Chapter Eight


“Now children, you don’t think white people are any better than you because they have straight hair and white faces?”

“No, sir.”

“No, they are no better, but they are different, they possess great power, they formed this great government, they control this vast country.… Now what makes them different from you?”

“MONEY.” (Unanimous shout)

“Yes, but what enabled them to obtain it? How did they get money?”

“Got it off us, stole it off we all!”


You know it is better to work for Mr. Cash than Mr. Lash. A black man looks better now to the white than he used to do. He looks taller, brighter, and more like a man. The more money you make, the lighter your skin will be. The more land and houses you get, the straighter your hair will be.



ON A PLANTATION in South Carolina, an elderly black woman known as Aunt Phillis told how her master had built his new house only a year before the outbreak of the Civil War. Like those slaves who habitually boasted of the wealth of their “white folks,” she dwelled on the fact that her master had paid a great deal of money for this house, as much as $20,000. “Where did your master get so much money?” a northern journalist asked the old woman. The question obviously agitated her. Although confined to bed because of an illness, she managed to raise herself up and with considerable excitement in her voice she kept repeating the question: “Whar he git he money? Whar he git he money? Is dat what you ask—whar he git he money? I show you, massa.” Pushing up her sleeve, she revealed a gaunt, skinny arm. Tapping it vigorously with her forefinger, she exclaimed, “You see dat, massa? Dat’s whar he got he money—out o’ dat black skin he got he money.”3

Few ex-slaveholders ever paused to scrutinize their own lives and dependency, and still fewer would have perceived any reason to do so. But their former slaves had been quite observant, and no one knew their “white folks” better than they did. “Oh, massa ain’t old as me,” an elderly black woman explained. “Us been playfellows togedder. But massa ain’t stan’ lika me, ma’am. Hard work an’ beatin’ about make us grow ole too fast. Us been ole w’en him young. Massa lib soft w’en us lib hard.” Wherever the freedmen turned, it seemed, white men who claimed to be their best friends and emancipators were on hand to advise them to work diligently and thereby prove themselves fit for freedom. The former slaves usually listened politely and nodded their heads in acquiescence. But occasionally their anger surfaced, and few charges infuriated them more than that of idleness, particularly when their former masters leveled the accusation. “They take all our labor for their own use and get rich on it and then say we are lazy and can’t take care of ourselves,” was the way a South Carolina freedman expressed his rage. Why should the ex-slave have to prove himself, others asked, when the evidence of his labor was everywhere to be seen? Indeed, if the freedman needed only to work to prove himself fit to enjoy the blessings of liberty, he should have been free for more than two centuries. After observing how “the flippant class that talks so loud of the idleness of the negro” finds itself unable to do anything without him, the New Orleans Tribunereminded the planters: “The time has come when the cash, and not the lash commands labor. The blacks are no longer required to rise at four and work, work, work all day, till it is too dark to see; and then get up frequently during the night to wait upon the caprices of an indolent master or mistress to whom surfeiting forbids sleep.”4

Having been exposed to regular dosages of advice from white men, more than five hundred freedmen on St. Helena Island, South Carolina, listened with particular attentiveness when Major Martin R. Delany, the outspoken black nationalist and abolitionist who returned to his native South as a Freedmen’s Bureau officer, addressed them in the summer of 1865. “I want to tell you one thing,” he began. “Do you know that if it was not for the black man this war never would have been brought to a close with success to the Union, and the liberty of your race? I want you to understand that. Do you know it? Do you know it? Do you know it?” Cries of “yes,” “yes,” “yes,” greeted his question. With the crowd obviously in his grasp, shouting out their encouragement and approval, Delany assailed the southern planters and northern speculators who exploited their labor, and he urged them to be skeptical even of those who claimed to be their best friends—the schoolteachers and ministers, “because they never tell you the truth,” and the cotton agents, “who come honey mouthed unto you, their only intent being to make profit by your inexperience.” With even greater forcefulness, however, Delany reminded his audience of the heritage of bondage, the white man’s indebtedness to their labor, and the power they held in their hands.

People say that you are too lazy to work, that you have not the intelligence to get on for yourselves. They have often told you, Sam, you lazy nigger, you don’t earn your salt.… He never earned a single dollar in his life. You men and women, every one of you around me, made thousands and thousands of dollars. Only you were the means for your master to lead the idle and inglorious life, and to give his children the education which he denied to you for fear you may awake to conscience. If I look around me, I tell you, all the houses on this Island and in Beaufort, they are all familiar to my eye, they are the same structures which I have met with in Africa. They have all been made by the Negroes, you can see it by their rude exterior. I tell you they (White men) cannot teach you anything, and they could not make them because they have not the brain to do it.…

Now I look around me and I notice a man, bare footed covered with rags and dirt. Now I ask, what is that man doing, for whom is he working. I hear that he works for 30 cents a day. I tell you that must not be. That would be cursed slavery over again.… I tell you slavery is over, and shall never return again. We have now 200,000 of our men well drilled in arms and used to warfare, and I tell you it is with you and them that slavery shall not come back again, and if you are determined it will not return again.

The few local whites who were present, according to one witness, listened to Delany “with horror depicted in their faces.” No less alarmed were two Freedmen’s Bureau officers who had been dispatched to the scene to impart their impressions of this most recent addition to their ranks. If Delany’s words disturbed them, the crowd’s reaction seemed even more portentous. “The excitement with the congregation was immense,” one officer noted, “groups were formed talking over what they have heard, and ever and anon cheers were given to some particular sentences of the speech”; he overheard one freedman remark that Delany was “the only man who ever told them the truth,” while others vowed “they would get rid of the Yankee employer.” Little wonder that the officers dutifully reported the contents of Delany’s speech to their superior with a warning that such “discourse” produced “discontent among the Freedmen,” generated “feelings of indignation toward the white people,” and could only incite the ex-slaves to insurrection. “My opinion of the whole affair,” one of them concluded, “is, that Major Delany is a thorough hater of the White race, and tries the colored people unnecessarily.”5

To judge the freedmen by their actions, on St. Helena Island and elsewhere in the South, Martin Delany had articulated feelings that were only beginning to surface in the negotiations over the terms of free labor. Neither Delany nor the host of Bureau officers and missionaries who had descended upon the South were in any real position to do for the freedman what he would have to do for himself—that is, work out some kind of arrangement with the former masters that would be commensurate with his new legal status and his aspirations. Even with the presence of Federal authorities, whose attitudes varied enormously, the ultimate settlement—barring any redistribution of land—would have to be made between those who worked and those who owned the land and the tools. And, as a black newspaper in Georgia observed, “no man loves work naturally. Interest or necessity induces him to labor. If the laborer has no inducement to be faithful, he should not be censured for neglect.… Why does the white man labor? That he may acquire property and the means of purchasing the comforts and luxuries of life. The colored man will labor for the same reason.”6

Actually, despite the gloomy talk and predictions, there was never really any question about whether the freedmen would work. Unlike many of their former masters, they had never known anything but work, and most of them did not view this as a question at all. From the moment of their emancipation, the bulk of the ex-slave population had little choice but to labor for old and new employers under a variety of arrangements. Some of the very planters who forecast the Negro’s doom were successfully using free black labor; indeed, a Virginia planter seemed stunned and almost indignant that his blacks were working with a diligence they had denied him when they were his slaves. The son of a former slaveholder on the Sea Islands made the same observation when he returned in 1863 and began to cultivate the plantation with the newly freed blacks. The acknowledgment of their freedom and the promise of compensation appeared to be sufficient inducement.

I never knew, during forty years of plantation life, so little sickness. Formerly, every man had a fever of some kind; and now the veriest old cripple, who did nothing under secesh rule, will row a boat three nights in succession to Edisto, or will pick up the corn about the corn-house. There are twenty people whom I know who were considered worn out and too old to work under the slave system, who are now working cotton, as well as their two acres of provisions; and their crops look very well. I have an old woman who has taken six tasks (that is, an acre and a half) of cotton, and last year she would do nothing.7

Although obviously searching for evidence of black industry, sympathetic northern observers did not have to fabricate their reports. The evidence was all around them, not only in the fields but in the towns and cities, where blacks were most prominently employed in the reconstruction of a war-ravaged South. Watching the rebuilding of the burned-out district of Richmond, a traveler came away impressed with the fact that black men comprised a majority of the workers. “They drove the teams, made the mortar, carried the hods, excavated the old cellars or dug new ones, and, sitting down amid the ruins, broke the mortar from the old bricks and put them up in neat piles ready for use. There were also colored masons and carpenters employed on the new buildings.” And yet, he reflected, despite such scenes, “I was once more informed by a cynical citizen that the negro, now that he was free, would rob, steal, or starve, before he would work.”8

If the Negro existed only to make cotton, sugar, and rice, as so many whites professed to believe, that would have sentenced to immediate oblivion thousands of skilled black workers and artisans, as well as the far larger number of menial laborers who performed the arduous tasks shunned by white people. In the skilled trades, the principal questions revolved not around the black man’s willingness to work or his ability but how much longer he would be permitted to compete with white artisans and mechanics and the degree to which his compensation permitted him to support himself. “By de time I pays ten dollars a month rent fo’ my house, an’ fifteen cents a poun’ for beef or fresh po’k, or thirty cents fo’ bacon, an’ den buys my clo’es, I doesn’t hab much leff,” a hod carrier in Selma, Alabama, declared. “I’s done tried it, an’ I knows brack man cant stan’ dat.” Nor did black workers in a Richmond tobacco factory, engaged in labor that white men rejected as too difficult, fare much better.

We the Tobacco mechanicks of this city and Manchester is worked to great disadvantage.… They say we will starve through laziness that is not so. But it is true we will starve at our present wages. They say we will steal we can say for ourselves we had rather work for our living give us a Chance. We are Compeled to work for them at low wages and pay high Rents and make $5 per week and sometimes les. And paying $18 or 20 per month Rent. It is impossible to feed ourselves and family—starvation is Cirten unies a change is brought about.

That constant advice to work or starve, which their white “friends” so freely imparted, never seemed to anticipate the plight of people who did little more than work and yet stood on the brink of starvation. “I keeps on washin for em,” remarked a laundress in Richmond, who spent most of her day stooped over a washtub, “for if I leave em they’ll never pay me what they owe me.”9

On the plantations and farms, where the bulk of black laborers still resided, the issue was not whether the freedmen would work but rather for whom, at what rates, and under what conditions, and those were different questions altogether, requiring answers from a class of Southerners who had little experience in dealing with such matters. “Can a planter be expected to treat the laborers under his control in any other way to-day than he has treated them for the last twenty years?” the New Orleans Tribune asked. “He and they are the same men, in the same place, bearing to each other, in all respects, the same apparent relations. No visible change has passed off between them. The Proclamation of Emancipation did not invest the slave with a physical sign of freedom. It was a metaphysical endowment.”10 But if the relationship between “master” and laborer remained essentially unaltered by emancipation, so did the mutual dependency upon which it had always rested, and that raised the most crucial question of all. Could the former slave transform the white man’s dependence on him into a formidable weapon with which to expand his personal autonomy, improve his day-to-day life and his prospects for the future, and thereby redefine if not sever altogether the old relationship? Whatever the degree of success attained toward these ends, the effort itself marked a significant break with the past.


WHEN WILLIAM ELLIOTT tried to persuade Jacob to work for him, he ran into unexpected difficulties. As his slave, Jacob had served him faithfully over many years, and Elliott, a South Carolina planter, wished not only to retain a valuable laborer but to have him use his influence to convince the other blacks to return to work. Before he would agree to terms, however, Jacob demanded certain concessions—like the right to keep the provisions he made for himself—that would have lessened his dependency on the old master. He asked for them, moreover, in consideration of his previous record of service to the family. To Elliott, that might have suggested a demand for retroactive compensation, and he viewed the question quite differently than his former slave. “I told him I thought the obligation lay the other way. He is eaten up with self-esteem & selfishness.”11

If the incident be judged by the content of the postwar debate, William Elliott clearly had the advantage. Although dispossessed slaveholders thought themselves entitled to compensation for their losses (President Lincoln had once proposed it as a way to encourage voluntary emancipation), the question of remunerating the slaves for past labor never reached the level of serious consideration. But if the freedmen were not to be paid for their work as slaves, and few of them ever pressed the matter, they could be quite adamant about being paid for any future labor. As slaves, each of them had borne a price tag; as free men and women, they now felt entitled to wages or crop shares commensurate with the labor they performed. To settle for anything less was to compromise their freedom.

During the Civil War, often at the first sighting of Yankee troops, slaves refused to work without some form of compensation. What a Louisiana overseer described in 1863 as “a state of mutiny” on a neighboring plantation proved to be the failure of the blacks to report to the fields one morning; instead, they appeared before the overseer and insisted they would no longer work without pay. At the same time, the workers on a South Carolina plantation turned down the wage offer of their master. “I mean to own my own manhood,” one of them explained, “and I’m goin’ on to my own land, just as soon as when I git dis crop in, an’ I don’t desire for to make any change until den.” Besides, he added, “I’m not goin’ to work for any man for any such price [25 cents a day].” That was how the others felt, too, as a fellow laborer quickly indicated: “I won’t work for no Man for 25 cents a day—not dis chile—unless he gib me my rations too!”12

Even while their legal status remained clouded, newly freed slaves articulated their dissatisfaction with the past by conditioning any future labor on the fulfillment of certain immediate demands, such as payment in good wages (not in worthless Confederate bills), adequate food and clothing, additional time off for meals and holidays, and the abolition of gang labor and the position of overseer. If the employer expected his free laborers to demonstrate that habitual deference and compliance, he might find himself deeply disappointed if not at times outraged. Early in 1864, for example, a planter in Louisiana addressed a group of prospective field hands in the hope of hiring them. “All listened attentively,” noted a reporter present at the scene, “and there was no stupidity apparent in their faces. They seemed to hear every adjective.” After listening to the explanation of terms, the laborers countered with questions which revealed their most immediate concerns: “When will our wages be paid?” “What clothing are we to have?” “What land are we allowed?” “Can we keep our pigs?” The women insisted they would no longer work on Saturdays; the men indicated their unwillingness to perform any plantation chores on Sunday. Finally, the planter asked them to raise their hands if they agreed to the terms. At first, a number of them, including most of the women, refused to do so, holding out for a five-day week, but they finally assented on condition they could work less than the full time.13

The initial give-and-take between planters and laborers in wartime Louisiana impressed a northern observer for the ways in which the blacks were rapidly learning their own power and worth. “They have a mine of strategy,” he reported, “to which the planter sooner or later yields.” He cited the example of a planter who had hired a new overseer; the choice proved to be obnoxious to the blacks because of his reputation for wielding the whip and using abusive language in addressing black women. When a delegation of field hands demanded the overseer’s dismissal, the planter refused in the strongest possible language. After vowing that he would hire anyone he chose to be overseer, he ordered the hands back to work. Rather than return to the fields, however, the blacks went to their cabins, packed up their belongings, and started down the road; they had not gone far before the owner called them back and promised them a voice in the selection of a new overseer.14

If the South wanted some indication of what it might expect from the new labor relations, there was also that unique experiment on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, where the freed slaves and a select group of largely northern employers tried to make a success out of cotton cultivation by free black labor. Not long after the Federal occupation, and still quite early in the war, a Sea Islands black made clear the prevailing sentiment about returning to work: “I craves work, ma’am, if I gets a little pay, but if we don’t gets pay, we don’t care—don’t care to work.” But even when compensated for their labor, some of the blacks thought the pay to be inadequate, particularly in comparison to the profits reaped by their new employers. And when they resolved to make their feelings known, the laborers did so with sufficient force and unanimity to alarm those high-minded missionaries who thought themselves the best friends and emancipators of this oppressed race. Early in 1864, Harriet Ware recorded the “injudicious” way in which a group of these “poor, ignorant creatures” confronted Edward Philbrick, a Boston entrepreneur and a firm believer in free labor who had obtained extensive acreage on St. Helena Island.

The women came up in a body to complain to Mr. Philbrick about their pay,—a thing which has never happened before and shows the influence of very injudicious outside talk, which has poisoned their minds against their truest friends. The best people were among them, and even old Grace chief spokeswoman.

