some of their former slaves who chose to remain. Concerned for the welfare of her mother, Eliza Huger Smith of South Carolina went to considerable lengths to persuade a valuable servant to stay in the household after emancipation. “Hennie’s decision to remain with me,” she said afterwards, “is a great relief on Mamma’s account as she is as dependent on her as a baby—more so.” In a Georgia household, where all the servants had left, Hope L. Jones thought it a sad blow to her Aunt Bella, “since she is old and needs them more than ever.”52

Even as whites acknowledged, at least to themselves, the urgent need to retain their black laborers and servants, they recognized the continued importance of controlling that labor. With emancipation, the pecuniary loss had been difficult enough to absorb. But to lose control over their former slaves, to be deprived of the necessary disciplinary powers, to be subject to their “insolence,” to be forced to endure their work slowdowns and other manifestations of independence, to be compelled to deal with them as equals was to demand too much, even as the price of military defeat. “We can’t feel towards them as you do,” a young South Carolina planter tried to explain to a northern visitor. “I suppose we ought to, but ’t is n’t possible for us. They’ve always been our owned servants, and we’ve been used to having them mind us without a word of objection, and we can’t bear anything else from them now. If that’s wrong, we’re to be pitied sooner than blamed, for it’s something we can’t help.” Although discouraged by the postwar conduct of his former slaves, he could not conceive of doing without them. “I never did a day’s work in my life, and don’t know how to begin.”53

Realizing how dependent they remained on black labor, those who had once held slaves concluded that the freed blacks needed them more urgently now than ever before. To make this absolutely clear, the planter class devised a rationale as familiar and elaborate as the argument they had used to justify slavery. What they wished to demonstrate, however, seemed so obvious to them as to require little proof—that the Negro as a free person could neither survive nor be a serviceable worker unless he remained under their care and protection. “The Negro stands as much in need of a master to guide him as a child does,” a Virginia planter explained. “When I look at my servants, I feel weighing upon me all the responsibilities of a parent.… The Negro will always need the care of someone superior to him, and unless in one form or another it is extended to him, the race will first become pauper and then disappear.” Along similar lines, the provisional governor of South Carolina, no doubt with his conquerors in mind, asked the obvious question: “If all the children in New York City were turned loose to provide for themselves, how many would live, prosper, and do well? The negroes are as improvident as children, and require the guardian protection of some one almost as much as they do.”54

To retain the laborers he needed so badly, “old massa” once again cast himself in the familiar role of the beneficent protector, exercising a parental and providential vigilance over a helpless, childlike, and easily misled race. He could do no less for those who had been accustomed to look to him for direction and sustenance. “They are the descendants in a great degree of the woman who nursed me,” a Maryland congressman declared. “They … look upon me as their protector. I am in truth their only friend. Am I to turn them off as outcasts on the world? I have been my whole life engaged in their protection. I have an affection for them, and have a duty to perform for them.… They have labored for me, it is true, but they have in turn received from me quite as much as they have given me.” Consistent with their view that slavery had been the best possible condition for a people unable to look after themselves, the former masters viewed emancipation as an unfortunate if not tragic consequence of the war. But the Negro, they emphasized, should not be held responsible. “It is not their fault they are free,” the new governor of Florida asserted; “they had nothing to do with it; that was brought about by ‘the results and operations of the war.’ ”55

Although revealing an abysmal ignorance of black attitudes and actions, the argument that Negroes had nothing to do with their freedom would be repeated in many different forms, the principle itself would be written into several of the new state constitutions, and it reflected an abiding faith in the black laborer if only left in the hands of those who knew him best. “The negro isn’t to blame for his freedom,” a Georgia planter told a northern reporter. “He served us faithfully all through the war, and I sincerely believe very few planters have any desire to see him injured. We know his ways; and if you give us time, I think we shall be able to get him back into his place again,—not as a slave, but as a good producer.” Freedom had been forced upon the slave, an Alabama judge told a grand jury in Pike County, and it behooved the South to show compassion for the “faithful old negro” who was now an involuntary freedman without the experience, the self-reliance, or the ability to understand and appreciate his new status. “He may have been the companion of your boyhood,” he reminded them; “he may be older than you, and perhaps carried you in his arms when an infant. You may be bound to him by a thousand ties which only a southern man knows, and which he alone can feel in all their force.” Nor could the freedman be blamed for the “excesses” that had characterized the transition in his status. “He has always been a child in intellect,” Charles C. Jones, Jr., explained to his mother, while sympathizing with “severe trials” she had experienced, “improvident, incapable of appreciating the obligations of a contract, ignorant of the operation of any law other than the will of his master, careless of the future, and without the most distant conception of the duties of life and labor now devolved upon him.”56

Even if whites chose to view the old ties with varying degrees of sympathy, they could readily appreciate the forcefulness and timeliness of the argument. Now that the slaves had been freed, through no fault of their own, the burden of emancipation demanded of the old slaveholding class the same exercise of paternal solicitude and authority; indeed, the need had never been greater. If anything, the very suddenness of freedom, thrust upon an unprepared people, had increased the master’s obligations and duty to a race possessing neither the physical nor the mental resources to care for themselves. “They are like grown up children turned adrift in the world,” Eliza Andrews observed. “The negro is something like the Irishman in his blundering good nature, his impulsiveness and improvidence, and he is like a child in having always had someone to think and act for him.” What had characterized slavery, many whites continued to argue, had been a kind of benevolent patriarchy. Even if slavery had been sometimes oppressive, even if it had not been free of excesses and defects, even if it had brutalized some bondsmen, this much-maligned institution, according to its practitioners, had given the bulk of the race a necessary protection which freedom now threatened to remove. “How much better off they were when slaves!” a Mississippi planter affirmed. “A man would see to his own niggers, like he would to his own stock. But the niggers now don’t belong to anybody, and it’s no man’s business whether they live or die.”57

If dependency on the master had protected and sustained the Negro as a slave, what would happen to him as a freedman? How would he manage to survive in a hostile and competitive environment, exposed now to unfriendly whites, his own innate vices, and a free-market economy? Such questions grew out of a tradition of proslavery argument, and the answer seemed no less obvious after emancipation. Without the patriarchal guidance and support of the former master, the African race would surely exterminate itself. “The child is already born who will behold the last negro in the State of Mississippi,” a Natchez newspaper affirmed in early 1866. Whatever agreement existed among whites about the future of the Negro as a free man invariably revolved around the conviction that he would sink lower and lower in the social scale, that he would dissipate the civilizing influences he had acquired from contact with his master, and that he could never survive the competitive struggle for life with a superior race. The antislavery movement, in other words, would soon discover that in abolishing slavery it had abolished the race itself.58

Historical analogies came quickly to mind. The freed slaves now faced a doom not unlike that of the other inferior and degraded species in their midst—the Indian. If anything, the African race might diminish at an even more rapid rate. “They’re a-goin’ faster’n the Injins,” a Georgia planter insisted. “The negro is the most inferior of the human races,” Grace Elmore argued from her home in South Carolina several months before the first of her servants defected, “far beneath the Indian or Hindu, and how can it be expected that they will be the white mans equal. It will be with them as with the Indian.” But like most, she held out a modicum of hope: “The negro will disappear except where he is kept in subjection, and consequently where it will be [in] the interest of the master to promote the welfare of body and soul.”59

The logic of the argument seemed irresistible. If a master did not look out for the welfare of the ex-slave, no one else would, including the ex-slave himself. Nor could the unfortunate Negro be blamed for the innate vices and defects he shared with most tropical peoples—what a Mississippi planter called the “indisposition to provide for the future by sustained industry and persevering efforts.” The typical Negro, as the whites viewed him, worked only to satisfy immediate wants; he was careless or thoughtless of anything beyond the present. Unlike most whites, he was not motivated by a desire for gain; hence, he was apt to do nothing after earning a little money until starvation forced him back to work.60 If the arguments about improvidence and the absence of initiative had a familiar ring about them, they had traditionally characterized upper-class and employer attitudes toward laboring peoples, white and black. A Georgia planter reflected this view when he advised some fellow planters that the problems they now faced were class rather than racial in nature. “I’ll tell you how ’t is: a free nigger’s jest like any low-down white fellow,—pull off your coat and work with him, and he does well enough; put it on and go off to town, and he shirks.”61