Before Philbrick left the islands, he leased out his plantation and tried to induce the blacks to contract with the new superintendent; instead, the two men found themselves surrounded by disaffected field hands who were shouting, “A dollar a task! A dollar a task!”—substantially more than they had been earning. When Philbrick explained to them how the proceeds of last year’s crop had been spent in carrying on the current work, they refused to believe him; one of the blacks, in fact, insisted that “they [the employers] had been jamming the bills into that big iron cage [Philbrick’s safe] for six months, and there must be enough in it now to bust it!” Still refusing to budge, Philbrick opened his door several days later only to confront a delegation of twenty women. Once again, “old Grace” spoke for the group:

I’se come to you, sir. [pause] I’se been working fer owner three years, and made with my chillun two bales cotton last year, two more this year. I’se a flat-footed pusson and don’t know much, but I knows those two bales cotton fetch ’nough money, and I don’t see what I’se got for ’em. When I take my leetle bit money and go to store, buy cloth, find it so dear, dear Jesus!—the money all gone and leave chillun naked. Some people go out yonder and plant cotton for theyself. Now they get big pile of money for they cotton, and leave we people ’way back. That’s what I’se lookin’ on, Marsa. Then when I come here for buy ’lasses, when Massa Charlie sell he sell good ’lasses, then when Mister W. sell he stick water in ’em, water enough. Molasses turn thin, but he charge big price for ’em. Now I’se done working for such ’greement. I’se done, sir.

But Philbrick remained unmoved, rejected the demands for higher pay, restated his terms, and told those who found them unacceptable that they were free to go elsewhere. “I told them, too, that if some of those people who made so much noise didn’t look out, they would get turned off the place, just as Venus and her gang got turned off last year.” Before long some of the women returned to inform him of their decision to remain and accede to his terms. “The fact is,” Philbrick confided to a friend, “they are trying to play brag, as such people often will; but they will all go to work in a few days, I feel sure.”15

Whether expressed collectively or individually, the threat by former slaves to make their continued labor contingent on a white employer complying with their demands was in itself almost unprecedented. The implications of such bargaining were certainly not lost on the native whites, some of whom chose to expel blacks who refused to work “as usual” or who deigned to approach them about an agreement. No sooner had Richmond fallen than the slaves in one household selected a committee of three to inform their owner that they expected wages for any future services. Infuriated at this display of insolence, he ordered them from the room. “Well I told the whole crew to go to hell, and they left,” he later explained; “its my opinion they’ll all get there soon enough.” Still recouping from the shock of emancipation, some employers were in no mood to offer their newly freed slaves anything more than the usual quarters, provisions, and clothing, and scores of freedmen did agree to such terms during and immediately after the war, at least until the current crop had been completed. But that arrangement failed to satisfy Ann Ulrich, who told her master “dat since freedom we git a little change”; he responded with a torrent of “all de low names he could think of” and ordered her off the plantation. Nor was Mary Love satisfied with the new dress her mistress had given her, along with the promise to feed and house her. “After while I asked her ain’t she got some money for me, and she say no, ain’t she giving me a good home? Den I starts to feeling like I ain’t treated right.” Some days later, without saying “nothing to nobody,” she placed the new dress in a bundle and headed for the nearest town. “Its ten miles into Bonham, and I gits in town about daylight. I keeps on being afraid, ’cause I can’t git it out’n my mind I still belong to Mistress.”16

Community pressures—both white and black—often inhibited any early agreement on paid labor. While the status of slavery and the possibility of compensation remained unclear, many planters held back, preferring to dismiss recalcitrant slaves rather than bargain with them. When blacks in Fredericksburg, Virginia, defected in large numbers and demanded wages, white residents responded by agreeing among themselves not to hire their own or other people’s slaves. After one resident broke that pact and agreed to hire his servants, “the gentlemen of the town” warned him that he was establishing a dangerous precedent and violating the laws of Virginia, and that his action would mark him as a traitor to the state. “So the old man refused to hire them,” a neighbor wrote, “and they all left him.” Such understandings among whites were a forerunner of postwar agreements not to tamper with each other’s former slaves and to set maximum wage and share rates. But the pressures could work both ways. That is, blacks who continued to work when others refused to do so were apt to encounter the hostility of their own people. Thus did a South Carolina proprietress observe “the faithful few” among her slaves to be “uneasy,” fearing repercussions from those who had left. “Rius gave his wife (Ellen) a fearful beating because she came to wait on Aunt Nenna. Those who are faithful suffer so much from the rebellious ones, and we can do nothing to protect them.”17

Confronted with the departure of their laborers, growing numbers of planters would have to face up ultimately to the necessity of reaching some kind of agreement with them. Late in the war, Henry W. Ravenel, the introspective South Carolina slaveholder, acknowledged the need to effect “a radical change” in the labor system. The reason for his decision was clear enough: “Since Thursday the negroes have not been at work.… The negroes are on a ‘strike’ for terms & until an agreement can be made, matters will be no better.” His blacks objected to “gang work,” they wanted no overseer or driver, and they demanded a plot of land “to work for their own use.” Although anxious to retain their labor, Ravenel, for all his brave talk about “a radical change,” feared any concessions which would be “incompatible with discipline & good management.” While the impasse continued, he detected a “sullenness” in his laborers “which I dislike to see,” and he heard that many blacks in the neighborhood, including presumably some of his own, were now armed. The house servants belonging to a Georgia woman determined to test their freedom by suing her for wages. “A most unwarrantable procedure,” her son-in-law wrote afterwards, but he agreed that henceforth “we must pay for services rendered.”18

With the acknowledgment of emancipation, most planters gradually resigned themselves to some form of compensated labor. When the master assembled his newly freed slaves to inform them of his offer, he might also use the occasion to remind them of their new responsibilities and to introduce them to some of the harsher realities of free labor. Thus did a planter in Lowndes County, Alabama, explain to his blacks the new situation in which they now found themselves:

Formerly, you were my slaves; you worked for me, and I provided for you. You had no thought of the morrow, for I thought of that for you. If you were sick, I had the doctor come to you. When you needed clothes, clothes were forthcoming; and you never went hungry for lack of meal and pork. You had little more responsibility than my mules.

But now all that is changed. Being free men, you assume the responsibilities of free men. You sell me your labor, I pay you money, and with that money you provide for yourselves. You must look out for your own clothes and food, and the wants of your children. If I advance these things for you, I shall charge them to you, for I cannot give them like I once did, now I pay you wages. Once if you were ugly or lazy, I had you whipped, and that was the end of it. Now if you are ugly and lazy, your wages will be paid to others, and you will be turned off, to go about the country with bundles on your backs, like the miserable low-down niggers you see that nobody will hire. But if you are well-behaved and industrious, you will be prosperous and respected and happy.

If only every planter adopted this approach, he assured a northern visitor, there would be a harmonious transition to free labor. “They all understood this talk,” he added, “and liked it, and went to work like men on the strength of it.… There’s everything in knowing how to manage them.”19

The transition to free labor would seldom be as smooth as this Alabama planter envisioned. Not only was the situation without any clear precedent but the sharp divisions of race and class, exacerbated by the heritage of slavery and wartime memories, were bound to complicate the new relationship of white employer and black laborer. “I do not like the negro as well free as I did as a slave,” a Virginian conceded, “for the reason that there is now between us an antagonism of interest to some extent, while, before, his interest and mine were identical. Then, I was always thinking of how I could fix him comfortably. Now, I find myself driving a hard bargain with him for wages; and I find that sort of feeling suggested directly by motives of interest coming in between the employer and the employed.” When the former master came around to compensated labor, he would have to calculate precisely how much his ex-slaves were worth to him as free workers. That created some obvious conflicts, with employers and laborers entertaining different notions of value and both determined to stand by their estimates. “They have what seem to me to be extravagant ideas as to what they ought to receive,” a North Carolinian observed, and scores of planters would register the same complaint. But surely, some freedmen suggested, they should not be worth any less now than the price for which their masters had occasionally hired them out as slaves. If the planter pleaded financial difficulties, as so many did, the freedmen had only to look out into the fields and calculate the value of the expected crops. “Massa fust said he find all de famly food and house for our work,” a Virginia black remarked; “den I think that, as him grow 4,000 bushels corn, near 10,000 lbs. clover, and odder tings ’sides, he can ’ford to pay me better dan dat, so I no go with him. Me tell him me worth more, and p’raps he give me some of crop.”20

Accustomed to holding the upper hand in all dealings with blacks, the former slaveholder preferred to make his own decision about compensation rather than suffer the audaciousness of freedmen who confronted him with demands or ultimatums. In his region, a Florida farmer and physician revealed, the planters usually refused to pay “any who demand it” but several had promised to supply their freedmen with provisions at the end of the year if they worked faithfully. Even relationships of long standing, which had survived the war and the first years of emancipation, could fall apart when the ex-slave raised the question of additional pay. Within that tightly knit Jones clan of Georgia, for example, Kate had remained “faithful” to Mary Jones’s daughter while many others defected. Not until late in 1867 did she assert herself on the wage question: “I wish to tell you if you will give me twelve dollars per month [an increase of three dollars] I will stay with you; but if not, I have had good offers and I will find another place.” Despite the years of loyal, unpaid labor this servant had rendered, the mistress of the household turned down her request for a raise. When Kate then left her, the mistress noted that she did so “with a very impertinent air.”21

The sheer novelty of free black labor introduced complexities and nuances into the issues that traditionally separated employers and workers. The proposed compensation mattered less to some freedmen than what form it would take (crop shares or cash), when it would be paid (monthly or after completion of the crop), and the often arbitrary nature of the employer’s deductions (for the provisions he supplied and the fines he levied for negligent work). Of equally vital concern to the freedman might be the kinds of crops he could now grow (the old staples or food), the quality of the provisions he received, the availability of schools for his children, the right to unrestricted travel, and freedom from verbal and physical abuse. Inseparable from all these considerations, and for many the most crucial, was the degree of personal autonomy he could now enjoy.22 The only way to keep the ex-slaves on the plantations without compromising their freedom, the New Orleans Tribune boldly suggested, was not simply to compensate them but to make them full partners in the management and in the crop yields; freedom implied the abolition of both “slaves” and “masters,” the “democratization” of the plantations, and the opportunity for blacks to control their own crops, lands, and lives. Unless “the necessary step” was taken to free the workingman, the newspaper concluded, emancipation would remain “a mockery and a sham.” By “the necessary step,” the editor envisioned the free colored community of New Orleans investing their money in land and managing that land in partnership with the former slaves, who would perform the labor.23

Early in the postwar period, at least, that ultimate question of who controlled the crops and the lands remained unresolved in the minds of many freedmen. After noting that planters now intended to pay their ex-slaves with crop shares, Henry M. Turner, the outspoken black clergyman, refused to applaud their action; instead, he dismissed the proposal as an “ingenious trickery … designed to keep the old master fat doing nothing, making the Yankees believe ‘dis old nigga no wants to leave massa,’ and for the purpose of fizzling them out of all their claims upon the real estate.” Rather than settle for compensation in wages or shares, the freedmen in some areas were already insisting that the crops they had planted in 1865, if not the land itself, rightfully belonged to them. “Some of them,” wrote the police chief in Duplin County, North Carolina, “are declaring they intend to have lands, even if they shed blood to obtain them. Some of them are demanding all of the crop they have raised on the former master’s lands, and in some cases, so obstinate are they in these demands, that I have had to arrest them before they would come to terms.”24

With emancipation, many former slaves obviously sensed a new power and evinced a determination to test it. The mere offer of compensation would not assure the employers of a stable and contented labor force. To pay them for their labor, after all, did not resolve all fundamental questions about authority, autonomy, and control of the land. Whether provoked by a wage dispute or some other grievance, freedmen continued to leave the old places, sometimes en masse. Still more remained and worked indifferently, reserving any enthusiasm they might have for their own individual garden plots. Looking at those small gardens, which they had tended and cherished as slaves, many freedmen had heard enough to imagine them expanded into forty-acre farms. That remained the most exciting prospect of all, exceeding in importance and in emotional investment any question of wages.

Shortly after the fall of Richmond, the scene acted out on the nearby Rosewood plantation posed the problem a number of landowners would have to face soon enough. After having promised to remain and work, a freedman named Cyrus absented himself from the fields. When Emma Mordecai, the plantation mistress, questioned him about his conduct, he replied by advancing his own perception of how matters stood between them.

Seems lak we’uns do all the wuck and gits a part. Der ain’t goin’ ter be no more Master and Mistress, Miss Emma. All is equal. I done hear it from de cotehouse steps.… All de land belongs to de Yankees now, and dey gwine to divide it out ’mong de colored people. Besides, de kitchen ob de big house is my share. I help built hit.25


EVEN AS THEY TOILED in the same fields, performed the familiar tasks, and returned at dusk to the same cabins, scores of freedmen refused to resign themselves to the permanent status of a landless agricultural working-class. Like most Americans, they aspired to something better and yearned for economic independence and self-employment. Without that independence, their freedom seemed incomplete, even precarious. “Every colored man will be a slave, & feel himself a slave,” a black soldier insisted, “until he can raise him own bale of cotton & put him own mark upon it & say dis is mine!” Although often expressed vaguely, as if to talk about it openly might be unwise, the expectation many ex-slaves shared in the aftermath of the war was that “something extraordinary” would soon intervene to reshape the course of their lives. In the Jubilee they envisioned, the government provided them with forty-acre lots and thereby emancipated them from dependency on their former masters. “This was no slight error, no trifling idea,” a Freedmen’s Bureau officer reported from Mississippi in 1865, “but a fixed and earnest conviction as strong as any belief a man can ever have.”26 The feeling was sufficiently pervasive, in fact, to prompt thousands of freedmen in late 1865 to hold back on any commitment of their labor until the question of land had been firmly resolved.

The only real question among some blacks was not whether the lands belonging to the former slaveholders would be divided and distributed, but when and how. Freedmen in South Carolina heard that the large plantations along the coast were to be distributed. Equally persistent reports suggested that the lands on which the ex-slaves were working would be divided among them. Few blacks in Mississippi, a Bureau officer reported in November 1865, expressed any interest in hiring themselves out for the next year. “Nearly all of them have heard, that at Christmas, Government is going to take the planters’ lands and other property from them, and give it to the colored people, and that, in this way they are going to begin to farm on their own account.” In a Virginia community, the freedmen had reportedly deposited their savings with “responsible” persons so as to be in the most advantageous position to purchase lots of “de confiscated land, as soon as de Gov’ment ready to sell it.” And in Georgia a black laborer was so certain that he “coolly” offered to sell to his former master the share of the plantation he expected to receive “after the division.”27

Although confident of retaining their lands, planters expressed growing concern over the extent to which the freedmen’s aspirations interfered with the normalization of agricultural operations. It proved difficult to raise crops when laborers went about “stuffed with the idea of proprietorship” and the anticipation of soon becoming their own employers. “You cannot beat into their thick skulls that the land & every thing else does not belong to them,” a South Carolina planter wrote his daughter. Since many whites refused to believe their blacks capable of formulating perceptions of freedom, they blamed the land mania on “fanatical abolitionists,” incendiary preachers, and the Yankee invaders. But those who had overheard the “curious” wartime discussions in which the blacks apportioned the lands among themselves knew better, as did the victims of black expropriation. Where planters had fled, abandoning their properties, the freed slaves had in numerous instances seized control and they gave little indication after the war of yielding their authority to the returning owners. Along the Savannah River, blacks under the leadership of Abalod Shigg seized two major plantations on the assumption that they were entitled to “forty acres and a mule.” Federal troops had to be called in to dislodge them. Elsewhere, similar seizures revealed the intensity of black feelings about the land and created a volatile situation that many native whites and Federal officials feared might erupt into armed confrontations.28

As if to confirm black land aspirations, the Federal government adopted an ambitious settlement program in direct response to the thousands of unwanted and burdensome freed slaves who had attached themselves to the Union Army in the wake of General Sherman’s march to the sea. On January 12, 1865, Sherman and Secretary of War Stanton conferred with twenty black ministers and church officers in Savannah to ascertain what could be done about these people. The delegation suggested that land was the key to black freedom. “We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it, and make it our own,” the spokesmen for the group declared. Several days later, Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, a far-reaching document that set aside for the exclusive use of the freedmen a strip of coastal land abandoned by Confederate owners between Charleston, South Carolina, and Jacksonville, Florida, granting black settlers “possessory titles” to forty-acre lots. Although intended only to deal with a specific military and refugee problem, the order encouraged the growing impression among the freedmen that their Yankee liberators intended to provide them with an essential undergirding for their emancipation. That impression gained still further credence when Congress made the newly established Freedmen’s Bureau the custodian of all abandoned and confiscated land (largely the lands seized for nonpayment of the direct Federal tax or belonging to disloyal planters who had fled); ex-slaves and loyal Unionists could pre-empt forty-acre lots, rent them at nominal rates for three years, and purchase them within that period at a fair price (about sixteen times the annual rent). If the Bureau had implemented this provision, and if blacks had been able to accumulate the necessary funds, some 20,000 black families would have been provided with the means for becoming self-sustaining farmers.29

To apportion the large landed estates among those who worked them and who had already expended years of uncompensated toil made such eminent sense to the ex-slave that he could not easily dismiss this aspiration as but another “exaggerated” or “absurd” view of freedom. “My master has had me ever since I was seven years old, and never give me nothing,” observed a twenty-one-year-old laborer in Richmond. “I worked for him twelve years, and I think something is due me.” Expecting nothing from his old master, he now trusted the government to do “something for us.” The day a South Carolina rice planter anticipated trouble was when one of his field hands told him that “the land ought to belong to the man who (alone) could work it,” not to those who “sit in the house” and profit by the labor of others. Such sentiments easily translated into the most American of aspirations. “All I wants is to git to own fo’ or five acres ob land, dat I can build me a little house on and call my home,” a Mississippi black explained. With the acquisition of land, the ex-slave viewed himself entering the mainstream of American life, cultivating his own farm and raising the crops with which to sustain himself and his family. That was the way to respectability in an agricultural society, and the freedman insisted that a plot of land was all he required to lift himself up: “Gib us our own land and we take care ourselves; but widout land, de ole massas can hire us or starve us, as dey please.” And what better way to confirm their emancipation than to own the very land on which they had been working and which they had made productive and valuable by their own labor.30

The expectation of “forty acres and a mule” may have been sheer delusion, but the freedmen had sufficient reason to think otherwise. Since the outbreak of the war, many of them had overheard their masters talk in fearful tones about how the Yankees, if successful, would divide up the land among the blacks. The Freedmen’s Bureau, in fact, blamed the false expectations of land on Confederate slaveholders who had exploited the fear of confiscation during the war to arouse propertied whites to greater exertions and sacrifices. The deception was deliberately cultivated in some instances by planters who were determined to keep their ex-slaves until the postwar crops had been harvested; at least, numerous disappointed freedmen recalled how they had been assured the Federal government would grant them plots of land after the completion of the agricultural season. When the Yankees finally arrived, they reinforced the land fever by assuring the freed slaves of their right to forty acres and a mule. When a Union soldier asked him if he had ever been whipped, West Turner of Virginia recalled, he had replied, “Yessir, boss, gimme thirty and nine any ole time.” Upon hearing this, the soldier advised him to take one acre of land for each time he had been whipped and an extra acre as a bonus. “So I measure off best I could forty acres of dat corn field an’ staked it out. De Yanks give all Fayette Jackson’s land away to de Negroes an plenty mo’ other Secesh land. But when Marse Jackson come back, we had to give it all up.”31

Although they might have had good reason to doubt the word of their masters and even the white Yankee troops, some freedmen claimed to have heard the same promises repeated by their own leaders. The fleeing slaves who boarded the Union gunboats on the Combahee River heard the reassuring refrain with which the much-idolized Harriet Tubman welcomed them:

Of all the whole creation in the East or in the West,

The glorious Yankee nation is the greatest and the best.