In forecasting the doom of the Afro-American race, many whites hastened to add their regrets that this should be the outcome of emancipation. The paternal spirit manifested itself in expressions of sympathy and remorse and in outbursts of nostalgia. “If you had seen them in slave days,” one planter told an English visitor, “what a merry, rollicking, laughing set they were! Now they are care-worn and sad. You hardly hear them laugh now as they used to do.” When the first postwar governor of Mississippi declared that the Negro was “destined to extinction, beyond all doubt,” he thought it “alarming” and “appalling” and hoped he might be mistaken; a South Carolina magistrate “pitied” the freedmen for their inability to understand the freedom thrust upon them; and the Virginia planter who expected the race to “first become pauper and then disappear” still wished the freedmen well and “sincerely” hoped they would disappoint his expectations. But there was good reason to suspect that professions of this kind were not altogether sincere. That is, the former ruling class had a peculiar stake in black failure.62

While traveling by rail through the countryside of western Tennessee, J. T. Trowbridge, the northern journalist and author, caught occasional glimpses of homeless ex-slaves huddled around the campfires in their makeshift settlements, warming their hands and watching with curiosity as the train rolled by them. The conversation he overheard of his fellow passengers might have been repeated almost anywhere in the South when native whites came across such scenes:

“That’s freedom! that’s what the Yankees have done for ’em!”

“They’ll all be dead before spring.”

“The Southern people were always their best friends. How I pity them! don’t you?”

“Oh, yes, of course I pity them! How much better off they were when they were slaves!”

What dismayed Trowbridge were not the remarks themselves (he had heard them so often) but the expressions of “grim exultation” and the “ ‘I-told-you-so!’ air of triumph” that accompanied them, as though their prophecies were their desires. “The slave-owners, having foretold that freedom would prove fatal to the bondman, experienced a satisfaction in seeing their predictions come true. The usual words of sympathy his condition suggested had all the hardness and hollowness of cant.”63

To think that the freedmen could possibly succeed defied logic and nature and contradicted the very reasons they had been held as slaves. How much more reassuring to argue that emancipation—unless properly controlled—sealed the race’s doom and that the abolitionists had succeeded only in expediting racial suicide. This belief rested, of course, on the popular assumption that the character and capacity of the Negro remained immutable; emancipation only filled his head with dreams and aspirations which could never be fulfilled. But that in itself raised a potentially dangerous situation requiring the utmost vigilance and understanding. If blacks should aspire to rise above their appointed station in life, the results were predictable. “Of course, they’ll fail,” an Alabama planter assured a northern visitor; “we have no uneasiness on that score; but we are the friends of these people, and we are sorry to see them expose themselves to so much misery in making attempts that we know from the outset must be abortive. Isn’t it better to have the laws in some way take the matter out of their hands and make them work?”64

If the African race was to survive, then, the old slaveholding class deemed it essential that they determine the conditions of survival—preferably a forced dependency allowing the freedman little or no opportunity to prove his own individual worth. Before emancipation, the planters had argued that they kept the Negro in bondage for his own benefit. Now they could contend that the freedman’s welfare demanded a condition of tutelage and a system of constructive compulsion. After all, to expect that self-interest alone would motivate ex-slaves, as it did whites, to be productive laborers was to betray ignorance of the race itself. “You don’t know the niggers,” a young Virginian told a northern reporter. “No nigger, free or slave, in these Southern States, nor in any part of the known world, ever would work or ever will work unless he’s made to.”65


ALTHOUGH THE FORMER SLAVEHOLDERS constituted a small minority of the white population of the South, nearly everyone still looked to them for leadership and supported the urgent need to impose controls on the newly freed blacks. To play on white fears of the Negro, moreover, as most planters recognized, served an important function in maintaining their own supremacy and in muting class antagonisms. Despite the abolition of slavery, the attitudes, fears, and assumptions which had helped to shape and reinforce that institution for over two centuries remained virtually unaffected. When the Freedmen’s Bureau commissioner in Mississippi and Louisiana commented on the state of white opinion in the post-emancipation South, he invited attack as a northern partisan but the evidence was altogether too compelling to discount his conclusions:

Wherever I go—the street, the shop, the house, the hotel, or the steamboat—I hear the people talk in such a way as to indicate that they are yet unable to conceive of the negro as possessing any rights at all. Men who are honorable in their dealings with their white neighbors will cheat a negro without feeling a single twinge of their honor. To kill a negro they do not deem murder; to debauch a negro woman they do not think fornication; to take the property away from a negro they do not consider robbery. The people boast that when they get freedmen affairs in their own hands, to use their own classic expression, “the niggers will catch hell.”

The reason of all this is simple and manifest. The whites esteem the blacks their property by natural right, and however much they may admit that the individual relations of masters and slaves have been destroyed by the war and by the President’s emancipation proclamation, they still have an ingrained feeling that the blacks at large belong to the whites at large, and whenever opportunity serves they treat the colored people just as their profit, caprice or passion may dictate.66

No doubt some southern whites might have thought this a crude characterization of their thinking, but nearly every white man and woman readily agreed to the wisdom of restraining and controlling black men and women in ways that were not thought to be necessary for themselves. “The whites seem wholly unable to comprehend that freedom for the negro means the same thing as freedom for them,” a northern reporter concluded after his travels in the postwar South. “I did not anywhere find a man who could see that laws should be applicable to all persons alike; and hence even the best men hold that each State must have a negro code.”67

Despite a white rhetoric that doomed the freedmen to self-extinction, most planters needed and demanded their labor. And despite all the talk about a childlike race, most whites expected blacks to work and behave like mature adults. Although the war and emancipation had, in the view of whites, filled the heads of their former slaves with unrealistic expectations and rendered their labor erratic, they refused to give up on them altogether, at least not until time-honored remedies proved ineffectual. Whether he had ever owned slaves or not, almost every white man remained convinced that only rigid controls and compulsion would curtail the natural propensity of blacks toward idleness and vagrancy, induce them to labor for others, and correct their mistaken notions about freedom and working for themselves. Claiming an intimate and exclusive knowledge of the Negro’s character (“We are the only ones that understand the nigger”), the former slaveholder demanded the necessary force to back up the traditional rights of authority over “his people,” including the punishment of deviant behavior. Without compulsion of some kind, the experiment in free labor could not succeed. It was as simple as that.68

The self-evident truth which the planter class now imparted to the freed slaves was that they must either work for white folks or starve. That advice differed in no significant way from what Federal officials had been telling blacks since the moment of liberation. “When that lesson has been thoroughly learned and inwardly digested,” a Macon newspaper declared, “the negro may perhaps be of some value.” Whatever sympathies Northerners pretended for the Negro, southern whites assumed they could not object to a principle so universally accepted. “All we want,” a South Carolina planter told a northern visitor, “is that our Yankee rulers should give us the same privileges with regard to the control of labor which they themselves have.” When pressed for his understanding of northern labor controls, he indicated that laborers were bound by law to make an annual contract and could be punished for any violations. Told that no such laws existed in the North, the planter seemed incredulous. “How do you manage without such laws? How can you get work out of a man unless you compel him in some way?” The visitor replied that “Natural laws” sufficed, with the best laborers commanding the best wages. “You can’t do that way with niggers,” the planter immediately retorted. When comparing the two labor systems, some southern whites insisted, in fact, that this distinction be understood—the presence of the African race made the southern situation unique and demanded a unique response. “Northern laborers are like other men,” one planter explained, but “southern laborers are nothing but niggers, and you can’t make anything else out of them. They’re not controlled by the same motives as white men, and unless you have power to compel them, they’ll only work when they can’t beg or steal enough to keep from starving.”69

The urgency of the situation seemed obvious enough. To plant a crop without knowing how many laborers might be around to harvest it made postwar agricultural operations a highly risky venture. Henry W. Ravenel, for example, thought no planter would want to engage in such operations “without some guarantee that his labour is to be controlled & continued under penalties & forfeitures.” To make the free labor system work, some planters suggested that the ex-slaves be apprenticed to their former masters or to an employer of their choice. The apprenticeship laws enacted by a number of states imposed such controls on blacks under eighteen years of age who were orphans or whose parents could not or refused to support them. Such laws provided some planters with a cheap supply of involuntary labor (if he were deemed a “suitable” person, the former owner of the minor was given preference); at the same time, the arbitrary power these laws usually gave to the courts to bind out such children without the consent of their parents revived the specter of families forcibly separated.70