Come along! Come along! don’t be alarmed,

Uncle Sam is rich enough to give you all a farm.

Still further encouragement came from black soldiers and black missionaries, who sought to prepare their people for the responsibilities they would soon assume and placed particular emphasis on the imminent division of the lands. “It’s de white man’s turn ter labor now,” a black preacher in Florida told an assemblage of field hands. “He ain’t got nuthin’ lef’ but his lan’, an’ de lan’ won’t be his’n long, fur de Guverment is gwine ter gie ter ev’ry Nigger forty acres of lan’ an’ a mule.”32

Within the first two years after the war, freedmen who embraced and acted upon the expectation of “forty acres and a mule” learned soon enough to face up to the possibility of disappointment. When some former Alabama slaves staked off the land they had been working and claimed it as their own, the owner quickly set matters straight: “Listen, niggers, what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours. You are just as free as I and the missus, but don’t go foolin’ around my land.” Of course, planters derived considerable comfort from the knowledge that Federal officials were prepared to confirm their property rights. Until the blacks acknowledged the futility of land expectations, the Freedmen’s Bureau recognized how difficult it would be to stabilize agricultural operations. With that sense of priorities, the Bureau instructed its agents to do everything in their power to disabuse the ex-slaves of any lingering illusions about taking over their masters’ lands. “This was the first difficulty that the Officers of the Bureau had to contend with,” a Mississippi officer wrote, “and nothing but their efforts and explanations, kept off the storm. Even now, it is but a temporary settlement.” If the blacks refused to believe their old masters, Bureau agents were quite prepared to visit the plantations in person and impart the necessary confirmation: “The government owns no lands in this State. It therefore can give away none. Freedmen can obtain farms with the money which they have earned by their labor. Every one, therefore, shall work diligently, and carefully save his wages, till he may be able to buy land and possess his own home.” The blacks he encountered held so tenaciously to their illusions, a Bureau officer in Alabama observed, that “unless they see me and hear me refute the story, they persist in the belief.” Still other officers reported that the freedmen refused to believe them, too, or thought the question of land might be negotiable. After being told of the government’s policy, a Virginia freedman offered to lower his expectations to a single acre of land—“ef you make it de acre dat Marsa’s house sets on.”33

As an alternative to confiscation, Freedmen’s Bureau officers and northern white missionaries and teachers advanced the classic midnineteenth-century self-help ideology and implored the newly freed slaves to heed its lessons. Rather than entertain notions of government bounties, they should cultivate habits of frugality, temperance, honesty, and hard work; if they did so, they might not only accumulate the savings to purchase land but would derive greater personal satisfaction from having earned it in this manner. Almost identical advice permeated the editorials of black newspapers, the speeches of black leaders, and the resolutions adopted by black meetings. “Let us go to work faithfully for whoever pays fairly, until we ourselves shall become employers and planters,” the Black Republican, a New Orleans newspaper, editorialized in its first issue. With an even finer grasp of American values, a black Charlestonian thought economic success capable of overriding the remaining vestiges of racial slavery. “This is the panacea which will heal all the maladies of a Negrophobia type. Let colored men simply do as anybody else in business does, be self-reliant, industrious, producers of the staples for market and merchandise, and he will have no more trouble on account of his complexion, than the white men have about the color of their hair or beards.”34

To provide proper models for their people, black newspapers featured examples of self-made freedmen who had managed to accumulate land and were forming the nucleus of a propertied and entrepreneurial class in the South. Actually, a number of blacks had done precisely that, some of them fortunate enough to have purchased tax lands and still others who had taken advantage of the Homestead Act or who had made enough money to purchase a plot in their old neighborhoods.35 But the number of propertied blacks remained small, and some of these found they had been defrauded by whites who had an equal appreciation of the self-help philosophy and made the most of it.36 Even the blacks who obtained legitimate title to lands soon discovered the elusive quality of economic success. The land often turned out to be of an inferior quality, the freedman usually lacked the capital and credit to develop it properly, and he might consequently find himself enmeshed in the very web of indebtedness and dependency he had sought to escape. By the acquisition of land, he hardly avoided the same problems plaguing so many white farmers.37

No matter what the freedmen were told or what precepts they were admonished to follow, the belief in some form of land redistribution demonstrated a remarkable vitality. The wartime precedents and promises were apt to speak louder in some regions than the insistent postwar denials. Thousands of ex-slaves had been placed on forty-acre tracts under Sherman’s program, the earlier experiments at Davis Bend and on the Sea Islands persisted into 1865, and the stories of individual and collective success by the black settlers who worked these lands would seem to have assured the continuation and expansion of such projects. But even if few blacks elsewhere in the South knew of them, even if still fewer were aware of the congressional debate on Thaddeus Stevens’ ambitious land confiscation program or of the immense generosity of the Federal government in awarding millions of acres to railroad corporations, the idea of “forty acres and a mule” simply made too much sense and had become too firmly entrenched in the minds of too many freedmen for it to be given up at the first words of a Bureau underling. Nor could the thousands of ex-slaves on abandoned and confiscated lands in 1865 understand that the Federal policies which made their settlement possible had not been long-term commitments but rather temporary military expedients, designed to keep them working on the plantations and away from the cities and the Union Army camps.

Resilient though they were, the hopes of the freedmen could withstand only so many shocks. When the governor of Florida told them, “The President will not give you one foot of land, nor a mule, nor a hog, nor a cow, nor even a knife or fork or spoon,” he could be dismissed as a mouthpiece of planters who stood to lose the most from a confiscation scheme. When a Bureau officer told some Georgia blacks essentially the same thing, one disbelieving freedman remarked, “Dat’s no Yank; dat just some reb dey dressed in blue clothes and brought him here to lie to us.” But the denials began to assume a substance that could no longer be ignored. On May 29, 1865, President Andrew Johnson announced his Proclamation of Amnesty, whereby most former Confederates were to be pardoned and recover any of their lands which might have been confiscated or occupied. That had to be taken seriously—as seriously as the Federal officers who now prepared to implement the order. In some communities, the news coincided with a rumor, said to have been circulated by planters, that the President had revoked the Emancipation Proclamation. To many freedmen, contemplating what would happen to the lands they had worked and expected to own, that was no rumor at all. “Amnesty for the persons, no amnesty for the property,” the New Orleans Tribune cried. “It is enough for the republic to spare the life of the rebels—without restoring to them their plantations and palaces.” Under Johnson’s magnanimous pardoning policy, any faint hope of a land division collapsed, along with the promising wartime precedents. Rather than confirm the settlers in possession of the land they had cultivated and on which they had erected their homes, the government now proposed to return the plantations to those for whom they had previously labored as slaves. Not satisfied with having their lands returned, some of the owners displayed their own brands of “insolence” and “ingratitude” by claiming damages for any alterations made by the black settlers and by suing them for “back rents” for the use of the land.38

The freedmen found themselves incredulous at this apparent betrayal of expectations and trust. At first, some of them could not believe or fully grasp the implications of the restoration. When a Bureau officer addressed the freedmen in one South Carolina community, the blacks came in their best clothes and in high spirits, obviously expecting a very different kind of announcement. “If the general don’t tell them cuffees they’re to have their share o’ our land and hosses and everything else,” a local planter warned, “you’ll see a hell of a row today.” No “row” took place but the faces of the assembled freedmen, after being told there would be no land division, said it all. The more Federal officers tried to explain and defend the decision, the less sense it made to the black audiences and the less able they were to contain their rage. “Damn such freedom as that,” a Georgia black declared after a Bureau agent had addressed them.39

Where substantial numbers of freedmen had settled on abandoned lands, as in the Sea Islands, the disappointment was bound to be felt most keenly. Appreciating that fact, General O. O. Howard, who headed the Freedmen’s Bureau and may have been second only to Lincoln in the esteem of the ex-slaves, decided to pay a personal visit to Edisto Island to inform the settlers that they must give up the lands they had been cultivating as their own. Perhaps only Howard could possibly make them believe it. As if to prepare the assemblage for the ordeal ahead, he thought it might be appropriate for them to begin the meeting with a song. Suddenly an old woman on the edge of the crowd began to sing, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” and the entire throng of more than two thousand soon joined in a resounding chorus. Whether it was the song, the look of dismay on their faces, or the shouts of “No! No!” that greeted his announcement, Howard found himself so flustered that he could barely finish his speech. But he had nevertheless articulated the government’s position. They should lay aside any bitter feelings they harbored for their former masters and contract to work for them. By working for wages or shares, he assured them, they would be achieving the same ends as possession of the soil would have given them. If the freedmen found Howard’s advice incomprehensible, that was only because they understood him all too clearly.40

The hope Bureau officials held out for the freedmen was largely a cruel delusion. The same men who had been disabusing the minds of the exslaves of their land expectations now urged them to bind themselves to the white man’s land. That was another way of saying they should give up the struggle altogether. Not all of them were willing to do so, at least not at the outset. What the freedmen on Edisto Island found most offensive in Howard’s speech, apart from having to give up their claims to the land, was the suggestion that they should now work for their former masters. In the petition they addressed to the President, the Edisto blacks argued that no man who had only recently faced his master on the field of battle should now be expected to submit to him for the necessities of life. He was more than willing to forgive his old master, another freedman remarked, but to have to submit to his rule again demanded too much. “He had lived all his life with a basket over his head, and now that it had been taken off and air and sunlight had come to him, he could not consent to have the basket over him again.” Rather than face that eventuality, the blacks on several islands near Edisto rowed themselves to Savannah, leaving behind their household goods and the crops they had made.41 But some of the freedmen had worked too long and too hard on these lands to give them up so easily, and they resolved to remain and fight.

To inform the blacks that their land aspirations were all a delusion was difficult enough. But to remove them from the lands they had come to regard as their own often required more than verbal skills. In Norfolk County, Virginia, the freedmen who had settled on Taylor’s farm refused to leave, ignoring the court orders and ousting the sheriffs and Federal officers who tried to enforce them. After assembling together, the blacks refused offers of compromise, questioned the President’s right to pardon the original owner, and resolved to defend their property. At this meeting, Richard Parker (“better known as ‘Uncle Dick,’ ” said the Norfolk newspaper) explained to his fellow freedmen that the white man had secured this land only by forcibly expelling the Indians and he suggested that they now exercise the same prerogative.

We don’t care for the President nor the Freedmen’s Bureau. We have suffered long enough; let the white man suffer now. The time was when the white man could say, “Come here, John, and black my boots,” and the poor black man had to go; but, my friends, the times have changed, and I hope I will live to see the day when I can say to the white man, “Come here, John, and black my boots,” and he must come. I will never be satisfied until the white man is forced to serve the black man, as the black was formerly compelled to serve the white. Now, my friends, we must drive them away.

After a pitched battle with county agents, the black settlers were finally driven off the land.42

Along the South Carolina coast, blacks barricaded themselves on the plantations, destroyed the bridges leading to them, and shot at owners seeking to repossess them. On several of the Sea Islands, they organized along military lines to hold their lands and treated any claimants as trespassers. “They use threatening language, when the former residents of the Islands are spoken of in any manner,” a Bureau officer reported, “and say openly, that none of them, will be permitted to live upon the Islands. They are not willing to be reasoned with on this subject.” On Johns Island, the blacks in early 1866 persisted in refusing to contract, insisted they would work only for themselves, and refused to surrender ownership of the land—in theory or in fact. When “a party of Northern Gentlemen” proposed to look over real estate prospects on the island, they were made “prisoners” the moment they landed, disarmed, and advised never to return. With similar vigilance, the blacks on James Island repelled the first landing party of planters who had come to recover their lands. The battle over restoration of the lands soon resembled a series of mopping-up operations, with the Freedmen’s Bureau and Federal troops always ready to guarantee the safety and property of the returning owners, and the blacks able to hold out only for so long against the dictates of the law and the force of an army.43

If blacks could not acquire land by government action, neither would they find it easy to obtain it by any other means, even if they adopted the self-help precepts and accumulated the necessary funds. Appreciating the threat black proprietorship posed to a dependent, stable, and contented work force, and the feelings of “impudence and independence” it might generate, many planters refused to sell or to rent any land to blacks. Such a policy was in accordance with “the general good,” a South Carolina rice planter insisted, for once lands were leased to freedmen, “it will be hard ever to recover the privileges that have been yielded.” When whites tried to restrict landownership in the Black Codes or in combinations among themselves, the Federal government revoked their actions. But community pressures often achieved the same results. “I understand Dr. Harris and Mr. Varnedoe will rent their lands to the Negroes!” a much-scandalized Mary Jones wrote her daughter. “The conduct of some of the citizens has been very injurious to the best interest of the community.” If whites persisted in such behavior, they faced social ostracism or violence to their property. Any white man found selling land in his parish, a Louisiana plantation manager observed, would “soon be dangling from some trees.” Of course, restrictions on the sale and rental of land to blacks could not always be applied with the rigidity some whites desired, particularly when landowners found that leasing might be the only way to keep their land in productive use.44

Within a year of the war’s end, the planter class had virtually completed the recovery of its property. But repossession would be of limited value without a productive and regulated black laboring force to work the lands. Few stated the problem more candidly than Allen S. Izard, a Georgia planter. Now that the “game of confiscation” had been settled, his fellow planters needed most urgently to consolidate their triumph.

Our place is to work; take hold & persevere; get labour of some kind; get possession of the places; stick to it; oust the negroes; and their ideas of proprietorship; secure armed protection close at hand on our exposed River, present a united and determined front; and make as much rice as we can.… Our plantations will have to be assimilated to the industrial establishment of other parts of the world, where the owner is protected by labour tallies, time tables, checks of all kinds, & constant watchfulness. Every operator will steal time and anything else.45

The terms he chose to describe the challenge facing planters in the postwar South suggested the need to adopt modern industrial techniques to ensure their continued mastery over a class of workers who had only recently broken the chains of bondage. That the ideal binding force should have been introduced by Northerners would seem, therefore, to have been less ironic than logical. Like the planters, Federal authorities appreciated full well the need to guarantee and compel black labor. When the officers of the Freedmen’s Bureau enlightened the ex-slaves in the fall of 1865 on the futility of their land expectations, they supplied at the same time the forms that the new dependency would assume.