The idea of apprenticing nearly four million ex-slaves to their former masters never received serious consideration. Nor did the proposals to distribute the freed blacks equally around the country or to colonize them elsewhere make any sense to planters who desperately needed laborers.71Anxious to regain control over their blacks, but not entirely indifferent to northern reactions, the planter class preferred to establish a docile black labor force in the guise of fulfilling their Christian duties and obligations to those who had once served them so well. Claiming sympathy for their former slaves, they demanded the controls necessary to make them once again “happy and prosperous.” To control and regulate the freedmen was to advance and protect the best interests of this unfortunate race, to help them restrain their “worst passions,” to redeem them from certain relapse into semi-barbarism, to save them from “inevitable failure,” to disabuse their minds of false illusions, and to assist them in finding their proper place in postwar southern society. “If they cannot (as they never can) occupy the places of legislators, judges, teachers, &c,” a North Carolina planter explained, “they may be useful as tillers of the soil, as handicraftsmen, as servants in various situations, and be happy in their domestic and family relations.… It is our Christian duty to encourage them to these ends.”72 That was putting the best possible face on the legislation adopted by most of the ex-Confederate states to regulate the freedmen—laws that came to be known collectively as the Black Codes.

To the white South, the principle seemed altogether clear and fair-minded: “Teach the negro that if he goes to work, keeps his place, and behaves himself, he will be protected by our white laws.” Although borrowing heavily from antebellum restrictions on free Negroes, as well as from northern apprenticeship laws and Freedmen’s Bureau and War Department regulations, the Black Codes were still very much a product of postwar southern thinking, both a legal expression of the lingering paternalism (to protect the ex-slave from himself) and a legislative response to immediate and pressing economic problems. While the Codes defined the freedman’s civil and legal rights, permitting him to marry, hold and sell property, and sue and be sued, the key provisions were those which defined him as an agricultural laborer, barred or circumscribed any alternative occupations, and compelled him to work. “Upon this point turns the entire question,” a South Carolina newspaper said of the principle of compulsion, “and as that is decided, so is the safety or ruin of this country.” If the Codes did not reestablish slavery, as some northern critics charged, neither did they recognize the former slaves as free men and women, entitled to equal protection under the law. As if to underscore how little had changed, a South Carolina law defined the two parties to a labor contract as “servants” and “masters.”73

Although the laws differed from state to state, the underlying principles and the major provisions remained the same. If found without “lawful employment,” a freedman could be arrested as a common vagrant, jailed and fined; if unable to pay the fine, he would be hired out to an employer who in turn assumed the financial liability and deducted it from the laborer’s wages. The Mississippi law also defined as vagrants any blacks unable or unwilling to pay a new tax to support Negro indigents, while the Alabama code included as vagrants “any runaway, stubborn servant or child” and any laborer “who loiters away his time” or fails to comply with the terms of his employment. Several of the codes also set down the hours of labor (from sunrise to sunset), the duties, and the behavior expected of black agricultural workers. With a sliding scale of fines for violations, the Louisiana code employed the kind of language a master might have once used in his instructions to the overseer:

Bad work shall not be allowed. Failing to obey reasonable orders, neglect of duty, and leaving home without permission will be deemed disobedience; impudence, swearing, or indecent language to, or in the presence of the employer, his family, or agent, or quarreling and fighting with one another shall be deemed disobedience.74

Rather than expedite the slave’s transition to freedom or help him to realize his aspirations, the Black Codes embodied in law the widely held assumption that he existed largely for the purpose of raising crops for a white employer. Although the ex-slave ceased to be the property of a master, he could not aspire to become his own master. No law stated the proposition quite that bluntly but the provisions breathed that spirit in ways that could hardly be misunderstood. If a freedman decided that agricultural labor was not his special calling, the law often left him with no practical alternative. To discourage those who aspired to be artisans, mechanics, or shopkeepers, or who already held such positions, the South Carolina code, for example, prohibited a black person from entering any employment except agricultural labor or domestic service unless he obtained a special license and a certification from a local judge of his “skill and fitness” and “good moral character.” This provision, of course, threatened to undermine the position of the old free Negro class which had once nearly dominated the skilled trades in places like Charleston. With unconcealed intent, the Mississippi law simply required special licenses of any black wishing to engage in “irregular or job work.” To discourage freedmen who aspired to raise their own crops, Mississippi barred them from renting or leasing any land outside towns or cities, leaving to local authorities any restrictions they might wish to place on black ownership of real estate.

By adopting harsh vagrancy laws and restricting non-agricultural employment, the white South clearly intended to stem the much-feared drift of freedmen toward the cities and to underscore their status as landless agricultural laborers. Even as Mississippi forbade them to lease lands outside towns or cities, local ordinances there and in neighboring Louisiana made black residency within the towns or cities virtually intolerable if not impossible. The ordinance adopted in Opelousas, Louisiana, deservedly served as a model and inspiration for other communities. To enter the town, a black person needed his employer’s permission, stipulating the object of the visit and the time necessary to accomplish it; any freedman found on the streets after ten o’clock at night without a written pass or permit from his employer would be subject to arrest and imprisonment. No freedman could rent or keep a house within the town limits “under any circumstances,” or reside within the town unless employed by a white person who assumed responsibility for his conduct. To hold any public meetings or to assemble in large numbers for any reason, blacks needed the mayor’s permission, as they also did to “preach, exhort or otherwise declaim” to black congregations. Nor could they possess weapons or sell, barter, or exchange any kind of merchandise without special permits. A freedman found violating these ordinances could be punished by imprisonment, fines, and forced labor on the city streets. Virtually identical ordinances were adopted in several Louisiana towns and parishes, with St. Landry Parish adding its own brand of punishment: “confining the body of the offender within a barrel placed over his or her shoulders, in the manner practiced in the army,” for a period not to exceed twelve hours. While finding the ordinances “incompatible with freedom,” the black newspaper in New Orleans noted that freedmen could walk the streets up to ten o’clock at night—one hour later than under slavery. “This additional hour is the fruit of our victories in the field,” the editor declared; “four years of a bloody war have been fought to gain that one hour. The world certainly moves in that quarter.”75

With the adoption of the Black Codes, the place of the ex-slave in postwar southern society had been fixed in law, his mobility checked, his bargaining power sharply reduced, and his rights of appeal hedged with difficulties. Any freedman who refused to work at the prevailing wage in a particular area could be defined as a vagrant, and there was little to protect him from combinations of employers setting wages and conditions. To many in the North, the Codes smacked of the old bondage, and even some southern whites thought them ill-advised, impractical, or at least badly timed. “We showed our hand too soon,” a Mississippi planter conceded. “We ought to have waited till the troops were withdrawn, and our representatives admitted to Congress; then we could have had everything our own way.” Unmoved by the criticism they anticipated, the authors of the Florida code thought it “needless to attempt to satisfy the exactions of the fanatical theorists—we have a duty to perform—the protection of our wives and children from threatened danger, and the prevention of scenes which may cost the extinction of an entire race.” The special committee preparing the Mississippi code conceded that some of the proposed legislation “may seem rigid and stringent” but only “to the sickly modern humanitarians.”76

To the former slaves, whose opinions carried little weight, the Codes clouded the entire issue of freedom and left them highly dubious of what rights if any they could exercise without fear of arrest or legal harassment. In petitioning the governor, the freedmen of Claiborne County, Mississippi, thought it necessary to ask for a clarification: “Mississippi has abolished slavery. Does she mean it or is it a policy for the present?” By barring them from leasing or renting land, the petitioners charged that the legislature had left them with no choice but to purchase land, knowing full well that “not one of us out of a thousand” could afford the price of even a quarter of an acre. If any of them deserted an employer because of cruel treatment, they could be arrested and forcibly returned to him. How could this be reconciled with their newly won freedom? “Now we are free,” they insisted, “we do not want to be hunted by negro runners and their hounds unless we are guilty of a criminal crime.” To read the daily newspapers, the petitioners asserted, was to learn only of “our faults” rather than of the many blacks who worked to enrich the very people seeking to circumscribe their liberties. Who made possible the comforts of the planter class if not hard-working black men and women?

If every one of us colored people were removed from the state of Mississippi our superiors would soon find out who were their supporters. We the laborers have enriched them and it is as much impossible for them to live with out us as it is for we to be removed from them.

The petitioners assured the governor of their willingness to work for anyone who treated them well and paid them adequately; they reminded him, too, of how the slaves had stood by their white families in troublesome times. Although they recognized the presence of some “good and honest” employers among the whites, such men were “not the majority” and the “good” employer could be easily intimidated and “put down as a negro spoiler.” Finally, the petitioners thought Jefferson Davis, a fellow Mississippian, should be set free, if only because “we [know] worse Masters than he was. Altho he tried hard to keep us all slaves we forgive him.”77

But even as black petitioners and conventions condemned the Black Codes, or appealed for an amelioration of the laws, few expected a receptive audience among the planters and white farmers who controlled the legislative and executive branches of the new southern governments. After all, a black editor in Charleston observed of the “Colored Code” in his state, “it expresses an average of the justice and humanity which the late slaveholders possess.” But if “the right will prevail and truth triumph in the end,” as this editor firmly believed, most blacks came to look to the halls of Congress rather than to the state capitol for relief. If southern whites could easily dismiss the pleas of black meetings and politically powerless black leaders, they could not afford to ignore the way in which the black newspaper in Georgia chose to frame its editorial attack on the Black Codes: “Such legislation can but tend to keep the State out of the Union, retain troops in our houses and public buildings, and increase taxation to maintain a large standing army.”78

The Black Codes proved to be short-lived, largely because the South had moved precipitately, impetuously, and carelessly. Although Federal officials, both in the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Union Army, had implemented labor policies which were strikingly similar, the Codes were deemed too blatantly discriminatory and overly repressive. Not long after the Codes were adopted, Federal officials ordered many of them suspended, nearly always on the grounds that freedmen should be subject to the same regulations, penalties, punishments, and courts as whites. Several of the state legislatures, too, had second thoughts about their actions, particularly after the initial insurrection panic subsided and the labor situation improved; the legislators themselves repealed or revised some of the more obnoxious clauses, and the Codes passed by a number of states in 1866 proved less harsh.79

Despite Federal and court orders suspending their operation, the Codes were nonetheless enforced in regions where Freedmen’s Bureau officials refused to intervene and where blacks found it difficult to appeal local decisions. Since some of the new laws, moreover, theoretically applied to both races, they were permitted to stand, with local authorities deciding how and when to enforce them. The most obvious example was the vagrancy law; although largely enforced against blacks, authorities could if they chose enforce it against whites. The mayor of Aberdeen, Mississippi, rounded up hundreds of freedmen in early 1866, gave them a few hours to contract with an employer for the year, and put the others to work sweeping the city streets. The local ordinances in Louisiana “still hold good in many parishes,” the New Orleans Tribune charged, despite a War Department order countermanding them; however, the ordinances were no longer published in the local newspapers and thus had to be “carried on in the dark.” When dealing with blacks under contract who left their employers, both local and Federal officials could be expected to act within the spirit and provisions of the Codes. The appearance in a Mississippi newspaper of an advertisement asking for the apprehension of a runaway laborer, complete with a description and sketch of the culprit, stirred old memories. “It is positively refreshing to look at it,” one editor remarked. No less familiar, a black man in Natchez served a jail sentence for harboring and feeding an apprentice who had run away from “a most estimable lady.”80

If the Codes were dead, the sentiment which had created them was still very much alive. Whether enforced, set aside, or amended, the Black Codes had revealed how the ruling class expected to perpetuate that rule. The setback, then, could be viewed as but temporary, a concession to expediency. If statutes proved unavailing in returning the ex-slaves to the fields and kitchens where they belonged, economic necessity and the enforcement of contracts could achieve the same goals within an ideological framework familiar and acceptable to the North. Neither during slavery days nor in the immediate postwar years, moreover, did the planter rely entirely on legislative enactments to maintain the order and discipline he deemed essential. When it came to managing blacks, experience taught him that the place to establish his authority was in the field and the kitchen, not simply in the courthouse.


FACED WITH troublesome laborers after the war, a Louisiana sugar planter mused over the changed situation and how he would have dealt with such problems in better days. “Eaton [an overseer] must find it very hard to lay aside the old strap—As for myself, I would give a good deal to amuse myself with it, a little while. I have come to the conclusion that the great secret of our success was the great motive power contained in that little instrument.” Few of the former slaveholders would have disputed that observation. To maintain a disciplined and docile labor force, they had long acknowledged their reliance on “the power of fear.” Nor had the emancipation of the slaves lessened the need to exercise their traditional prerogatives. “They can’t be governed except with the whip,” one planter explained. “Now on my plantation there wasn’t much whipping, say once a fortnight; but the negroes knew they would be whipped if they didn’t behave themselves, and the fear of the lash kept them in good order.”81

When Federal officials suspended the newly enacted Black Codes, southern whites greeted the decision with predictable expressions of dismay but few were altogether surprised and some felt the states had acted foolishly. But when Federals in some regions reprimanded employers for using the whip on black laborers or forbade any kind of corporal punishment, that was truly hard to accept—even to comprehend. “I know the nigger,” a Mississippi planter pleaded with a Freedmen’s Bureau official. “The employer must have some sort of punishment. I don’t care what it is. If you’ll let me tie him up by the thumbs, or keep him on bread and water, that will do.… All I want is just to have it so that when I get the niggers on to my place, and the work is begun, they can’t sit down and look me square in the face and do nothing.”82

To manage black laborers, numerous planters agreed, was not unlike handling mules; both could be stubborn, even insolent, and experience suggested that they were most serviceable and contented when they had “plenty of feed, plenty of work, and a little licking.” What these planters now demanded was simply the necessary authority to exact the fear and the deference always considered essential to racial control. Like the Black Codes, corporal punishment would benefit the blacks by restraining their worst passions and forcing them to acknowledge authority. “A nigger has got to know you’re his master,” a Georgia planter still insisted, “and then when he understands that he’s content.” Still another former slaveholder attributed his postwar success in managing thirty-five freedmen to their fear of punishment: “You see I never let myself down to ’em.”83

If the old discipline in any way contradicted the new freedom, few of the former slaveholders cared to admit it. To them, emancipation had only made more urgent the need to exercise traditional authority. Although employers made less use of the whip than before the war, they managed to find equally effective and less controversial alternatives. After serving a fifteen-day jail sentence for lashing a former slave (“was there ever such a damned outrage!”), a South Carolina planter claimed to have “larnt a trick” that exacted the proper respect of his blacks. “I jest strings ’em up by the thumbs for ’bout half an hour, an’ then they are damned glad to go to work.” Since the Union Army used that method to discipline its own men as well as recalcitrant blacks, the South Carolinian obviously expected no interference. Fearful of whipping their freed slaves, lest they lodge a complaint with Federal officials, some planters took out their frustrations in verbal abuse. “Can’t lick free niggers, but I don’t know if there’s any law ag’in cussin’ ’em, and I believe it does ’em a heap o’ good,” a Georgian suggested to a group of fellow planters. “It’s next best to lickin’. Jest cuss one o’ ’em right smart for ’bout five minutes, and he’ll play off peart.” Unfortunately for this planter, emancipation had left him without a black to curse and he could only fantasize about how to bring the freedmen under control. “I should like to lick a hundred free negroes jest once all ’round. If I didn’t bring ’em to know their places, I’d pay ten dollars apiece for all I failed on.”84

The degree to which emancipation altered the day-to-day behavior and temperament of the former slaveholder became a matter of immediate concern to black men and women. On numerous farms and plantations, they soon discovered that the potential of the white family for volatile behavior had in no way been abated and it seemed like the old times again. Katie Darling, a former Texas slave, remembered staying with her “white folks” for six years after the war “and missy whip me jist like she did ’fore.” If Anna Miller perceived any change in her master after emancipation, it was only his rapid mental deterioration. “De marster gets worser in de disposition and goes ’roun’ sort of talkin’ to hisse’f and den he gits to cussin’ ev’rybody.” Within a year after vowing that he would not live in a country “whar de niggers am free,” her master killed himself.85