WHEN THE POSTWAR southern legislatures adopted measures to compel blacks to contract with an employer or face arrest as vagrants, they had merely written into law what the Union Army and the Freedmen’s Bureau had already demanded of the freed slaves. Despite the virtual abrogation of the Black Codes, the contract system remained very much intact. In South Carolina, for example, the Union commander voided the Codes but simultaneously ordered freedmen to contract in the next ten days or leave the plantations on which they lived. The Codes had contained clauses which offended northern standards of justice and fairness. The contract, on the other hand, was a much-venerated instrument of law which enjoyed high standing both in the North and in the South. Embodying as it did a voluntary agreement between two parties, in which the terms and conditions were spelled out, the contract suggested what the Codes had not—impartiality, equality before the law, and the traditional American virtues of give-and-take and compromise.

Federal authorities introduced the contract into wartime labor relations in the South as a way of protecting the newly freed slaves, easing the transition from slave to free labor, and compelling former owners to recognize emancipation and compensate their workers. Drawn up initially by Union Army officers and Freedmen’s Bureau agents, the contract also came to be accepted as the most expedient way to get the blacks back to the fields, to regulate the quality of their labor, and to ensure a stable working force for the highly seasonal agriculture of the South. With often the noblest of intentions, then, the Freedmen’s Bureau, from the moment of its inception, urged the ex-slaves to sign contracts, assured them they would be treated fairly, and warned them of the consequences of noncompliance. “Your contracts were explained to you, and their sacredness impressed upon you, again and again,” the Bureau commissioner for Mississippi told the freedmen. “If you do not have some occupation you will be treated as vagrants, and made to labor on public works.”46

The planters were in such perfect agreement about what they expected of their freed black laborers that they often used the same language in the contracts. By affixing his signature to the agreement, the freedman invariably promised to render “perfect obedience,” to be “prompt and faithful” in the performance of his duties, and to maintain a proper demeanor. On the Heyward plantations in South Carolina, the laborers not only recognized the “lawful authority” of the employer and his agents but agreed to conduct themselves “in such manner as to gain the good will of those to whom we must always look for protection.”47 Few employers went so far as the South Carolina planter who bound his blacks to be “strictly as my slaves” in obeying his instructions. Nor did many think it necessary to adopt the proviso which another planter insisted upon—that the freedmen always address him as “master.” But few would have dissented from the spirit that had inspired such stipulations. It made little difference to H. A. Moore, a South Carolina planter, if his freedmen addressed him and his wife as “Mr. & Mrs. Moore” or simply as “Massa Maurice & Miss Bettie,” but they were always to “speak politely to us.”48

Lest the freedman be in any way tempted to compromise his “perfect obedience,” most contracts barred him from possessing “deadly weapons” or “ardent spirits,” and the employer reserved the right to enter the freedman’s cabin at any time. During working hours, moreover, the laborer agreed to have no visitors and to obtain his employer’s permission before leaving the plantation for any reason (numerous contracts required such permission at all times). In some regions, the freedmen agreed to submit to punishment for contract violations—“our employer being the judge whether we are to be punished or turned off.” But most contracts could not provide corporal punishment for violations, if only because a Bureau official might disallow the entire agreement; however, employers did specify fines for any absenteeism, negligence in work, or breakdowns in expected demeanor. For the more serious offenses, like insubordination or desertion, the laborer could be dismissed, thereby forfeiting all or a portion of his wages and crop shares for the year.49 In some rare instances, as on one South Carolina plantation, the employer agreed to submit cases of misconduct and conflicts between himself and the freedmen to a jury of his own laborers, whose judgments would be binding on both parties. The “model” contract drawn up by Martin Delany in South Carolina stipulated that the panel adjudging such disputes include the employer, a freedman, and a third party acceptable to both of them. But if the offense warranted dismissal or a forfeiture of pay, an officer of the Freedmen’s Bureau would preside and make the final decision.50

Under the old task system, which some contracts maintained, a laborer had been expected to complete a prescribed amount of work each day, with the rest of the time his own. To determine how much work a free laborer, as distinct from a slave, should perform each day raised some obvious difficulties, but some enterprising planters and overseers resolved the dilemma by borrowing from past experience. “There’s a heap in humbuggin’ a nigger,” a Mississippi overseer advised. “I worked a gang this summer, and got as much work out of ’em as I ever did. I just had my leading nigger, and I says to him, I says, ‘Sam, I want this yer crop out by such a time; now you go a-head, talk to the niggers, and lead ’em off right smart, and I’ll give you twenty-five dollars.’ Then I got up a race, and give a few dollars to the men that picked the most cotton, till I found out the extent of what each man could pick; then I required that of him every day, or I docked his wages.” Precisely because the task and gang systems remained vivid reminders of slavery, both came into growing disrepute after the war; most contracts stipulated a six-day workweek and a ten- to twelve-hour workday—usually from sunrise to sunset, with an hour or more for dinner. The question of time off on Saturday would take on increasing importance in the annual negotiations over a new contract.51

Reacting against the close personal supervision that had characterized slavery, the freedmen had already expressed strong reservations about the presence of an overseer on the plantation. During the war, newly freed slaves had vented much of their anger on their overseer, and in some instances they had either driven him off or refused to work until he had been removed. After the war, antipathy to the overseer in no way diminished, despite the efforts of some planters to make the position more palatable and more consistent with emancipation by redesignating the overseer as a superintendent. “With the negroes a name is imposing,” one observer wrote. “Many would engage cheerfully to work under a ‘superintendent,’ who would not have entered the field under an ‘overseer.’ ” But the distinction escaped many ex-slaves, and this same observer conceded that “it is easier to change an odious name than an odious character.” As a Mississippi planter confided to him, “I should get along very well with my niggers, if I could only get my superintendent to treat them decently. Instead of cheering and encouraging them, he bullies and scolds them, and sometimes so forgets himself as to kick and beat them. Now they are free they won’t stand it. They stood it when they were slaves, because they had to.” On a plantation in Coahoma County, Mississippi, a Freedmen’s Bureau agent endeavored to ascertain why the laborers objected to the employment of a former overseer to supervise the work. “I made inquiries regarding the treatment of the hands, by Mr. Hogan, and found no complaint whatever; the only objection was that he was an old overseer. The Freedmen have an idea that overseers are no longer allowed.” He lectured the freedmen on their obligation to obey “whoever their employer chose to employ as their superintendent.”52

Where an overseer no longer supervised the field hands, black dissatisfaction would now most likely fall directly on the employer himself or on the black driver. Like the overseer and the task and gang systems, the driver symbolized for many blacks the excesses and close supervision of slavery; nevertheless, he enjoyed considerably more staying power than the overseer, and the freedmen tended to view his presence with fewer misgivings. The typical contract obligated laborers to obey a driver selected from their ranks, but “out of compliment to the changed times” he would now be known as a foreman or captain. That satisfied some freedmen, but only if a change in personnel accompanied the new appellation. In the Sea Islands, a group of laborers told a Union officer that “the drivers ought now to work as field hands, and some field hands be drivers in their place.” Already convinced that the old ways of managing blacks would no longer suffice, Edward B. Heyward, the South Carolina rice planter, acknowledged the importance of naming as his foreman an individual who had never before held that position. “Had he turned loose old ‘Wasp’ [the former driver] on the plantation,” Heyward’s son recalled, “I am quite sure he would have had few Negroes in his fields. But how Wasp would have enjoyed it!” On many plantations, however, the old driver still commanded the respect and loyalty of the blacks, and employers relied heavily on his leadership to continue agricultural operations with the least amount of disruption; in some places, as on the Manigault rice plantations, the landowner made a contract with a black foreman or manager, in which he entrusted the entire agricultural operation to him, including the hiring and disciplining of the hands. At the end of the year, the owner retained one half of the net profits, while the blacks divided the rest among themselves. “Little or no intercourse is thus held between Gen’l Harrison [the employer] and the Mass of the Negroes,” Manigault wrote of that unique arrangement on his old place, “and provided the Work is performed it is immaterial what Hands are employed.”53

If the constraints imposed by contracts upon the movements and behavior of black laborers assumed a near uniformity, the amount and the method of compensation tended to vary considerably, even within the same region. “I furnish everything but clothes, and give my freedmen one third of the crop they make,” an Arkansas planter declared, but “on twenty plantations around me, there are ten different styles of contracts.” The compensation offered a freedman reflected the scarcity of labor in the district, the planter’s ability to pay, agricultural prospects, how successfully the laborers pressed their demands, and how effectively planters were able to decide among themselves on maximum rates. Despite variations within regions, the wage rates and crop shares tended to be higher in the lower than in the upper South: a first-class male field hand could generally expect to make no more than $5–$10 a month in Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee; $8–$12 in South Carolina and Georgia; $10–$18 in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana; and $15–$25 in Arkansas and Texas. On the same plantation, however, wage scales fluctuated according to how the employer classified his laborers; on a Mississippi plantation, for example, the employer paid first-class male laborers $15 a month, first-class women $10, and drivers $40, while the average hand netted about $10.54

The value of these wages obviously depended upon the degree to which the employer maintained his laborers—that is, whether he furnished the lodgings, food, clothing, and medical care or deducted those items from wages. On a plantation in Louisiana, for example, field hands earned $25 a month but they had to purchase their food, clothing, and other provisions, and each hand paid a tax to ensure regular visits by a doctor; most of the wage, they testified, went for food, they could ill afford a contemplated tax for schools, and it was “pretty tight living.” The method and time of payment reflected an employer’s dim view of black character. The alleged propensity of blacks to spend their wages quickly and foolishly induced employers to insert clauses in contracts whereby they would provide certain necessities “at the current prices” and deduct the expense from the freedmen’s pay. And to ensure compliance with the contract, they preferred to pay the laborer half of his earnings on a quarterly or monthly basis, withholding the rest until the end of the year; in many cases, they withheld all payments until the crop had been completed, although advancing money or provisions against the final settlement. If a laborer worked for a portion of the crop rather than wages, his share usually ranged from one fifth (with board) to one half (less the deductions made for provisions). Since the agreed-upon share would be divided among all the laborers on the plantation, individuals received amounts commensurate with the work they performed and their position and sex.55

With the advent of paid labor, planters and freedmen failed to agree even among themselves on the respective merits of compensation in cash wages or in shares of the crop. To the planters, many of them desperately short of cash after the war, payment in shares reflected at first nothing more than economic necessity. But some came to prefer this method of payment, thinking it might ensure a more stable work force and stimulate the freedmen by giving them “an interest and pride in the crop.” The planters who remained skeptical feared that payment in shares would encourage the hands to think they had an interest in the land as well as the crop, make them even more presumptuous and independent, and increase the difficulty of discharging inefficient workers. Both methods of payment remained popular, with some planters trying both at various times and assessing the results. That neither system exacted the desired amount of labor they attributed largely to the freedman’s slovenly work habits and racial traits rather than to his inevitable disappointment on payday. Based upon the freedman’s experience with wages or shares, the issue took on growing importance in the negotiations that preceded a new contract.56

Although running the risk of having a Federal official disallow the contract, some planters tried to capitalize on the freedman’s illiteracy and the Freedmen’s Bureau’s indifference. On one plantation, the contract awarded to the laborers one third of seven twelfths of the crop; in another instance, four freedmen contracted to work for one fifth of one third of the crop and failed to realize their error until the final settlement. “Contracts which were brought to me for approval contained all sorts of ludicrous provisions,” a Freedmen’s Bureau agent in South Carolina recalled. “The idea seemed to be that if the laborer were not bound body and soul he would be of no use.” The rumors that circulated among freedmen that a contract would bind them for life or a seven-year apprenticeship were based in part on the efforts of certain employers to do precisely that. “Master,” an Alabama freedman declared as he packed his belongings to leave the plantation, “they say if we make contracts now, we’ll be branded, and made slaves again.” Some Bureau officials spent nearly as much time reassuring freedmen on this point as they did explaining the terms of contracts.

Some of you have the absurd notion that if you put your hands to a contract you will somehow be made slaves. This is all nonsense, made up by some foolish or wicked person. There is no danger of this kind to fear; nor will you be branded when you get on a plantation. Any white man treating you so would be punished.57

In numerous instances, however, freedmen affixed their names to contracts which only perpetuated the terms by which they had served as slaves. “Heap of ’em, round here, just works for their victuals and clothes, like they always did,” a South Carolina planter observed. “I reckon they’ll all be back whar they was, in a few years.”58

Although designed to protect the interests of planters and freedmen alike, the contract in practice gave employers what they had wanted all along—the crucial element of control by which they could bind the ex-slaves for at least a year and compel them to work and maintain proper behavior. Nor did the presence of a Freedmen’s Bureau officer necessarily make the contracts any less oppressive; after all, one agent conceded, the objective of the contract was to prevent black laborers from deserting their employers “at a critical time” in the making of the crop. Whatever the initial intent, the contract system embodied that universally accepted dictum that only compulsion and discipline could induce free blacks to work. Unlike the northern worker who entered into a verbal contract with an employer, the black laborer in the postwar South was bound by a legal instrument which not only stipulated objective terms of service (compensation, hours, and duties) but imposed conditions of demeanor and attitude on the laborer and not on the employer. That feature in itself made the question of compliance or noncompliance necessarily arbitrary and revealed the contract as something less than a bilateral agreement between equals. In so many ways, in fact, the new arrangements simply institutionalized the old discipline under the guise of easing the ex-slave’s transition to freedom. After comparing the regulations under slavery with those which now controlled free labor, the New Orleans Tribune found but few differences: “All the important prohibitions imposed upon the slave, are also enforced against the freedman.… It is true that the law calls him a freeman; but any white man, subjected to such restrictive and humiliating prohibitions, will certainly call himself a slave.”59

By hedging the freedman’s newly acquired rights, by narrowing his room for maneuverability, by robbing him of his principal bargaining strengths, by seeking to control both his social behavior and his labor, the contract between a former master and his former slaves reminded one observer of a “patent rat-trap.” No one, he noted, could have devised a surer instrument to compel black labor. “Rats couldn’t possibly get out of it. The only difficulty was that they declined to go in.”60


ONCE THE CONTRACT had been prepared, the employer assembled the laborers on his place (most of them his former slaves), explained the terms, and urged them to sign. The response was likely to be mixed, with some freedmen walking back to their quarters only to pack their belongings and take to the road, unwilling to commit their labor and lives to an agreement they could not even read. The very formality, obscure legalisms, and binding nature of the contract provoked skepticism and dismay, even in exslaves who fully intended to remain with their former master. In Burke County, Georgia, Willis Bennefield would have nothing to do with a contract. “What you want me to sign for? I is free,” he told the man who had owned him as a slave. Nor did the master’s explanation that the contract held both of them to their word satisfy him. “If I is already free, I don’t need to sign no paper,” he insisted. “If I was workin’ for you and doin’ for you befo’ I got free, I kin do it still, if you wants me to stay wid you.” If he refused to sign a contract, his mother warned him, he might forfeit his pay. “Den I kin go somewheh else,” the ex-slave replied.61

Rather than objecting to a specific clause, large numbers of freedmen feared that the contract, as a binding legal agreement, compromised their newly won liberties, and perhaps even forfeited their rights to the expected distribution of land among them. In his section of Virginia, a Union officer reported, the blacks refrained from contracting for any length of time “in the expectation of some indefinable but great benefits to be bestowed on them by the Government.” Nor would they place any great faith in the employer’s assurance that the contract protected their best interests. The freedmen lacked confidence “in the white man’s integrity,” a Bureau commissioner in Mississippi concluded, and the suspicion, other agents reported, often extended to “papers of any description, in which their former masters are in any way concerned.” On Edisto Island, South Carolina, several freedmen declared at a meeting with Federal officials that they bore no personal enmity toward their old masters but they had no desire to contract with men who had once owned and abused them, or even with those who might have treated them reasonably well but in whom they had no confidence.62

With numbers of ex-slaves refusing to sign contracts, many of them hoping to obtain better terms, the planter class counted heavily on the ultimate weapons of necessity and compulsion. To hasten that moment of decision, Federal authorities complied all too readily with the demands of planters that they apprehend black vagrants and cease issuing food rations to freedmen, thereby forcing them to depend once again upon their old masters for daily subsistence. Ironically, that policy accorded with the growing conviction of the Freedmen’s Bureau and northern freedmen’s aid societies that to distribute food and clothing among the ex-slaves made them less independent, reduced their incentives to work, and demoralized them. “The most dangerous process through which the negro goes when he becomes a freedman is that of receiving the gratuities of benevolence in the shape of food and clothing,” a missionary wrote late in 1865. “If you wish to make them impudent, fault-finding and lazy, give them clothing and food freely.” Once the freedmen had to depend upon his bounty, the planter reasoned, he had only to withhold such support to induce his laborers to agree to terms. That proved to be a sound conclusion, though the results were not always gratifying. When Stephen Doan, a South Carolina proprietor, decided to withhold food rations to force his men to abide by a contract, they killed him.63

To counter the freedman’s principal bargaining strength—the threat to take his labor to the highest bidder—planters often effected combinations or understandings among themselves not to contract with any former slave who failed to produce a “consent paper” or a proper discharge from his previous owner. The white citizens of Nelson County, Virginia, acting “to prevent improper interference with each other’s arrangements,” resolved that “in no case” would they hire a laborer who failed to supply “a certificate of character, and of permission to rehire himself.” More often, as in the Clarendon district of South Carolina, local planters simply reached a verbal understanding “not to hire their neighbour’s negroes.”64 Such an agreement, in one bold stroke, would effectively reduce the freedman’s chances of either improving or changing his position, while it obviously enhanced a planter’s ability to exact for himself the most favorable terms. “The nigger is going to be made a serf, sure as you live,” vowed the owner of a cotton factory and two plantations in Alabama.