The previous behavior of their masters, as many ex-slaves suddenly discovered, often proved an unreliable guide to how they would now conduct themselves and manage their freed blacks. Frank Fikes, for example, claimed to have suffered few hardships or beatings as a slave. “Old miss and mars was not mean to us at all until after surrender and we were freed. We did not have a hard time until after we were freed. They got mad at us because we was free …” Nor were some of the former masters oblivious to how emancipation could work curious changes in their attitudes and temperament. When he had held slaves, a South Carolina planter recalled, he had always thought of himself as a model master and only once had he resorted to whipping one of his blacks. But now, in his relations with these same people as freedmen and freedwomen, he found himself increasingly moody and temperamental. On one occasion, he misinterpreted what a former slave told him and had to be restrained by several friends who were present from shooting the man on the spot; instead, he calmed himself by administering 130 lashes to him, “hard as I could lay on.” But if the whipping relieved this planter of his anger, it also left him displeased with his loss of self-control. “I was wrong, I know, but I was in a passion. That’s the way we treat our servants, and shall treat them, until we can get used to the new order of things,—if we ever can.”86

Although Federal officials were inclined to overlook how an employer chose to discipline his laborers, the blacks themselves refused to be passive spectators. If a planter relied on the old discipline, confident that fear and punishment could still maintain a captive labor force, he might discover that his intended victims, often his former slaves, no longer felt compelled to submit. After what they had endured as slaves, they saw no reason to tolerate such treatment as freedmen. “Damn him,” a South Carolina black remarked after an altercation with his old master, “he never done nufin all his damned life but beat me and kick me and knock me down; an’ I hopes I git eben with him some day.” In Mississippi, an overseer who responded to a disobedient field hand by threatening him with an ax suddenly found himself facing the laborer’s daughter and several other blacks, all of them holding axes. “I had to run for my life,” the overseer testified. On the Brokenburn plantation in Louisiana, John B. Stone, the highly temperamental son of the mistress, shot a black youth after an argument in the fields. That so infuriated the other hands that they turned upon Stone and might have killed him had not some others intervened. Still, Kate Stone would never forget the sight of her brother being escorted to the house by “a howling, cursing mob with the women shrieking, ‘Kill him!’ and all brandishing pistols and guns.” The family thought it best to send John away to school, at least until a semblance of calm had been restored. Upon his return, he seemed a much-changed and subdued young man. “He never speaks now of killing people as he formerly had a habit of doing,” his sister wrote of him.87

If open resistance invited severe reprisals, the freedmen could exercise the power to withhold their labor or leave the premises and never return. The ties that kept former slaves on the plantation were often so tenuous that an employer’s threat or attempt to inflict punishment might end the relationship altogether. Faced with the imminent loss of their laborers, many a former master and mistress suddenly became “very con’scending” after the war, learned to address their blacks in terms of respect, and banished both the whip and the overseer. “I told my overseer the old style wouldn’t do,—the niggers wouldn’t stand it,—and he promised better fashions,” an Alabama planter remarked; “but it wasn’t two days before he fell from grace, and went to whipping again. That just raised the Old Scratch with them; and I don’t blame ’em.” In explaining the changed attitudes of their old masters, some former slaves suggested that fear itself could have been a motivating factor. “He never was mean to us after freedom,” a former Tennessee slave recalled, along with the many beatings she had once endured. “He was ’fraid the niggers might kill him.” Rather than trust their former master to exercise proper judgment, many blacks extracted from him, as a condition of employment, assurances that he would refrain from corporal punishment and discharge the overseer.88

By these and other demands, the freedmen suggested the need not only to abolish the relics of bondage but to give substance to their position as free workers, with the same rights and prerogatives they had observed white laborers exercising. Nowhere would they manifest this determination more vividly than in the new economic arrangements they worked out with their employers. Unfortunately, the former slaveholding class seemed in many respects less equipped to make the transition to freedom than their former slaves. No matter how hard some tried, few of them were capable of learning new ways and shaking off the old attitudes. Even if they could, they found themselves increasingly trapped into an untenable position. Desperately needing to exact enough labor from their former slaves to meet a brutally depressed market, employers now encountered free workers who looked first to their own subsistence and refused to work up to an exploitative level they deemed incompatible with their new status. When these conflicting needs created an impasse, as they often did, the employer class was forced to look elsewhere for the kind of compulsion and guidance that might once again produce a stable and tractable labor force. How ironic that none other than the much-hated Yankee conquerors should have ultimately shown them the way.


NOT LONG AFTER Federal authorities set aside the Black Code of South Carolina, Armisted Burt, who had helped to frame the new laws, noted with obvious satisfaction that the Union commander had ordered freedmen to contract with an employer or be sentenced to hard labor on public projects. “I have no doubt the Yankees will manage them,” he concluded. The confidence he expressed was not misplaced. No matter how much whites chafed under military rule and occupation, the planter class—native whites and northern lessees alike—often acknowledged its indebtedness to the Union Army for controlling the otherwise restless and rebellious dispositions of the freed slaves. After conversing with the local commander on steps that had been taken to suppress a feared black uprising, the manager of a plantation in low-country South Carolina breathed much easier: “Our people object to the troops being sent here. I thank God they are here.” No sooner were cases of “insubordination” reported to Federal authorities, a Georgia clergyman and planter informed his sister, than forceful steps were taken to suppress the troublemakers. “The effect has been a remarkable quietude and order in all this region. The Negroes are astounded at the idea of being whipped by Yankees. (But keep all this a secret, lest we should be deprived of their services. I have not called on them yet, but may have to do so.)”89

If the Black Codes had not been the edicts of legislatures dominated by ex-Confederate leaders, they might not have suffered the fate of nullification. The problem lay not so much in specific provisions as in what the total product came to symbolize to the victorious North—white southern intransigence and unrepentance in the face of military defeat. But the suspension of the Codes in no way diminished the need to reactivate and control black labor. Almost every Federal official recognized that necessity, and Union commanders moved quickly to expel former plantation hands from the towns and cities, to comply with the requests of planters to force their blacks to work, and to punish freedmen for disobedience, theft, vagrancy, and erratic labor.90 “Their idea of freedom,” the provost marshal of Bolivar County, Mississippi, said of the recently freed slaves, “is that they are under no control; can work when they please, and go where they wish.… It is my desire to apply the Punishments used in the Army of the United States, for offences of the Negroes, and to make them do their duty.” Empowered to settle disputes between employers and laborers, the provost marshals invariably sustained the authority of the planters. In Louisiana, for example, plantation laborers testified to the hopelessness of appealing any grievances they might have to the nearest Federal official:

Q. Have you any white friend, in your parish, who will support your claims or take your defense?

A. We have no white friends there.

Q. Have you any colored friend who could do so?

A. No colored man has any thing to say; none has any influence.

Q. Is not the Provost Marshal a protector for your people?

A. Whenever a new Provost Marshal comes he gives us justice for a fortnight or so; then he becomes acquainted with planters, takes dinners with them, receives presents; and then we no longer have any rights, or very little.91

If Union officers eschewed the whip as an instrument of slavery, they did not hesitate to employ familiar military punishments to deal with “disorderly” blacks. “What’s good enough for soldiers is good enough for Niggers,” a sergeant told a Florida woman who had expressed shock over seeing her “negligent” servant hung up by the thumbs. Upon witnessing a similar punishment meted out to two laborers he had reported for loitering on the job, a South Carolina planter heard them plead to be flogged instead. But if Yankee “justice” dismayed or surprised some native whites, a Mississippi hotelkeeper marveled at the way the local provost marshal had dealt with a “sassy” black who refused to work. “We’ve got a Provo’ in our town,” he boasted, “that settles their hash mighty quick. He’s a downright high-toned man, that Provo’, if he is a Yankee.… He tucked him [the black] up, guv him twenty lashes, and rubbed him down right smart with salt, for having no visible means of support.” That evening, the black victim returned quite willingly to his job.92