It won’t need any law for that. Planters will have an understanding among themselves: “You won’t hire my niggers, and I won’t hire yours”; then what’s left for them? They’re attached to the soil, and we’re as much their masters as ever. I’ll stake my life, this is the way it will work.65

Appreciating the need to coordinate their efforts, planters in numerous regions also met to fix maximum wages, to draw up model contracts, to agree on penalties for violations of contracts, and to pledge themselves not to lease or rent any land to a freedman. Although the Freedmen’s Bureau frowned upon such combinations and in some instances banned them, local agents might choose to look the other way; after all, the ends they wished to achieve were almost identical. In Clarke County, Alabama, a Labor Regulating Association formed by local planters appeared to be on good terms with the Bureau agent and hoped to obtain his approval for apprenticing the orphan children of ex-slaves. But even where the Bureau broke up such combinations, planters kept themselves informed of what their neighbors were paying and paid no more. Still other pressures were brought to bear on recalcitrant blacks. In a South Carolina community, physicians agreed not to treat freedmen unless the planters authorized their visits. “They adopt this course,” a local resident explained, “to bring to the notice of the negroes, their dependent condition & to check the feeling of irresponsibility now prevalent.” And if other measures proved unavailing, some employers, particularly in areas remote from a Freedmen’s Bureau office, had no hesitation in employing violent methods to force their laborers to agree to terms. In Surrey County, Virginia, a black farmer testified, “they are taking the colored people and tying them up by the thumbs if they do not agree to work for six dollars a month; they tie them up until they agree to work for that price, and then they make them put their mark to a contract.… A man cannot endure it long.” In some regions, patrols of white men meted out summary justice to blacks who were not under contract to an employer or who were found to be in violation of a contract.66

Although the vast majority of freedmen eventually agreed to terms, that hardly ended the difficulties. During the first postwar agricultural season, with both sides testing the effects of emancipation, the reports mounted of freedmen unable to appreciate the binding character of a contract and leaving the plantations “on the most trifling pretext” before their terms of service had expired. (One planter still referred to such workers as “runaways.”) “They are constantly striking for higher wages,” a Georgian observed of the black laborers in his state.

The great difficulty is that they will not stick to a contract; they are fickle; they are constantly expecting to do better; they will make a contract with me to-day for twelve or fifteen dollars a month, and in a few days somebody will come along and offer a dollar or two more, and they will quit me—never saying anything to me, but leave in the night and be gone.

The most persistent complaints revolved around those laborers who remained on the plantations, worked “only when they please, and as little as they please,” feigned sickness to avoid labor, and had a habit of carrying pistols with them to the fields (allegedly to shoot stray rabbits or squirrels). Unaccustomed to black labor, a northern lessee and former abolitionist who operated a plantation in Georgia found himself annoyed by the sight of laborers dropping their shovels and hoes in the fields to sing “a religious song.” Still other employers fretted over the propensity of their workers to do as little as possible in the expectation of “a better time coming”—the anticipated division of the land among the freedmen.67 “Every contract made in 1865 has been broken by the freedmen,” a Freedmen’s Bureau agent reported from the Georgetown district of South Carolina, and one local proprietor, Jane Pringle, derived little satisfaction from the willingness of Federal authorities to arrest and jail black violators: “Of what earthly benefit is it to us that men who should be laboring are thrown into prison, they can’t till the land there and I assure you that a prison life is rather a pleasure to a negro than a punishment, since they are fed without working.” As an alternative to the “tedious law process,” she proposed the establishment of military posts “at small distances for instant relief” and “double labor on the land” as proper punishment.68

No matter how explicitly a contract defined the freedmen’s rights, duties, and compensation, many laborers persisted in following their own notions about how and when they wished to work. Although most freedmen contracted to work a six-day week, many of them refused to labor for the employer on Saturdays, preferring to confine their efforts to their own garden plots and to household chores. More commonly, disputes arose over whether freedmen were obliged to perform tasks not actually stipulated in the contract. On a Georgia farm, for example, the refusal of a freedman to work on Sunday precipitated a confrontation with his employer that required the intervention of the Freedmen’s Bureau. By the terms of the contract, he had agreed to perform “any and every duty that may, at any time, be required,” including “the customary labors on the Sabbath” such as caring for the livestock. Claiming that he had “his own business” to look after, the freedman rejected Sunday work; when the farmer then insisted on reading the contract to him, the laborer refused to listen, left the place, and took his case to the local Bureau agent, who immediately advised him to return to work. But when his employer insisted that he now acknowledge the error and the commitment to work on Sunday, the freedman said he “would promise nothing and agree to nothing.” To have to listen to such “insolence” from a former slave proved to be more than many planters could tolerate. When a freedman in low-country South Carolina insisted that the contract did not oblige him to perform certain kinds of work, his employer beat him over the head and shoulders with a club; on another plantation, an employer shot a freedman who insisted upon consulting the local Bureau agent about the interpretation of a certain clause in the contract. The tenuous peace that existed in the aftermath of emancipation could be easily broken over such matters, but with alarming regularity the violence would not remain one-sided.69

Whatever the constraints of a contract, the eagerness and determination of black people to reunite their families and to regularize family relations took precedence. For the planters, on the other hand, the need to retain their labor force intact could not be compromised. On a plantation in upper Georgia, William Henry Stiles thus rejected the plea of a former slave (who had fled during the war) that he be permitted to take his wife with him to Savannah; the planter countered that he needed her labor and he intended to hold her to the contract that bound her to his place until the end of the year. Nor would a Louisiana planter assent to the request of an elderly black woman who wished to be paid so she could move to another place and be closer to her husband. “Don’t you know that you contracted with me for a year?” he asked her. “Don’t know nuffin about it. I wants to go ’way,” she replied. But the planter remained unyielding, and the law clearly backed him. “Well, I’m keeping my part of the contract, and you’ve got to keep yours,” he warned the woman. “If you don’t, I’ll send you to jail, that’s all.”70

Although claiming that the ignorant and backward Negro could not be made to respect the sanctity of a written agreement, employers were not necessarily the innocent victims of black deceit. If the contract stipulated food rations, for example, it guaranteed neither the quality nor the quantity of the food. That was “de fust dif’culty,” a South Carolina freedman contended when asked about contract violations, “we gits no meat.” Investigating a disturbance on a plantation in the Beaufort district, the Freedmen’s Bureau agent reported that the laborers thought their employer to be dishonest, and they complained of overwork and being fed “musty” corn and “rotten” bacon. Although the Freedmen’s Bureau threatened to disallow contracts which empowered employers to use corporal punishment, that did not protect the freedmen from other forms of abuse. After being berated for negligence, a Mississippi freedman replied that he was a free man, he refused to be insulted as though he were still a slave, and he left. His decision could not have been made lightly. Not only did he face arrest and prosecution for violating the contract but he lost his remaining pay.71

The thought occurred to more than one planter that a way to avoid paying his laborers was to provoke them to break the contract near the end of the season. Asked to explain “the real cause” of labor turbulence in his area, a black worker who lived near Florence, South Carolina, singled out that particular grievance.

Well, sah, there’s a many masters as wants to git de colored peoples away, ye see; an’ dey’s got de contrac’s, an’ dey can’t do it, ye see, lawful; so dey ’buses dem, an’ jerks ’em up by de two fums, an’ don’t give ’em de bacon, an’ calls on ’em to do work in de night time an’ Sun’ay, till de colored people dey gits oneasy an’ goes off.

On a Mississippi plantation, the manager expelled some blacks who had expressed dissatisfaction over working conditions, refusing to pay them for the three months they had already labored. (The Bureau agent ordered their reinstatement.) And in South Carolina, Martin Delany heard numerous complaints that near the completion of the crop, the employer brought “some frivolous” charge against freedmen and discharged them, thereby making them forfeit their share of the forthcoming division of the crop. The practice reached such proportions, in fact, that the Freedmen’s Bureau found it necessary to require that employers show “sufficient cause” before discharging contracted laborers and pay them what they had earned. When one Bureau agent tried to explain this policy to local planters, he reported that they found it “quite incomprehensible from the old-fashioned, patriarchal point of view.”72

Although the Freedmen’s Bureau insisted that both planters and laborers comply with contract terms, local agents thought their primary mission was to keep the blacks at work and punish them for violations. “Doing justice,” an observer sympathetic to the blacks reported, “seems to mean … seeing that the blacks don’t break contract and compelling them to submit cheerfully if the whites do.” Nothing seemed to disturb Bureau agents more about the postwar black “migration” than the tendency of freedmen to leave employers with whom they had agreed to complete the current crop. Consistent with their vigorous suppression of black vagrancy and their regular pronouncements on the necessity of labor, Bureau officials impressed upon blacks the sanctity of contracts and moved quickly to apprehend non-signers and violators as vagrants. While employers might be reprimanded or even fined for violating a contract, the freedman usually found himself in far deeper trouble, perhaps incarcerated for a period of time or forced to work on the public roads without pay. After a “contrary” freedman in a Florida community spent a week in jail on a diet of bread and water, he was said by the local Bureau agent to have been “very willing” to return to the fields. If evidence reached the nearest office of the Freedmen’s Bureau that laborers had left a plantation, refused to contract or work, or were creating a disturbance, that was all the agent needed to know to justify his intervention, with troops if he deemed them necessary. Upon hearing that some freedmen near Meridian, Mississippi, had left their jobs for “frivolous and insufficient causes,” the Bureau agent requested the names of the “guilty” parties and ordered their arrest. In many instances, Bureau officials acted in good conscience to exact a fair settlement of the grievances which had required their intervention but seldom would they tolerate any violation of a contract, no matter how relatively trivial the nature of the offense or how unreasonable the contract.73

The Freedmen’s Bureau defended its policies in the name of stabilizing labor relations. But the overly zealous commitment of its agents to the inviolability of contracts and the double standard they often applied in enforcement and in the punishment of offenders proved of immeasurable benefit to the employers. After reviewing the work of the Bureau, a conservative Memphis newspaper could not help but applaud its accomplishments: “The chaotic condition of the labor system is being reduced to order. It gives the employer the means of compelling the fulfillment of engagements on the part of the employee.” Such intervention was particularly welcomed in the initial experiments with contract labor, when violations and plantation disturbances loomed as a critical test of the entire labor system. The need to make examples of “turbulent negroes,” lest they influence others to “go astray,” seemed all the more urgent. When two of his contracted freedmen fled “without any provocation,” Lorenzo James, an Alabama planter, wished to have them arrested, punished severely, and sent back “as an example to those remaining.” He knew precisely in what terms to frame his appeal to the Freedmen’s Bureau for assistance:

There is every reason to believe that these two negroes were induced to leave by the other negroes, to test this question and see if any punishment could be inflicted upon them for a violation of their contract. If they go unpunished, it will have a very bad effect upon, not only my plantation, but upon the surrounding country; and if they are allowed to violate a contract made in good faith whenever they see fit to do so, the agricultural interest throughout the country must necessarily suffer to a very great extent.

His friendship with the Bureau’s regional commissioner no doubt helped to ensure prompt compliance with his request.74

The sanctity of contracts proved of little avail to the freedmen on the day they settled their accounts with the employer. With the approach of Christmas each year and the division of the crop and the final wage payment, the dire predictions of “a heap o’ trouble” proved all too prophetic. “They’ll be awfully defrauded,” a Virginia poor white thought, perhaps reflecting his own experiences with the planter class. “I know houses yer whar they keep a nigger till his month’s most out, and then they make a muss with him, and kick him out without any wages. Poor men like me has got to pay for it. Of course, if they don’t pay, the niggers can’t keep themselves, and it’ll come on us. They’ll be cheated all kinds o’ ways. Don’t I know it?”75


IF HIS NEWLY FREED SLAVES remained with him until the end of the season, a Tennessee planter promised, they would be awarded a share of the crop. “Most of them left,” Lorenzo Ivy recalled; “they said they knew him too well.” But this sixteen-year-old black youth and his father stayed on and worked “just as if Lee hadn’t surrendered.” By Christmas 1865, they had raised a large crop of corn, wheat, and tobacco, they had shucked the corn and stored it in the barn, and they had stripped all the tobacco. “I never worked harder in my life, for I thought the more we made, the more we would get.” But when the two freedmen stood before their former master to obtain the promised shares, he refused to pay them anything, declared he could no longer support them, and ordered them off his land. Thinking few grievances could be more legitimate or clear-cut, they appealed to the local officer of the Freedmen’s Bureau. He refused to help them. “The officer,” Lorenzo Ivy recalled, “was like Isaac said to Esau: ‘The voice is like Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.’ So that was the way with the officer—he had on Uncle Sam’s clothes, but he had Uncle Jeff’s heart.”76

Large numbers of freedmen shared the experience of Lorenzo Ivy and his father. With the completion of the crops, some planters defaulted on promised payments or pleaded inability to pay, and still more reduced the payments drastically through arbitrary and inflated deductions. The initial victims were ex-slaves like the Ivys who had agreed to stay on after emancipation in return for a share of the crop. But now they were left with nothing, and even driven from the plantation. When the Freedmen’s Bureau launched its operations, local agents found their offices besieged by blacks testifying to the extent and persistence of this grievance. “The old story has been repeated thousands of times,” one officer reported, “no definite bargain made—no wages promised; but ‘massa said, stay till the crop is made and he would do what was right.’ ” That proved to be the downfall of many a freedman. Popular in verbal understandings though seldom written into contracts, the employer’s promise to pay his laborers “what was right” left him free to pay them nothing or very little; indeed, he might even persuade himself that to pay his workers any more could only demoralize them and encourage indulgences not befitting inferiors. The Mississippi planter who deprived his ex-slaves of the crop shares he had promised still thought of himself as an honest man; he simply presumed, a neighbor said of him, that northern capitalists always treated free laborers in this way.77

If the planter pleaded financial poverty and indebtedness, he might place the blame on falling cotton prices, a bad crop, or the slovenly work habits of his laborers. Not uncommonly, an employer would charge that the work of his blacks had not even paid for the food he gave them. The problem with confessing an inability to pay, even when justified, was that few of his laborers chose to believe him. And if they did believe him, why should they work for him another year on the vague assurance that conditions would improve? That made no sense at all. The “impoverished” planter might discover soon enough that he had become an undesirable risk among all the freedmen in the vicinity, even more so if they suspected him of deceit or fraud. The much-heralded contract, moreover, seemed less than sacrosanct when it denied them the very fruits of their labor. Such initial experiences, a black man wrote from Helena, Arkansas, in early 1866, would not be soon forgotten. “They may cheat the poor negro out of a year’s work, but in spite of them he has gained a year’s experience, and had the advantage of being thoroughly acquainted with that system of morals, that teaches the negro to observe and fulfill the moral obligations of a contract, but has no meaning or significance when applied to the white man.”78

Although most employers agreed to compensate their laborers on the basis of the contract, the annual settlement of accounts, in itself an unprecedented event, produced new disappointments, angry confrontations, and near rebellion on some places. Even as the freedmen eagerly looked forward to this day, the employer found it unnerving if not downright humiliating. “Staid on New Hope Plantation all day preparing to settle with the Negroes,” a Louisiana planter confided to his diary. “I had almost as lief be shot as to do it, but it must be done.” Equally depressed, Wilmer Shields, who had managed several plantations through a turbulent wartime experience, anticipated nothing but trouble as the dreaded payday approached. “I do not expect to satisfy any of them,” he informed the owner, “for each one seems to think his share will be a fortune.” Whatever the planter’s financial position, he came to look upon this day as an unavoidable ordeal. Unaccustomed to dealing with blacks over such matters, his demeanor was all too likely to crack under the torrent of complaints and challenges—what a South Carolina planter described as “the most gross abuse.”79

But to the ex-slave, “countin’ day” set off his new status from the old, and his expectations were high—almost always too high. Outside the main house the freedmen would assemble and face the table where the planter or his agent sat, holding in his hands the payroll and store book. As each laborer heard his name called, he would step forward to be informed of the number of days he had worked, the debts he had accumulated, the fines assessed against him, and the precise amount he had earned after deductions. That was when the trouble began. If he barely comprehended the often complicated balancing of debts and earnings, he understood the final sum soon enough, his face suddenly assuming an expression of utter dismay and incredulity. “Ain’t got nary a hundud dollars! Ain’t got nary a hundud dollars! Done wucked all de year an’ ain’t got nary a hundud dollars!” a Florida freedwoman kept shouting, waving the dollar bills wildly above her head. On a Louisiana plantation, one of the laborers thought there had to be a mistake: “I done wuck mighty hard fo’ you, chop briars and roll logs, and you haint paid me nuffin at all.” On a Georgia plantation, the laborers failed to discern any relationship between what they had been paid and the labor they had performed.

Ole mass’r had ’greed to give we one tird de craps, an’ we dun got ’em all up,—got de corn shucked, an’ de tatees digged, and de rice trashed; an’ ole mass’r he dun gone sold all de craps, an’ he bringed we all up yere yes’erday, an’ gif we seven dollar fur de man an’ he wife to buy de cloth wid to make we clofes, an’ he say may be he gif we some shoes; an’ he dun gif we’n none o’ de craps, none o’ de rice, none o’ de corn, none o’ de tatees.

The same incomprehension gripped the laborers on the Butler plantation in Georgia, each one convinced he had been cheated, invariably greeting his payment with some variation of the remark: “Well, well, work for massa two whole years, and only get dis much.”80

Puzzled, bitter, angry over the settlement, the freedmen might insist that their employer had erred in his calculations. If he deigned to respond to such charges, he would hold up the ledger and explain to his laborers how the advances of food, clothing, seed, tools, and fuel, in addition to other deductions, had consumed the greater part of their wages or shares. He would remind them of the items they had purchased and the number of days they had lost because of illness. He might even scold them for their thriftlessness and indulgences. “Now, auntie, you have a right to spend your earnings any way you please; you’re free. It’s none of my business what you do with your money. But if you would let me give you a little advice, I’d tell you all not to waste your money on fish, and candy, and rings, and breastpins, and fine hats. If you will have them, we’ll sell them to you, but you had better not buy so freely.” Denying any intent to deceive his laborers, the employer would contend in this instance and others that he had simply enforced the contract, which stipulated the amount of compensation and enumerated the deductions.81

Unfortunately, the contract said nothing about the cost of the provisions the employer agreed to furnish his laborers. Although the culprit may have been the supply merchant rather than the planter, the fact remained that provisions were sold at highly inflated prices and the laborer had no recourse but to trade where he could obtain credit. “I have neighbors,” a Mississippi planter conceded, “who keep stores of plain goods and fancy articles for their people; and, let a nigger work ever so hard, and earn ever so high wages, he is sure to come out in debt at the end of the year.” Even if the laborer could understand the deductions for actual purchases, he found far less comprehensible if not fraudulent the fines for negligence, the number of days or hours allegedly absent from work, and even in some cases charges for items like bagging and ropes; in Mississippi, planters reportedly gave “presents” to certain laborers during the season to accelerate the pace of work and then charged the cost of these gifts to their accounts. After the various deductions and charges had been assessed, the most brutal truth that greeted the laborer on the long-awaited “countin’ day” was that he stood in debt to the planter! That revelation created such a reaction on a Virginia plantation that the employer, fearing trouble, agreed to pay a token amount ($2 to $5) to each worker.82

No matter how carefully his employer explained the situation, the laborer still found it difficult to understand why his months of hard work should have left him with so little or actually in debt. After what seemed like endless disputations over each settlement, Frances Butler thought it useless to argue any further; henceforth, she would pay her father’s laborers and refuse to discuss the matter. Besides, she had concluded that the freedmen indulged in these discussions not because they thought they had been cheated but only “with an idea of asserting their independence and dignity.” If an aggrieved laborer appealed his case to the Freedmen’s Bureau, and many did, he might obtain a measure of relief—but only after proving he had been defrauded. That obstacle proved insurmountable, with the plantation ledger winning out easily over the freedman’s recollections, as it would have in any court of law. Even the most sympathetic Bureau officials confessed their helplessness in such cases. Thomas H. Norton, who supervised freedmen’s affairs in Meridian, Mississippi, suspected that many blacks had been “meanly defrauded” of their earnings and he could readily understand their discouragement. But he could offer them little but his sympathy.

Whenever cases of this kind are presented to the Sub Commissioner for investigation he will find himself involved in such a “Milky Way” of figures, admissions and denials, criminations and recriminations, that it will be almost impossible, considering the length of time that has elapsed, and the inability of the freedmen to bring the necessary witnesses to testify to their statements, to arrive at any just conclusion or settlement of the case.83

A Bureau officer in South Carolina, John William De Forest, recalled how exasperated he became after arbitrating “a hundred or two” such cases, spending in some instances “an entire forenoon” trying to convince a laborer that his employer had not cheated him. “I read to him, out of the planter’s admirably kept books, every item of debit and credit: so much meal, bacon, and tobacco furnished, with the dates of each delivery of the same; so many bushels of corn and peas and bunches of ‘fodder’ harvested. He admitted every item, admitted the prices affixed; and then, puzzled, incredulous, stubborn, denied the totals.” Meanwhile, the laborer’s wife stood next to him, “trembling with indignant suspicion,” until she could contain herself no longer. “Don’ you give down to it, Peter,” she exhorted her husband. “It ain’t no how ris’ible that we should ’a’ worked all the year and git nothin’ to go upon.” But it was no use. The Bureau agent finally advised the couple to throw themselves upon “the generosity” of their employer.84

If the experience of payday exhausted planters and exasperated Bureau officials, it left the freedmen disillusioned, frustrated, and outraged—and in many cases penniless if not in debt. But no matter how hard they tried or to whom they appealed, there was simply no way to make the figures come out differently. “The darkey don’t understand it,” a Mississippi planter remarked, “he has kept no accounts; but he knows he has worked hard and got nothing. He won’t hire to that man again.” The thousands of freedmen who left at the expiration of the contract often cited as the principal reason their dissatisfaction over the final settlement. “I’m willin’ to wu’k, sah, and I want to wu’k, ‘cos I’m mighty ill off,” a Virginia freedman declared, but after his employer had reneged on a promised half of the crop he resolved not to work another year “till I knows I’m gwine to get paid at the end of it.” Wherever they chose to contract for the next year, including the places on which they had worked, freedmen evinced a determination to do so only after some hard bargaining. “We all gits fooled on dat first go-out!” Katie Rowe recalled, but the following year “we all got something left over.” Nor would the freedmen necessarily confine themselves in future confrontations to a refinement of their verbal skills. On Edisto Island, for example, the blacks who worked the Rabbit Point plantation found a different way to make certain that the division of the crops reflected the labor they had expended.

The moment the Cotton house was opened the people rushed in and a number of them took forcible possession of their cotton and carried it off without division and all refused to allow any division to take place, threatened to knock my brains out and forcibly resisted me. Not having any force at my command I was obliged to close the house and await the arrival of a guard.85

With the end of each agricultural season, the tenuous peace that had existed on the plantations suddenly seemed more precarious. The wage settlement, the division of the crops, the need to negotiate new contracts, and the persistent expectations of a land division pitted laborers against employers in ways that violated accepted customs and threatened to undermine the prevailing racial code. Both whites and blacks would have to contend with the fear that traditional antagonisms of race, now aggravated by a new kind of class conflict, might at any time assume more violent forms. Each Christmas season somehow occasioned a new alarm.


ALTHOUGH DISCERNING FEW CHANGES in his laborers, Donald MacRae, a North Carolina merchant, conceded in September 1865 a widespread sense of uneasiness in the white population. He suspected that the source of the anxiety lay in the expectation of blacks that they would ultimately share in if not possess entirely the lands and goods of their former masters. That expectation had become so pervasive, MacRae believed, that the disappointment, when it came, could only produce the most dreaded of consequences—a black uprising. Fortunately, the local military commander had warned the freedmen not to entertain or act upon such foolish notions. “This may quiet it down,” MacRae thought. But if it did not, he anticipated an insurrection that would exceed the worst horrors of the Civil War, “for total annihilation would be the war cry on both sides.” Preparing for such an eventuality, Ethelred Philips, the Florida farmer and physician, decided to teach his wife, “timid as she has always been,” to use a revolver. “She took the first lesson a few days ago with a rifle and was delighted to find shooting so easy, and when she saw the ball had struck in a few inches of the mark she was quite encouraged, tho she had spoiled her sleeve by the powder.… She shall become a sure shot—how many hours of fright may be avoided when a woman feels she holds her safety in her own hand.”86

The approach of the Christmas holiday in 1865, coinciding as it did with payday, new contract talks, and new land expectations, produced the first major postwar insurrection panic. Now that the blacks were no longer bound by the old restraints, many whites feared they would vent their frustrations and disillusionment over the betrayal of expectations by plunging the South into a racial holocaust. “If they dont massacre the white Race, it is not because the desire dont exist,” a South Carolina Unionist observed as he appealed to President Johnson to provide whites with the means to protect themselves from the fury of a race that had become “worse than Devels.” Newspapers fed the prevailing anxiety by claiming exclusive knowledge of sinister plots. “We speak advisedly,” one of them warned, “we have authentic information of the speeches and conversations of the blacks, sufficient to convince us of their purpose. They make no secret of their movement. Tell us not that we are alarmists.” For many whites, however, the idea of black insurrection had become such a self-fulfilling prophecy that they needed no fire-eating editors to tell them what they had long suspected would flow naturally out of emancipation. “It will begin the work of extermination,” sighed a South Carolina planter, without indicating which race he expected to survive.87

With imaginations running rampant, whites found no difficulty in conjuring up horrors and demons befitting the expected bloodbath. The slightest change in a freedman’s demeanor, the most trivial incident, the most innocent display of independence could trigger new rumors and fears. The mistress of a plantation near Columbia, South Carolina, had only to listen to the freedmen singing in their quarters—“as only they could sing in these times”—to imagine “a horde pouring into our houses to cut our throats and dance like fiends over our remains.” The sight of his former slaves “talking together, sometimes in whispers and sometimes loudly,” ignoring his orders to retire to their cabins by the curfew hour, prompted a Georgian to suspect “conspiracies” and to fear “an outbreak every moment.” Near Fort Motte, South Carolina, a young planter who had served in the war heard that his blacks planned to attack the barns later in the month; in the meantime, he encountered only their “sour looks” and “uncivil words.” One day, he watched as they carried out his order to slaughter some hogs. He found the scene disturbing, impossible to forget. The next day, he still “shuddered” as he recalled “the fiendish eagerness” the blacks had evinced “to stab & kill, the delight in the suffering of others.”88

In their fevered minds that fall and winter, whites fanned the flames of the conflagration they had largely created themselves. The black man moving through the woods hunting squirrels suddenly became thousands of armed blacks hunting their old masters. The Mississippi planter missing for several days was presumably a victim of murderous blacks, several of whom were arrested and threatened with a lynching until the “martyr” returned home after an extended stay “with some prostitutes.” The Yankee soldier who answered the summons of a planter distraught over suspicious black movements was himself mistaken for one of the rebels and shot and killed. The gatherings of blacks to plan for the forthcoming Emancipation Day celebration on January 1 found their way into the conversations and newspapers of whites as meetings to complete the plans for an uprising. The rusty army musket discovered in a freedman’s cabin became overnight a vast arsenal to supply the arms for the revolt. Even blacks at work in the fields could be projected into guerrilla armies wielding their spades, pitchforks, and scythes to kill their masters and seize the lands they had been denied. The most persistent rumors stemmed from reports of armed blacks drilling for the coming showdown, but Federal investigators found in one instance a group of young freedmen playing soldier with sticks and unserviceable army rifles, while in another the blacks had, indeed, armed themselves—in fear of a white insurrection.89

Much as they had at the outbreak of the war, native whites tried to project a feeling of confidence. Even as Eliza Andrews prepared for a race war, with the tales of the Sepoys, Lucknow, and Cawnpore still quite vivid in her mind, she claimed in June 1865 to have conquered much of the anxiety she had once felt. “Now, when I know that I am standing on a volcano that may burst forth any day, I somehow, do not feel frightened. It seems as if nothing worse could happen than the South has already been through, and I am ready for anything, no matter what comes.” Despite the fears of imminent insurrection, Pierce Butler left his daughter and her maid alone on St. Simon’s Island with no white person within eight miles, as if to demonstrate the confidence he still reposed in his former slaves. At least, that was how his daughter, Frances, interpreted his action, and she shared his equanimity. “Neither then nor afterwards,” she wrote, “when I was alone on the plantation with the negroes for weeks at a time, had I the slightest feeling of fear, except one night, when I had a fright which made me quite ill for two days.” The momentary panic had been triggered by a noise emanating from a raft loaded down with mules. Even after discovering the source of the clamor, she recalled, “I had been too terrified to laugh.” But if Frances Leigh still enjoyed a feeling of relative security, the many letters and conversations that passed between whites in this period revealed considerable anguish and a growing fear that “no plantation will be a safe residence this Winter.”90

Fear of insurrection had a long tradition in the South. The new hysteria fed largely on emancipation, black disenchantment with the meager economic rewards of freedom, and the knowledge that tens of thousands of ex-slaves had come into possession of firearms. “Our negroes certainly have guns and are frequently shooting about,” the Reverend Samuel A. Agnew of Mississippi observed in November 1865. “Brice had some women go to Corinth recently and they have returned bringing, it is said, ammunition. A good many look for trouble about Christmas.” When local whites disarmed the blacks later that month, Agnew noted that some of the freedmen were “in high dudgeon” over this action, claiming they now had “equal rights with a white man to bear arms.” The reports of armed blacks were not necessarily exaggerated. With emancipation, large numbers of freedmen had acquired the weapons denied to them as slaves. “These guns they prize as their most valued possessions next to their land,” a Bureau agent reported from the Sea Islands, “and to take them away would leave a lasting and bitter resentment, and sense of injustice.”91But that was precisely what the whites intended to do, refusing to believe that when laborers carried weapons into the fields with them they wished only to shoot at stray rabbits and squirrels. Heeding the popular outcry, state governors ordered the militias to patrol the countryside and disarm blacks, legislatures rewrote and strengthened patrol laws, towns authorized the employment of additional police, and planters urged the white citizenry to fill the ranks of the militia. Although some Union Army officers and Bureau agents tried to calm the populace, perhaps as many shared the prevailing fears and cooperated with civil authorities and volunteer patrols to search the homes of blacks for guns. The occasional discovery of a cache of arms confirmed the worst fears and intensified the campaign to disarm the black population. In the Wilmington district of North Carolina, the Union commander went so far as to urge white citizens to form voluntary military companies as a precaution against the feared black uprising, and he promised them arms and ammunition as well as “the entire power at his command.”92

Although whites verged on panic, some moving their families to safer areas, many others volunteering for local patrols, none looked upon the rumors of impending insurrection with greater apprehension than the freedmen themselves. Previous experience had revealed all too vividly that whites had a way of exorcising imagined black demons by exterminating those within reach who most closely resembled them. And the purgation—with the inevitable floggings, beatings, and assassinations—would most likely exceed in brutality the terrors which whites had concocted in anticipation of a black uprising. Unaware of conspiracies in their midst, realizing the false basis of white fears, drawing upon their own intimate knowledge of the white man, some blacks concluded—logically enough—that the fear of insurrection served only the purposes of their former masters, providing them with the opportunity to invade their homes, to seize their weapons, to make examples of their leaders, and to otherwise terrorize and harass them until they revised their notions about the perquisites of freedom.93 When the white citizens of two Louisiana parishes appealed to the governor for arms, ammunition, and the authority to organize for “self preservation,” they cited the urgent need “to overawe the colored population, and thereby avoid the effusion of blood and all the horrors of a cruel insurrection.” To force blacks to stand in awe of the white man had of course been a vital ingredient of racial control under slavery. With that memory of bondage still vivid in their minds, blacks in some areas began to drill and accumulate arms in preparation for any eventuality. “We’ns smart nuff t’ hold ’r own,” a South Carolina freedman remarked, and the reporter who heard him thought the optimism justified. “Moreover,” the reporter observed, “the whites of all these low-country districts know that fact, too.”94

On the night of December 27, 1865, the widowed mistress of a plantation in the interior of Georgia sat up until after midnight, “fearing that something sad must occur with so many freedmen about me.” But the night passed “and with it all my fears.” Throughout the South, Christmas passed without the slightest hint of a contemplated black uprising. Only a few sporadic incidents, almost all of them provoked by overzealous whites, disturbed an otherwise quiet and orderly holiday season. Federal authorities who took the time to investigate the many rumors of black military preparations found no justification for white fears, only a few organizations that blacks had formed for self-defense and with which they hoped to advance their prospects in the forthcoming negotiation of contracts. Perhaps the vigilance of the white community, the vigorous patrolling of the countryside, and the presence of reinforced police, militias, and volunteer patrols had saved the white South from a certain conflagration. Some whites began to suspect that was not the case, that the victory had been something of a sham. “It appears that there has been a great alarm without any cause,” the Reverend Samuel A. Agnew of Mississippi confided to his diary; the many reports of imminent insurrection, he now concluded, “were only the creations of the imaginations of timid people.” The white hysteria and the extraordinary measures it had provoked, he thought, might in their own way have constituted a tactical victory for the blacks. “As affairs have turned out the negroes must think that the white people are afraid of them.”95

Although the fears of insurrection proved to be unfounded, whites could never quite surmount them. The circumstances which had fed the rumors would persist. During the next several years, any new epidemic of restlessness, any new manifestation of discontent, any new report of black organization would precipitate still another crisis. If anything, the fears would take on even more lurid dimensions, no doubt reflecting growing apprehension over black political power. As the Christmas season of 1866 approached, James R. Sparkman, a plantation proprietor in South Carolina, shared his apprehensions with a long-time friend. While in town recently, he had attended “a secret conference” at which three “respectable citizens” described “an insurrectionary movement, wide spread, and terrible in its plot.” Within the next two months, the blacks planned to rise on a certain night and massacre the male adults and children, while retaining many of the females “for servile and licentious purposes.” By 1868, even Frances Leigh’s confidence and equanimity had ebbed considerably. If in 1865 she had felt “not the slightest” fear of the blacks on the Butler plantations, three years later she refused to sleep without a loaded pistol by her bed.