Since the early days of occupation, Federal authorities had shared with planters a concern over how to keep the ex-slaves in the fields and impress upon them the necessity of labor. “The Yankees preach nothing but cotton, cotton,” a Sea Islands slave exclaimed, voicing the dismay of many blacks over how quickly their liberators returned them to the familiar routines. Soon after the troops occupied a region, Union officers confronted the problem of what to do with the “contrabands” pouring into their camps. Although many of them were conscripted for military service and labor, the vast majority found themselves working on abandoned and confiscated plantations. The Federal government supervised some of these plantations, while leasing most of them to private individuals, including a number of northern whites intent on maximizing profits as quickly as possible. Thomas W. Knox, a white Northerner who tried his hand at plantation management, characterized most of his colleagues in the business as “unprincipled men” who had little regard for the former slave. “The difference between working for nothing as a slave, and working for the same wages under the Yankees,” he observed, “was not always perceptible to the unsophisticated negro.”93 Small numbers of black farmers also managed to obtain leases, all of them eager to demonstrate the feasibility of free and independent labor. The most successful of such experiments took place at Davis Bend, Mississippi, where blacks secured leases on six extensive plantations, including two belonging to Joe and Jefferson Davis; the blacks repaid the government for the initial costs, managed their own affairs, raised and sold their own crops, and realized impressive profits.94

Whatever the promise of Davis Bend, neither the Union Army nor the Freedmen’s Bureau thought to question the basic assumption underlying the discredited Black Codes—that the ex-slaves were fit only to till the land of others as agricultural laborers and that only compulsion would exact the necessary work and discipline. The proven success of black lessees at Davis Bend and elsewhere, no matter how widely applauded, failed to stem the steady drift toward restoration. Even before the termination of the war, loyal planters and those who took the oath of allegiance to the United States government were permitted to retain their plantations and to work the blacks on a wages or shares basis; Federal officials intervened only to provide planters with the necessary laborers, to suppress any disorders, and to provide guidelines for the management of the ex-slaves. In the view of some Union officers, only if the former master and his former slaves agreed to a separation should the blacks be permitted to leave the plantations on which they had worked. That was how Emma Holmes interpreted Federal policy in her region, and her mother accordingly reported to the local Union officer a black man who had taken a job elsewhere: “By yesterday morning he had found out the Yankees were his masters, and he walked back here to his work.”95

Based on early experiences with the freedmen, the labor system established during the war by successive Union commanders in Louisiana proved far more typical of the Federal approach than the short-lived Davis Bend experiment. To meet the problem of growing numbers of black refugees and of plantations disrupted by black defections and erratic labor, General Nathaniel P. Banks promised to return the ex-slaves to the fields and to enforce “conditions of continuous and faithful service, respectful deportment, correct discipline, and perfect subordination on the part of the negroes.” The regulations he issued manifested precisely that spirit: a contract system binding the ex-slaves to the land, compensating their labor with wages or shares, and assuring them of just treatment, adequate rations and clothing, medical attention, and education for their children. Although the freedman could select an employer, he was bound to him for the remainder of the year, during which time he was expected to perform “respectful, honest, faithful labor.” To encourage compliance, one half of his wages would be withheld until the end of the season; any black refusing to enter into a contract, violating its terms, or found guilty of “indolence, insolence, and disobedience” would forfeit his pay and be subject to military arrest and employment without wages on public works. Conceding little else to emancipation, the new rules forbade employers from flogging their laborers or separating families; in numerous instances, however, freedmen were returned to their old masters with little concern for their subsequent treatment.96

Even if conceived in “a benevolent spirit,” the labor system envisioned by these regulations struck some black critics as “freedom by toleration” and a “mitigated bondage” analogous to Russian serfdom. That was how the New Orleans Tribune, the articulate organ of the free colored community, chose to characterize the new rules. “Strange freedom indeed! Our freedmen, on the plantations, at the present time, could more properly be called, mock freedmen.” If a laborer were truly free, the editor observed, he should be able to choose his place of residence and his trade or occupation, negotiate his own terms with an employer (including wages, conditions, and term of service), and bring court action against anyone who tried to defraud him; moreover, he should be paid the full value of his labor, not a wage stipulated by planters’ meetings or Federal rules. Under the current regulations, the editor contended, blacks would have to work for wages which barely sustained them. But that deplorable fact seemed even less important than the ways in which the new system perpetuated and enforced the dependency of the freedmen on their former masters:

He does not wear his own clothes; but, as the slave, he wears his master’s clothes. He does not eat his own bread, the bread he won by the sweat of his brow; he eats his master’s bread. He is provided for like the mules and cattle on the plantations. And it is said that this is the way some people intend to follow to make men!

Finally, black critics thought it highly ironic but not altogether surprising that such a labor system should have been instituted and defended by white men who never ceased to display their abolitionist credentials as evidence of their good faith. “I despise a man who pretends to be an abolitionist, and who is only a deepskin abolitionist,” a black clergyman told a meeting in New Orleans called to protest the labor regulations. “We have good friends, who will work with us till this country be a free country; but we have unfaithful friends also. A wolf came, one day, among sheep, in sheep’s clothing; but he had a strange foot, and the sheep wondered at that. We, too, are ready to watch this foot.”97

In defending the labor system of Louisiana, a Union officer not only alluded to his “life-time Anti-Slavery” but curtly dismissed the black critics in New Orleans as “a class of colored people who, with all their admirable qualities, have not yet forgotten that they were, themselves, slaveholders.” But if the urban black elitists could be dismissed, Federal authorities would still have to contend with the black laborers themselves, most of whom had never read a newspaper and needed no one to remind them of the oppressive nature of the system under which they were now told to work. The kind of resistance they undertook varied from mass defections to open revolt; most of them, however, took out their grievances in the erratic work habits about which their employers continued to complain. Rather than submit to the new regulations, the blacks on a plantation south of New Orleans threw down their tools, vowed they would never work under such terms, and “left in a body.” In Plaquemines Parish, field hands lodged the familiar complaint that they had not yet received their share of the previous season’s crops; when they then refused to work, a civilian police officer attempted to arrest the ringleaders, only to find himself “beset upon by at least twenty—with hoes, shovels and hatchets” and forced to leave. Whether directed at specific labor regulations or reflecting general conditions, such outbreaks in Louisiana and elsewhere in the South would require the continued intervention of Federal authorities.98

Neither the charges of black critics nor the resistance of black laborers effected any significant changes in a labor system calculated to subordinate black labor to white planters and lessees. The advocates of that system persisted in the assumption that only coercion and rigid controls could assure the triumph and vindication of free labor in the South. When in mid-1863, at General Banks’s request, two abolitionists evaluated the labor system of Louisiana, they reported with praise that on those plantations where the regulations had been faithfully implemented, the black laborers appeared to be “docile, industrious, & quiet.” By 1865, the initial experiment in labor relations undertaken in Louisiana had evolved into a system of contracts between laborers and employers not unlike that being instituted elsewhere in the occupied South under the auspices of Federal authorities. Although the format and the specific terms might differ, the nature of the relationship remained essentially the same, as did the role of the Federal government and the sources of black discontent.99

Even as Federal authorities sought to keep the freed slaves on the plantations under a contract labor system, they were not able to guarantee to planters the quality of the labor performed. And to the planter class, caught up in depressed prices and the demands of a free market, that consideration remained critical. “Every abolitionist of New England believes that by thus merely changing slave labor to hireling labor … everything will work well,” Edmund Ruffin of Virginia said of the newly instituted labor system in Louisiana. The assumption would be proven false, he maintained, if only because black workers would “presume on their new rights of freedom” and fail to pass through a necessary “intermediate condition—which would be that of hunger & general privation & suffering, next to starving.” After all, he noted, “few white laborers, of the lowest classes, will labor continuously unless under the compulsion of hunger & suffering of themselves & their familys. Still fewer free negroes will labor without this compulsion.” Rather than view the disaster he predicted for plantation labor, Ruffin chose to put a bullet through his head several months after Appomattox. But few of his fellow planters chose that way out of their dilemma, preferring instead to employ every means at their disposal to regain control over both the movements and the labor of their former slaves.100


WITH THE END OF THE WAR, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau) undertook to complete the transition to “free labor” initially begun under the direction of the Union Army. “The freedmen in a few instances are doing well,” Thomas Smith reported in November 1865, not long after he had assumed his post as a Bureau subcommissioner in charge of northern Mississippi. He found many of the freedmen to be “indolent,” some of them “disrespectful and totally unreliable,” and almost all of them “greatly in need of instruction.” But like most Bureau agents, he thought his primary concern was not to make literates of the freed slaves but to teach them to be reliable agricultural laborers. “They have very mistaken notions in regard to freedom.… They ask, ‘What is the value of freedom if one has nothing to go on?’ That is to say if property in some shape or other is not to be given us, we might as well be slaves.” He needed to disabuse their minds of such notions while at the same time restoring their faith in the former masters. “The colored people lack confidence in the white man’s integrity;they fear that, were they to hire to him, and work for him, that he would not pay them for their labor.… The more quickly, and the more perfectly, that confidence is restored, the better will it be for all classes.” He could conceive of no more important task he faced in his new position.101