Their whole manner was changed; they took to calling their former owners by their last name without any title before it, constantly spoke of my agent as old R—, dropped the pleasant term of “Mistress,” took to calling me “Miss Fanny,” walked about with guns upon their shoulders, worked just as much and when they pleased, and tried speaking to me with their hats on, or not touching them to me when they passed me on the banks. This last rudeness I never permitted for a moment.

Frances Leigh thought that if she relaxed her vigilance for even a moment, she would lose control over the blacks altogether. For the next two years, she recalled, “I felt the whole time that it was touch-and-go whether I or the negroes got the upper hand.”96

It was not as though the blacks had no reason to revolt. Even as they persisted in testing their freedom, they had not succeeded in breaking the bonds that tied them to the farms and plantations as agricultural laborers. That had to be the uppermost thought in their minds after each settlement, about the same time whites were fashioning new notions of conspiracy and rebellion. On New Year’s Day 1866, black people commemorated emancipation, not by overturning their masters in a violent upheaval, but by attending appropriate ceremonies and listening to appropriate speeches. In Charleston, more than ten thousand assembled at the racecourse to hear their “best friends” advise them on future prospects. General Rufus Saxton implored them to be honest, industrious, and sober; if they wanted land, they would have to work for it, filling their pockets with greenbacks until they had enough to purchase a lot. Colonel Ketchum counseled them to emulate their brethren on Edisto Island who had met the loss of their lands with “remarkable dignity.” But easily the most stirring moments that day belonged to Colonel Trowbridge, the commander of a black regiment, who took the stand to bid an emotional farewell to his soldiers, most of whom were about to be discharged. When he finished, the large crowd sat “hushed and silent” for several minutes until a voice rang out:

Blow ye the trumpet, blow!

The gladly solemn sound.

The entire throng then joined in the singing, reaching a loud crescendo as they came to the refrain:

The year of jubilee has come,

Return, ye ransomed sinners, home.97

With the speeches and songs of Emancipation Day still ringing in their ears, the blacks returned to their respective places and prepared to work the fields of the white man for still another year.


LESS THAN TWO WEEKS after dismissing the talk of insurrection as the product of white hysteria, the Reverend Samuel A. Agnew found the laborers on his father’s plantation in Mississippi to be “disobedient, idle and puffed up with an idea of their own excellence.” After receiving their shares from the sale of the crops, the blacks were “disinclined” to commit their entire time for still another year. “They have exalted ideas,” Agnew wrote in disgust. On the several plantations in Louisiana managed by Wilmer Shields, the laborers held back on signing a new contract and refused to reveal their intentions. When they assembled one Sunday “to express themselves” on the matter, Shields thought their propositions “too absurd and inadmissible to be repeated.” Although Adele Allston had managed to repossess her plantations earlier that year, the approach of December found her pessimistic about future prospects. No matter what she said or did, it all seemed in vain. None of the blacks wished to contract for another year, and even Milly, a servant who had been with her for many years, “is tired being good and faithful. She appears discontented. It seems to me she wants the whole of the stock, the profits of it at least.” Upon investigating conditions in the South Carolina low country, a Freedmen’s Bureau agent found the planters “uniformly ready and anxious” to contract but the freedmen almost all refused, except “upon such terms as the Bureau cannot justly require” of the employers.98

With the completion of the crops, the labor system seemed destined each year to undergo a new series of convulsions, many of them precipitated by those persistent visions of land distribution, independent farming, and higher wages. Although the ultimately compelling need to test the boundaries of freedom surfaced at different times for different blacks, it continually frustrated any regularization of labor relations. Thousands of freedmen, including many who had stayed on with their old masters after emancipation, would now seek places elsewhere, leaving “in squads of five or ten at a time” and sometimes in sufficient numbers to render entire plantations and farms devoid of laborers. Such movements, for example, virtually sealed the fate of the rice industry in South Carolina.99 The familiar refrain “Every Negro has left us” once again punctuated the letters, private journals, and conversations of the former slaveholding class. The element of surprise seemed less pronounced now in view of the shared experiences of so many white families, though many who had survived the wartime and post-emancipation departures were to awaken one morning to find none of their laborers and servants present. On the Pine Hill plantation in Florida, Christmas had been a traditionally festive occasion, involving considerable interchange between the white and black families. But in 1865 the white family sensed a difference. When the blacks came to the Big House to pick up their gifts, they did so with little of the old enthusiasm, and, uncharacteristically, they quickly returned to their quarters. On the surface, at least, the plantation appeared to be peaceful, free of the fears of insurrection that had unsettled other regions, and the servants had performed their duties faithfully. “Adeline cooked us an elegant Christmas dinner and Bill served it to perfection. Each man and maid were in place, attending to their various duties, but the atmosphere of merriment and good-will was lacking.” Within the month, Adeline and Bill, along with the other blacks, departed, leaving the white folks “all alone on the hill.”100

The need to break away from the places where they had served as slaves still had a way of overcoming specific economic considerations. Nevertheless, disillusionment over the paltry rewards of the first years of free labor added considerable impetus to the desire for some kind of change. “We worked hard for two years and didn’t make nothing by contracts,” a black family in Georgia declared; “we are now gwine to try it ourselves.” And like a growing number of ex-slaves, they had resolved to improve their situation by moving into town. “Even the cornfield negro has a great dislike to go into the field,” a white physician in Atlanta, Georgia, observed in early 1866; “he wants to get into the towns and do little errands and jobs. They have, as a class, a great thirst for the towns and cities; they like company; they are very social creatures—like to job about during the day, and be where they can go to a party at night.” The principal attractions of the city remained the greater feeling of security it afforded and the chances for more remunerative employment and a more active social life. Even if the freedman did not move into an urban center, he often preferred to contract on a plantation nearby, so as to be in a position to enjoy the advantages of a town while still performing the kind of labor he knew best. After an unsuccessful attempt to hire laborers in Vicksburg, a Mississippi planter conceded his problems might have been minimal if he could have picked up his plantation and moved it closer to the city. Still another disappointed employer came away convinced “the black rascals wouldn’t trust themselves the width of my plantation away from town for fear I would eat ’em up.”101

Whether the freedman moved or not, the end of each agricultural season set off a new round of contract talks, invariably preceded by an employer’s complaint that his hands “positively” refused to agree to terms. During the negotiations, employers would learn soon enough how successfully they had placated their working force over the past year; indeed, that was precisely why these annual talks took on such importance for the freedmen, not only as a way to better their terms but for the rare opportunity it afforded them to express their grievances and suggest how conditions might be improved. In settling the accounts with the laborers on the Butler plantations, Frances Leigh had learned not to respond to their exclamations of doubt and disapproval. But when it came to negotiating a new contract with them, she discovered that they would not be put off so easily. This time they insisted upon being heard, and Frances Leigh had little choice but to listen.

For six mortal hours I sat in the office without once leaving my chair, while the people poured in and poured out, each one with long explanations, objections, and demonstrations. I saw that even those who came fully intending to sign would have their say, so after interrupting one man and having him say gravely, “ ’Top, missus, don’t cut my discourse,” I sat in a state of dogged patience and let everyone have his talk out, reading the contract over and over again as each one asked for it, answering their many questions and meeting their many objections as best I could. One wanted this altered in the contract, and another that. One was willing to work in the mill but not in the field. Several would not agree to sign unless I promised to give them the whole of Saturday for a holiday. Others … would “work for me till they died,” but would put their hand to no paper. And so it went on all day, each one “making me sensible,” as he called it.

Through it all, she remained “immovable,” insisting that they agree to the contract as it stood. On the first day, she managed to sign sixty-two of the field hands—“good work,” she thought, “though I had a violent attack of hysterics afterwards, from fatigue and excitement.” Only once did she lose her composure and that was when a freedman, “after showing decided signs of insolence,” finally declared, “Well, you sign my paper first, and then I’ll sign yours.” She ordered him off the plantation, only to have him return minutes later “with a broad grin on his face” and prepared to sign the contract. After several days of negotiation, she claimed to have broken “the backbone of the opposition,” and all but two of the laborers went back to work under the new contract; one left from “imagined ill-health” and the other she dismissed for “insubordination.”102

The economic necessity which forced planters to bargain with their former slaves did not make the experience any less demeaning or exasperating. A Louisiana planter confided to his diary how he had “purposely” stayed away from the sugar house “to avoid talking to the negroes about a contract before I was ready to make one.” When he finally did so, he found the final terms to be “distasteful” but unavoidable. “Every body else in the neighborhood has agreed to pay the same and mine would listen to nothing else.” The task of having to deal with their former slaves at the bargaining table could be further aggravated by the obvious delight the laborers derived from the proceedings and the breakdown in the traditional forms of deference. When Daniel Hey ward, the South Carolina planter, met with his blacks, the word soon got around that they had been “kind enough but spoke to him sitting, and with their hats on.” Not only did they seem “confounded and incredulous as to his ownership of the land” but they shook their heads when he suggested they work in much the same way as they had before emancipation. “Oh no, neva work as they did,” they replied, “and no overseer and no drivers.” Upon hearing this story, an acquaintance of the Heyward family expressed no surprise: “Now all this strikes me as being exactly what was to be expected. That feeling of security and independence has to be eradicated; and if it should survive after January [1866], I think with proper management it will be effectually extirpated before we wish to put seed in the ground in March or April.”103

Employers evinced the most resistance to precisely those demands—less supervision, more free time, and the opportunity to lease lands—that might ultimately lead to a greater measure of independence and self-reliance for their black workers. To the freedmen, these issues naturally took on added significance with each new contract year, reflecting their discouragement over the most recent settlement, the failure of their land aspirations, and their precarious economic position. If planters grew to fear that crop shares, as a substitute for cash wages, compromised the proper relationship between themselves and the laborers, growing numbers of freedmen turned to that form of compensation as affording them an enhanced feeling of independence. After charging that indebtedness now characterized the monthly wage system, the black newspaper in South Carolina advised agricultural laborers to work the land on shares or leases and thereby “retrieve the mistakes of the past season.” About the same time, late in 1865, on a cotton plantation near Beaufort, the freedmen countered the planter’s wage offer by demanding half the crop instead. Upon being turned down, they appealed to the local Union commander, who advised them to agree to the employer’s fair offer. Still refusing to concede anything, the laborers crowded around the planter when he visited their quarters, shouting their demand for “half the crop.” With the planting season about to begin and the freedmen refusing to sign the contract, Federal troops were dispatched to remove the rebellious blacks from the plantation and make room for more compliant workers. The show of force and the threat to displace them from their jobs broke the resistance effectively, and the laborers reluctantly gave up their fight for a share of the crop.104

The questions of greater independence, more free time, and less supervision proved to be inseparable. After the first agricultural season, planters and Freedmen’s Bureau agents noted the persistence with which blacks refused to labor on Saturday for anyone but themselves, preferring to tend their own garden plots or to sell in town some of the produce they had raised. “Five days I’ll work,” a Mississippi field hand insisted, in refusing to sign a new contract, “but I works for no man on Saturday.” If he worked on Saturday, another freedman told his employer, he expected additional compensation. On Johns Island, the issue even assumed religious proportions in May 1866 when an elderly black woman claimed a revelation from heaven forbidding work on Fridays and Saturdays; many of the freedmen hailed the revelation as “God’s truth” and ceased to work on those days until Federal authorities threatened to intervene and drive the blacks off the island. The way in which some planters and freedmen finally resolved this demand was to compromise in favor of half a day’s work on Saturday or to excuse one member of a family, usually the wife or oldest daughter, on Saturday afternoon so that she could attend to domestic duties. The idea of a five-day workweek, like the share system, imparted to many freedmen a greater feeling of independence even as their economic situation remained the same, and for some it reflected a growing assumption that they were perfectly capable of managing agricultural operations without white interference. On plantations where overseers had been retained, for example, the objections were directed not so much to the quality of the individual hired to fill that position, which had once been the principal issue, but to supervision by any white man. “Some of the best hands told me,” a Bureau officer reported from Mississippi in 1866, “ ‘they would not have a superintendent to direct them as they knew how to do the work as well as any white man.’ ” More than a year later, after investigating labor troubles on several Louisiana plantations, a Bureau officer thought the freedmen were “greatly to blame, as they would not, as a general rule, be dictated to either by their employers or their agents; in fact, they will not have a white man dictate to them.”105

The refusal to sign a contract was the freedman’s principal bargaining weapon and he could wield it but once a year. The longer he held out, the later the planting season began, and many laborers obviously hoped to use such leverage to exact the desired concessions. If the planter remained unyielding, he would have to face the arduous and urgent task of hiring new laborers, and in some instances the replacements would come onto plantations littered with the charred remains of what had once been the farm buildings. If the evicted blacks could no longer use the facilities, nobody else would. Shortly after a planter in South Carolina ousted the laborers for their refusal to work, the house in which he and his sons were living suddenly erupted into flames; several nights later, he bent down to pick something up “just in time to escape a whistling bullet.” On still other plantations, after being ordered to leave for refusal to sign contracts, black laborers burned down the employer’s house and entrenched themselves in their quarters. Little wonder that a planter should have advised his colleagues to use “forbearance and management” in dealing with their laborers, for “a recourse to other means may cause the buildings to be laid in ashes, as was the case in my late brother’s place near Mobile, Alabama.”106

On the plantations in Louisiana he managed for the absentee owner, Wilmer Shields experienced that now characteristic period of indecision and maneuvering before obtaining any success with the laborers. The almost always exhausting process of negotiating a contract would begin in the early fall and continue into the next year. In mid-September 1866, for example, Shields already despaired of retaining most of the laborers beyond the present crops. Not only did he find the blacks “very fond of change” but “all of our neighbors want them, and some are offering every inducement they can to get them away—promising teams and horses to take them to town every Saturday.” By November, only a few laborers had indicated they intended to remain, “most of these worth but little—being either old or sickly.” The others had begun to make clear the new conditions they would insist upon—a five-day workweek, the use of horses and teams for occasional trips to Natchez, more pay, a school, “and many other things.” If Shields refused to budge on these demands, the freedmen threatened to take their labor elsewhere, and he knew only too well how willing his neighbors were to oblige.

Metcalfe I hear is making efforts to get a very large force, offering inducement, with plenty of whiskey and every latitude & liberty to do as they please if they work for him. And Hutchins tampers with our Negroes and those who left us …, offering to furnish mules, utensils and all plantation gear & tools for half the cotton made. I mention only two.