If “instruction” could cure the propensity of the ex-slaves toward “indolence” and “unreliable” labor, the agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau eagerly assumed the role of teachers and disciplinarians. The lessons they imparted seldom varied and rarely departed from what Union officers and planters had been telling the slaves since the first days of liberation. “He would promise them nothing, but their freedom, and freedom means work,” General Oliver O. Howard, the Bureau commissioner, explained to the freedmen of Austin, Texas, and he offered them, too, the classic maxim of nineteenth-century employers: “The man who sits about the streets and smokes, will make nothing.” That very morning, Howard said, he had attended church services in different parts of the city and had heard a black clergyman and a white clergyman preach the gospel of love. “Oh, if you will only practice what you preach,” the commissioner told the freedmen, “it will all be well.” But if they refused to work, a Bureau officer warned the blacks of Mississippi, they should expect neither sympathy, love, nor subsistence. “Your houses and lands belong to the white people, and you cannot expect that they will allow you to live on them in idleness.” Nor should the ex-slave expect the state or Federal government “to let any man lie about idle, without property, doing mischief. A vagrant law is right in principle. I cannot ask the civil officers to leave you idle, to beg or steal. If they find any of you without business and means of living, they will do right if they treat you as bad persons and take away your misused liberty.”102

Upon assuming office, the local Freedmen’s Bureau agent seized every opportunity to preach the gospel of work to the blacks in his district, often visiting the plantations themselves at the invitation of the grateful proprietors. In addressing the assembled laborers, he would familiarize them with their “duties and obligations,” seek to correct their “exaggerated ideas” of freedom, impress upon them the need to be “orderly, respectful, and industrious,” and assure them of protection and compensation “commensurate with their industry and demeanor.” At the same time, Bureau commissioners implored the freedmen, in words that would become all too familiar, to exhibit those traditional virtues of patience and forbearance, no matter what the provocation.

Your freedom will expose you to some new troubles. Bad men will take advantage of your ignorance and impose upon you. Some will try to defraud you of your wages, and a few may be wicked and cowardly enough to revenge their losses upon you by violence. But let none of these things provoke you to evil deeds. It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong.

No doubt many Bureau agents took comfort in the impact of their message. “The Negro is often suspicious of his former master and will not believe him,” the subcommissioner in Jackson, Mississippi, observed, “but when assured by the Federal authorities that he must go to work and behave himself, he does so contentedly.” That made it all the more imperative, he thought, “for the good of the Negro and the peace of the Country,” to have Bureau representatives visit every part of their districts.103 The manager of a plantation in Bolivar County, Mississippi, heartily agreed. “If you would send an agent here to look into matters, and give some advice, I would be pleased to have him make his quarters with me for a week or two.” With unconcealed enthusiasm, a planter near Columbia, South Carolina, welcomed the advice a Bureau official gave to his laborers. “You’re their best friend, they all know,” he told him, “and I’m very glad you’ve come down this way.” The planter had good reason to be grateful. Until the official’s visit, the freedmen had thought they owned the plantation.104

Acting in what they deemed to be the best interests of the ex-slaves, the strongest and proven advocates of the freedmen’s cause admonished them to prove their fitness for freedom by laboring as faithfully as they had as slaves—and even more productively. “Plough and plant, dig and hoe, cut and gather in the harvest,” General Rufus Saxton urged them. “Let it be seen that where in slavery there was raised a blade of corn or a pound of cotton, in freedom there will be two.” Along with Saxton, few whites were more committed to the freedmen than Clinton B. Fisk, a Bureau official who subsequently helped to found one of the first black colleges. And he doubtless thought himself to be speaking in their best interests when he advised the freedmen to remain in their old places and work for their former masters.

You have been associated with them for many years; you are bound to the old home by many ties, and most of you I trust will be able to get on as well with your late masters as with anyone else.… He is not able to do without you, and you will, in most cases, find him as kind, honest, and liberal as other men. Indeed he has for you a kind of family affection.… Do not think that, in order to be free, you must fall out with your old master, gather up your bundles and trudge off to a strange city. This is a great mistake. As a general rule, you can be as free and as happy in your old home, for the present, as any where else in the world.105

Consistent with such advice, Freedmen’s Bureau officials made every effort to rid the urban centers of black refugees and to force them back onto the plantations. (Ironically, the very presence of the Bureau in the towns and villages had induced many ex-slaves to settle there, thinking they might be more secure with Federal protection nearby.) A successful Bureau officer in Culpeper, Virginia, was able to report that “this village was overrun with freedmen when I took charge here, but I have succeeded in getting the most of them out into the country on farms. The freedmen are, almost without an exception, going to work, most of them by the year.”106

Having been established to facilitate the transition from slavery to freedom, the Bureau faced an admittedly immense task. With limited personnel and funds, it was forced to operate on a number of levels, providing the newly freed slaves with food rations and medical care, assisting them in their education, helping to reunite families, relocating thousands of ex-slaves on abandoned lands, and transporting still more to areas where the scarcity of labor commanded higher wages. In its most critical role as a labor mediator, the Bureau set out to correct abuses in contracts, establish “fair” wage rates, force employers to pay what they had promised, and break up planter conspiracies to depress wages. “What we wish to do is plain enough,” a Bureau officer in North Carolina announced. “We desire to instruct the colored people of the South, to lift them up from subserviency and helplessness into a dignified independence and citizenship.”107

The attempts to implement these policies and lofty objectives revealed varying ranges of competence and dedication within the Bureau’s personnel. In theory, a northern reporter wrote, the Bureau unquestionably “stands as the next friend of the blacks,” but “practically, and in the custom of the country,” he concluded after several months of observation, “it appears to stand too often as their next enemy.” The agent he met in a South Carolina community typified for him the Bureau mentality. Empowered to examine labor contracts and determine the validity of planter and freedmen grievances, he demonstrated little or no sympathy for the very people he had been dispatched to protect. “He doesn’t really intend to outrage the rights of the negroes, but he has very little idea that they have any rights except such as the planters choose to give them.” Henry M. Turner, the prominent black clergyman, shared this dim view of the Bureau in operation. Based upon his travels in Georgia and his conversations with numerous freedmen, Turner concluded that although Bureau agents professed “to do much good,” many of them appeared to be “great tyrants” who were utterly incapable of understanding the problems of his people.108

Whatever directives flowed out of the national office, the crucial power of the Freedmen’s Bureau rested with the state and local officials, many of whom were former soldiers and officers who looked upon their positions as sinecures rather than opportunities to protect the ex-slaves in their newly acquired rights. The competence of individual agents varied enormously, as did the quality of the commitment they brought to their jobs. Under difficult, even hazardous circumstances, some Bureau agents braved the opposition of native whites as well as Federal authorities to protect the freedmen from fraud, harassment, and violence; among these agents were whites imbued with the old abolitionist commitment and a small group of blacks, including Martin R. Delany, B. F. Randolph, and J. J. Wright, all of them holding posts in South Carolina.109 But many of the field agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau coveted acceptance by the communities in which they served and became malleable instruments in the hands of the planter class, eager to service their labor needs and sharing similar views about the racial character and capacity of black people and the urgent need to control them. The New Orleans Tribune tried to be as sympathetic toward the Freedmen’s Bureau as its observations would permit: in the midst of a hostile population, the agents had little choice but to act cautiously; their acquaintances were almost always whites and each day they were subjected to “false impressions and misrepresentations.” Under such conditions, the editor charged, the legitimate grievances of black laborers were understandably “treated with contempt”—that is, if they were considered at all. In a recent visit to Amite City, in St. Helena Parish, he found that most of the blacks were unaware of the presence of the Bureau. “The representatives of the federal power are lost in the crowd,” the editor observed; “and feeling themselves powerless, they are wasting time the best they can, and do not hurt the feelings of any body.” To “make Abolition a truth,” he suggested that black troops be stationed there. “Up to this time, Emancipation has only been a lie—in most of our parishes.”110

No matter how a Bureau agent interpreted his mission, the tasks he faced were formidable. At the very outset, the extent of territory for which he was responsible reduced his effectiveness. “My satrapy,” a South Carolina agent recalled, “contained two state districts or counties, and eventually three, with a population of about eighty thousand souls and an area at least two thirds as large as the state of Connecticut. Consider the absurdity of expecting one man to patrol three thousand miles and make personal visitations to thirty thousand Negroes.” The questions an agent needed to answer and act upon were equally demanding. If a slaveholder had removed his blacks during the war to a “safe” area, who bore the responsibility for returning them to their original homes? If blacks had planted crops in the master’s absence, who should reap the profits? Could a former master confiscate the personal possessions a black had accumulated as his slave? If a black woman had borne the children of a master, who assumed responsibility for them in freedom? Could the ex-slaveholders expel from their plantations the sick and elderly blacks no longer able to support themselves? Compared to the numerous disputes involving the interpretation of contracts, the division of crops, and acts of violence, these were almost trivial questions, but even the best-intentioned agents had few guidelines to help them reach a decision. The Bureau officer, a South Carolina agent recalled, needed to be “a man of quick common sense, with a special faculty for deciding what not to do. His duties and powers were to a great extent vague, and in general he might be said to do best when he did least.”111

No sooner had he taken office than the typical Bureau agent found himself besieged by planters wanting to know what terms and punishments they could impose on their blacks. That would constitute the bulk of his work, along with the many complaints of freedmen who had suffered fraud, abuse, and violence at the hands of their employers. Unfortunately, few Bureau agents possessed the ability, the patience, or the sympathy to deal with the grievances of the freedmen, even to recognize their legitimacy, and the ex-slave had no way of knowing what to expect if he should file a complaint. To do so, he might have to travel anywhere from ten to fifty miles to the nearest Bureau office, where he was apt to find an agent “who rides, dines, and drinks champagne with his employer” and viewed any complainant as some kind of troublemaker. Even the more sympathetic agents were not always able to consider the freedman’s grievances with the seriousness they deserved.

The majority of the complaints brought before me came from Negroes. As would naturally happen to an ignorant race, they were liable to many impositions, and they saw their grievances with big eyes.… With pomp of manner and of words, with a rotundity of voice and superfluity of detail which would have delighted Cicero, a Negro would so glorify his little trouble as to give one the impression that humanity had never before suffered the like.112

The ways in which a local Bureau agent or provost marshal considered the grievance of a freedman often differed markedly from the deference paid to a prominent planter. In Liberty, Virginia, for example, the local superintendent of freedmen’s affairs—a sergeant in the Union Army—listened to a black laborer’s account of a severe beating he had suffered at the hands of his employer.

“What did you do to him? You’ve been sassy?”

“No, boss; never was sassy; never was sassy nigger sence I’se born.”

“Well, I suppose you were lazy.”

“Boss, I been working all de time; ask any nigger on de plantashn ef I’se ever lazy nigger. Me! me and dem oder boys do all de work on de plantashn same as ’foretime.”

“Well, then, what did he strike you for?”

“Dat jest it, sah. Wot’d he strike me for? Dar ar jest it. I done nothin’.”

“How many of you are there on the plantation?”

“Right smart family on de plantashn, sah. Dunno how many.”

“Did he strike any other boy but you?”

“No, sah, me one.”

“You must have been doing something?”

“No, boss; boss, I tell you; I’se in at de quarters, me and two o’dem boys, and he came in de do’, jump on me wid a stick, say ‘he teach me.’ ”

“What did you do then?”

“Run, come yer.”

“Well, now you go back home and go to your work again; don’t be sassy, don’t be lazy when you’ve got work to do; and I guess he won’t trouble you.”113

This freedman fared better than the many blacks who testified that local agents refused even to listen to their complaints but ordered them back to work and threatened them with deportation. Confronted with an employer unwilling to pay him his share of the crop and with threats to burn down his house (because he conducted classes there), a North Carolina freedman carried his appeal to General Oliver O. Howard, the Bureau’s head commissioner, after the local agent had refused to intercede.114

Even where a Bureau official tried to act on behalf of a freedman, he might find himself frustrated by military authorities, whose support he needed to enforce his decisions but whose sympathies often lay with the native whites. In some regions, military officers not connected with the Bureau collected fees for approving labor contracts and paid little attention to the provisions. Captain Randolph T. Stoops, the provost marshal in Columbia, Virginia, readily conceded his lack of concern in such matters but thought it perfectly justified. “As to the price of labour I have nothing to do with it. The citizens held a meeting some time since and made a price to suit themselves.… When Farmers bring the negro before me to have written agreements between them whatever price is agreed upon between them I enter on the article and consider them bound to fulfill the agreement whatever it may be.” Often over the protests of sympathetic Bureau agents, military authorities permitted employers to mete out punishments to recalcitrant blacks or imposed their own form of discipline. That was how Captain Stoops dealt with the problem of blacks “swarming the streets” of the town in which he was stationed. “There being no jail or place of confinement I resorted to the wooden horse and making them work on the streets. Such punishment I found beneficial for in a short time I found almost every negro for some distance, had gone to work and was doing well.… Fright has more to do with it than anything else.”115

To keep the freed slaves on the old plantations and to force them into contracts with an employer doubtless helped a local Bureau official to win a degree of toleration in an otherwise hostile community. But at the same time, he easily persuaded himself that he was acting in the best interests of the freedmen. After all, the Bureau officer in Vicksburg observed, wherever the freedmen were “submissive and perform the labor they contract to do in good faith,” the native whites treated them “with kindness.” If the blacks themselves remained unconvinced of the Bureau’s good intentions, an official could reason that they had only recently been released from bondage and were in no position to know what was best for them. The more the freedmen resisted their advice, the more Bureau officials insisted on it, justifying their positions by the number of ex-slaves they had induced to return to work. Upon assuming his post in Jackson, Mississippi, Captain J. H. Weber found the city “full to overflowing with stragglers from the plantations.” He immediately ordered the troops under his command to round up the “stragglers” and put them to work on the city streets.

The result was surprising; it stopped in short order the influx of stragglers, and saved the soldiers the labor of cleaning up the City. The stragglers began to learn, and those coming in learned from them that they could not remain here in idleness—they went back to their homes contented to go to work again. I have gathered up in this way, more than three hundred, and as planters and others have called for laborers, I have turned those thus gathered up over to them …

With equal satisfaction, a Bureau officer in southern Mississippi boasted that his “presence and authority,” backed by troops when needed, had “kept the negroes at work, and in a good state of discipline.” If it had not been for the Bureau, he added, “I feel confident there would have been an uprising upon the part of the negroes.”116

Established to ease the ex-slaves’ transition to freedom, the Freedmen’s Bureau ultimately facilitated the restoration of black labor to the control of those who had previously owned them. “They are, in fact, the planter’s guards, and nothing else,” the New Orleans Tribune concluded, almost two years after expressing its initial doubts about the Bureau. “Every person acquainted with the regime of our country parishes knows what has become of the Bureau’s agencies and the Agents.” The potential for a different course of action had been present from the outset. Although the President’s liberal pardon policy necessarily frustrated any radical redistribution of land, the Freedmen’s Bureau had been in a position to effect significant changes in labor relations, particularly during the chaotic aftermath of emancipation. “In my opinion,” a Bureau official wrote from Meridian, Mississippi, in June 1866, “you could inflict no more severe punishment on a planter than to take from him the negroes that work the place. They will do anything, rather than this, that is possible or reasonable. They feel their utter helplessness without them to do the work.” But even the best-intentioned of the commissioners and local agents manifested their sympathy for the freedmen in curious and contradictory ways, embracing a paternalism and a contract labor system that could only perpetuate the economic dependency of the great mass of former slaves.117

“Philanthropists,” a black newspaper observed in 1865, “are sometimes a strange class of people; they love their fellow man, but these to be worthy of their assistance, must be of an inferior kind. We were and still are oppressed; we are not demoralized criminals.” Nor did black people need to be reminded to avoid idleness and vagrancy; the repeated warnings, preached by native whites and Federal authorities alike, were all too reminiscent of the white preacher’s sermons during slavery. After all, the newspaper concluded, “the necessity of working is perfectly understood by men who have worked all their lives.”118

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