In mid-December, a laborer told Shields he thought “the whole of Saturday and a school would keep nearly all.” The manager had no objection to a school but he strongly advised his employer against any concessions to a five-day workweek; meanwhile, he prepared to stop issuing any food rations to laborers who refused to sign after the old contract expired. On January 1, the moment of decision neared. “The cry with our people now is, that we are too strict and do not pay enough.” Several of the neighboring planters, in the meantime, had made offers that proved to be irresistible. “He has nothing whatever to do with his place,” Shields said of one nearby planter. “Not a word to say—The Negroes manage all and are to give him one half.” When the expected “stampede” came to his plantations, Shields was thus not altogether surprised. But a sufficient number remained, largely because they wished “to be at home” and they doubted the honesty of the neighboring planters. The final settlement closely resembled the original proposal, with the hands choosing between cash wages (double the previous year’s rates) and an interest in the crop; the employer did concede the establishment of a school, though the freedmen were to pay for the teacher and his tenure would rest on his “good behaviour.” To replace the losses, Shields tried to hire other laborers but with little success. “They demand exorbitant wages—And the more the white owner of the soil yields, the more they require.”107

Where a considerable demand for black labor prevailed, planters found it difficult to sustain a united front against potentially ruinous competition. Vying with each other for scarce field hands, very much as Shields’s neighbors had, employers sometimes assumed the most solicitous airs to induce blacks to contract with them. No doubt to incur favor with his freedmen, John H. Bills, the Tennessee planter, found himself driving a wagonload of them to a nearby community, where they could attend a “Negro barbecue” and dance through the night. Adele Allston tried to satisfy her laborers by stocking the plantation with “some extras, such as beef etc.,” while another South Carolina planter modified his original terms by giving a freedman “more time to work for himself.” The Reverend Samuel Agnew thought his father “had no alternative” but to accede to the extravagant demands of a valued laborer, although he thought he had reached an agreement with the man for a lesser sum the previous week. “But he [the laborer] could get more and he took advantage of circumstances.” Hard-pressed for laborers, a Mississippi planter ventured to New Orleans and offered a black labor agent five dollars a head for all the men he could obtain; the agent prepared to accommodate the planter but upon learning where the freedmen were to be sent he refused any further assistance, saying he would not send a black man to Mississippi for a hundred dollars a head. “And why?” the outraged planter bellowed afterwards. “All because the sassy scoundrel said he didn’t like our Mississippi laws.”108

Where employers had gained a reputation for abusing their laborers, whether with the whip or the pen, they might lose all of them at the end of the season and find it exceedingly difficult to attract any replacements. “The Negroes have a kind of telegraph by which they know all about the treatment of the Negroes on the plantations for a great distance around,” a Florida planter observed. And they obviously availed themselves of such knowledge before they contracted with anyone, the local Bureau agent added, after finding some planters unable to secure a single laborer. If the freedmen decided to remain with such an employer or hire out to him, they were apt to do so only after driving a hard bargain. In the Ogeechee district of Georgia, a planter with a notorious reputation among the local blacks had to offer one half the crop rather than the customary one third; at the same time, he agreed to divide his land into plots and permit the blacks to work them as they chose without any white supervisors. That seemed eminently fair to one local freedman; after all, he remarked, “when a man has been burned in the fire once you cannot make him run in again.”109


ALTHOUGH SLAVERY had never precluded a certain amount of bargaining, culminating at times in verbal understandings about work routines and the limits of authority, the first years of emancipation created new possibilities and a host of novel experiences in labor relations. When former slaves and former slaveholders confronted each other as employees and employers, conflicts were bound to arise and in numerous instances the deadlocks which resulted clearly resembled strikes and lockouts. After investigating disturbances on plantations in Coahoma County, Mississippi, a Freedmen’s Bureau officer came away deeply impressed with the sense of unity manifested by the black laborers. “I find that when one or more Freedman becomes dissatisfied others are very liable to sympathize with him, and in case one leaves, others will follow.” That same inclination to vent their grievances and press their demands collectively rather than as individuals pervaded low-country South Carolina, where the freedmen finally gave up the expectation of land only to demand control of the crops. “It is really wonderful how unanimous they are,” a sympathetic Bureau agent reported; “communicating like magic, and now holding out, knowing the importance of every day in regard to the welfare of the next crop;—thinking that the planters will be obliged to come to their terms.”110

Apart from the obvious advantages of collective action at contract time, the same unity would be maintained during the year to protect laborers from physical abuse and to support them in any reinterpretation of the contract they deemed essential to their welfare. On a Mississippi plantation, the employer managed somehow to write into the contract a stipulation that if the freedmen failed to work satisfactorily, she reserved the right to hire additional laborers at their expense. But when she invoked the clause, the freedmen threatened to drive the new men off the plantation and eventually won a favorable decision from the local Bureau agent. Nor could a planter, as in the old days, single out a freedman for punishment and gather the other hands around to witness the proceedings as a lesson to all of them. When a Mississippi proprietor (a former Union officer) attempted to tie a freedman up by the thumbs for his impudence and refusal to work, nearly every laborer quit work and several of them went to an adjoining plantation to mobilize assistance; the planter soon faced a formidable group armed with rifles “and other war-like weapons” and immediately called upon the Bureau to rush him some support.111 With similar displays of unity and various degrees of success, freedmen protested delays in paying them for their work, forcibly resisted attempts by Union soldiers to search their cabins for furniture allegedly belonging to their employer, and refused to work on the public roads (charging that most whites were exempted from such labor).112

When “a very large assemblage” of blacks convened in a South Carolina community in late 1866, the speakers dwelled on the inadequacy of one third of the crop as compensation for the labor they had performed the previous year. The only conditions under which they should now contract, they agreed, would be for an equal division of the crops among those who labored and those who owned the land. To a local white who observed the proceedings, the meeting assumed “the character of a strike for higher wages” but he found no cause for alarm and applauded the speakers for their advice to act calmly, prudently, and in conformity with the law. Whether or not such meetings were specifically intended to counter similar “combinations” among white employers, black laborers in various parts of the South thought they could strengthen their bargaining position by agreeing on a common set of demands, including the minimum amount of compensation for which they were willing to work. Significantly, they understood the need to involve all the plantations in the region and even to agree on penalties that would be meted out to those blacks who broke their solid front. In Cherokee County, Alabama, the blacks pledged themselves not to work for less than $2.00 a day during the harvest and assessed a penalty of fifty lashes for any among them who agreed to work for less. (White laborers subsequently gathered the harvest at $1.50 a day.) In Rowan County, North Carolina, the freedmen simply resolved that anyone who worked for less than a certain sum would “have to abide the consequences.”113 Although such examples (unique even for white workers) might well have been exceptional, they suggested a potential that could have had a profound impact on labor and race relations. At least, the prospects were sufficiently alarming to prompt many whites to concoct new notions of conspiracy and revolution.

Aside from the freedmen’s work habits, nothing concerned planters and Federal authorities more in 1866 and 1867 than the widely reported proliferation of organizations among plantation laborers. Since most of them were not easily identifiable, they seemed all the more menacing. Near the end of 1866, alarming reports reached the Charleston office of the Freedmen’s Bureau that freedmen in the Kingstree region were organized into six armed military companies which drilled and marched “under Red flags,” threatened white families, and intimidated blacks who refused to join them. Upon investigating these sensational rumors, the Bureau officer found that the freedmen in this region did, indeed, meet regularly to agree on minimal demands for the next year of labor; the sole threat they had issued was to migrate to Florida if they could not obtain “reasonable and just” terms. If any of them possessed arms, the agent reported, they did so with no violent intent but from “the foolish habit into which they have fallen of carrying guns wherever they travel.” Still, the Bureau agent thought it advisable to station a detachment of Union troops in the area for “the moral effect” it might have on both white and black residents.114

Any kind of organization among plantation hands, whether intended for protective, benevolent, or economic purposes, was bound to create consternation in the white populace and revive old specters. The conclusion of Bureau officers that most of the organizations rumored to be military in nature were actually designed to exact economic concessions hardly allayed white fears. The ostensible purpose of meetings of black laborers may be “a strike for higher wages,” a white resident of Halifax County, North Carolina, warned the governor, “but I believe the real design is to organize for a General massacre of the White population. Nearly every negro is armed not only with a Gun, but a revolver.… I am not one to get up an alarm for a trifle, or to raise a noise because some one else does, but the meeting of a thousand or two of negroes every other Sunday, with Officers and Drilling, I think a serious matter.… I hope you will not use my name in connection with this matter, as it may cost me my life.”115

The fears provoked by organized action among black laborers proved to be more than illusory. Since the early days of emancipation, whites and Federal authorities alike had considerable difficulty distinguishing between black work stoppages and insurrections. The confusion was at times perfectly understandable. When a South Carolina planter heard that blacks on a nearby plantation were “organized after military fashion” and had posted guards on the roads leading to the place, he could hardly be blamed for thinking in terms of an insurrection rather than a strike. The events that transpired on a plantation near Georgetown could also easily evoke the old fears. On March 31, 1866, a freedman named Abram left the field on which he had been working and called the other laborers out with him; after arming themselves with axes, hatchets, hoes, and poles, they drove the black agent of the proprietor off the premises. Finally, two Union soldiers were called in to help quell the uprising, and the planter and his agent prepared to restore order. “As soon as we entered the street the people collected with axes, hoes, sticks and bricks and pelted us with bricks and stones and poles, and took the gun away from one of the soldiers.” The reports of blacks taking possession of plantations were not uncommon in the postwar years, but the purpose of their action was not always clear. In a number of instances, at least, the blacks did not actually lay claim to the land but challenged the proprietor’s right to dictate to them and to dispose of the crops they had raised.116

The plantation “strike,” not always easy to define, could be a complex affair, testing the ability of the workers to maintain a solid front against the planter’s threat to evict them and the probability of Federal intervention. On a Louisiana plantation, when the hands struck for the immediate payment of their wages and the right of each of them to have an acre of land for his exclusive cultivation, the proprietor retaliated by refusing to meet with them, calling in the Freedmen’s Bureau, and locking up the mules—that is, turning a “strike” into a “lockout” and preventing the workers from returning to their tasks without his permission. The Bureau agent resolved the crisis, largely by rebuking the strike leader for his insolent language and threatening to arrest him for breach of contract; at the same time, he sought to exploit differences among the blacks about the advisability of their action. “Dey didn’t want to quit,” several of them indicated, “but dere was no use in deir wuckin’ by demselves, cause de rest ’d say dey was a turnin’ gin deir own color an’ a sidin’ wid de wite folks.” To a northern visitor, who had witnessed the strike, the Freedmen’s Bureau had once again proven its worth. “I knew that but for this very agent not less than a dozen heavy planters would have been compelled to suspend operations. All availed themselves of his services.”117

Along with evidence of collective action, the plantations would also yield leaders capable of mobilizing black laborers. Although some drivers and preachers retained the influence they had exercised before the war, the continuity in leadership is difficult to determine. On the Sea Islands, a Bureau officer investigating labor troubles placed the blame on “oracles” among the freedmen, “and as they go, so go the whole without stopping to consider.” Not uncommonly, a Bureau officer would determine that a particular individual on the plantation had provoked the others to action and he would dismiss him from the place. On the “old Combahee” plantation, near Beaufort, South Carolina, a planter complained of “insolent” laborers who appeared to follow in the steps of Bob Jenkins, a black “firebrand” he had previously ordered off his place. Two Bureau agents investigated the dispute, one of them J. J. Wright, a black man who would subsequently play an important role in the Radical state government. In his report, Wright cited the testimony of the foreman, who claimed that the planter had tried to speed up the work and Jenkins “knew a great deal and that was the reason he was called a firebrand.” Several weeks later, a white Bureau agent visited the same place, ordered the people to return to work, and quickly disposed of Jenkins. “This man’s influence was so evidently bad that I ordered him to leave the place.”118

Of growing concern, too, were black agitators who belonged to no plantation but who allegedly aroused the freedmen. Aaron Bradley, who had migrated from Massachusetts to Georgia, remained a controversial figure throughout Reconstruction; as early as 1865, he elicited strong reactions from Bureau officers:

A man named Bradley has been making speeches at S[avannah] to the colored people criticising President’s policy, advising Negroes not to make contracts except at point of bayonet, and to disobey your orders; have arrested him, he does not deny charges, proof conclusive. Genl Steedmen has ordered him to be tried by Military Commission.

Two years later, after Bradley encouraged blacks to take possessory title of certain lands, Bureau officers again cited his “pernicious influence over the more ignorant of the freed people” and asked for authority to banish him from the region.119

The organized efforts of black laborers to improve working conditions were not limited to the plantations. Again, the number of successes achieved may have been less important than the possibilities revealed by such efforts. The “new phenomenon” of black stevedores in Charleston refusing to work for less than two dollars a day was sufficiently spectacular to be noted in the leading northern working-class newspaper, as was the decision of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Memphis to break a strike of levee workers before it erupted into a full-scale riot. In 1866 and 1867, strikes also broke out among city laborers in Nashville, tobacco workers in Richmond, lumberyard workers in Washington, D.C., and stevedores in New Orleans, Richmond, and Savannah. The Savannah strike elicited particular attention, if only because white and black stevedores combined to resist a new tax imposed on their occupation; the police intervened but confined its arrests and beatings to the black workers.120 In New Orleans, black stevedores had to be restrained from lynching a contractor who had allegedly defrauded them of their wages; the police rescued the contractor, while a detachment of troops dispersed the more than five hundred stevedores who had assembled to express their grievances. In late 1865, even as many whites feared an imminent black uprising, New Orleans looked upon the rare sight of black and white stevedores joining forces to strike for higher wages. The mayor himself conceded the impressive quality of such an event, particularly the demonstration of racial unity among the workers. “They marched up the levee in a long procession, white and black together. I gave orders that they should not be interfered with as long as they interfered with nobody else; but when they undertook by force to prevent other laborers from working, the police promptly put a stop to their proceedings.”121

Whatever the promise of such combined efforts, neither white trade unions nor the black press would permit them to herald a new era in urban labor relations. When it came down to admitting blacks into the few existing trade unions, the racial barriers were impregnable. “At present, we have nothing to do with the negro,” a white carpenter in Richmond declared at a meeting of his union, “but the time is coming, and we must prepare ourselves to say to this dark sea of misery, ‘thus far shalt thou come, but no farther.’ ” Noting that sentiment, a Richmond black predicted “an irrepressible conflict between the white and the black mechanics of the South,” now that the whites had been contaminated by the same “devilish prejudice” that ostracized black mechanics in the North. In New Orleans, meanwhile, the Tribune, voice of the free colored community, adopted a stance during the stevedores’ strike that anticipated the generally hostile attitude of black middle-class leadership toward trade unions and strikes. “Poor negroes,” it said of blacks beaten for continuing to work, “abused when suspected of being unwilling to work, and mauled when ready to labor!” When stevedores took to the streets to mobilize support for their strike, the newspaper lamented the number of blacks among them, noting how “their white fellow-workers despise them under ordinary circumstances.” After the laborers returned to their jobs at the old wages, the newspaper could only conclude, “Such is generally the folly of strikes.”122

Whether on the plantations or in the cities, black workers confronted obstacles not unfamiliar to white laborers in the North. Since any work stoppage during the agricultural season necessarily required a breach of contract, field hands found themselves in an even more precarious position. The decision to cease work could not be made easily, involving as it did the possibility of eviction with a loss of accrued wages and the probability of Federal intervention. Not long after a Union commander announced his intention to remove all laborers who failed to conclude agreements with their employers, a group of freedmen near Savannah refused to renew a contract they thought to be unfair. But neither were they willing to move, even when a Bureau agent and five soldiers ordered them to do so. The agent returned with fifty soldiers, the blacks “crowded together in solid phalanx and swore more furiously than before that they would die where they stood,” each side leveled guns at the other, and the soldiers withdrew. But the point had been made, and blacks knew full well they could not stand for long against an entire army.123

If judged by certain isolated examples, the possibilities might have seemed truly promising, perhaps even momentous. The planters owned the land, while the freedmen commanded the labor, and each side reserved the right to use that power to exact concessions from the other, with the differences finally resolved through negotiations. That state of affairs encouraged the black newspaper in South Carolina to think that a new day had dawned. “It takes two to make a bargain now-a-days,” the editor exulted after noting that the former slaves no longer had to contract with their former owner simply because he desired it. But the new era envisioned by this newspaper died in infancy. Appreciating where the power still resided, the employer could hold out against the “extravagant” demands of his laborers, thinking that by January they would be forced to work at whatever terms he dictated. More often than not, that turned out to be a correct assumption. “They thought, by standing out, they could force me to terms about their mules and cotton,” the agent of a Louisiana planter remarked. “But I soon undeceived them. I rigged up the carts, packed their traps into them, and sent them bag and baggage off the place.… Now they’re sneaking back every day and asking leave to enter into contract.”124

Despite the triumphs scored by the field hand on some plantations, particularly in regions where a scarcity of labor prevailed, the bargaining power he wielded with his right to reject a contract proved far less formidable in practice than in theory. “What kin we do, sah?” an underpaid laborer in Virginia asked; “dey kin give us jes what dey choose. Man couldn’t starve, nohow; got no place to go; we ’bleege to take what dey give us.” In the North, white workers came to learn comparable lessons about that much-cherished right to bargain with an employer—that is, they could work at whatever wages and under whatever conditions their hungriest competitors were willing to accept or not work at all. In the postwar South, the options seemed even more limited. If the laborer chose to hold out for better terms, he could be evicted, with the planter free to call on Federal authorities for assistance. If the laborer voluntarily left the plantation, dissatisfied with the previous year’s meager earnings and disinclined to contract for still another year of the same, how would he support himself? To whom could he turn? Although the Freedmen’s Bureau recognized his right to contract elsewhere, it insisted that he contract with some employer; if not, he could be arrested for vagrancy, incarcerated for a brief time, forced to work on the public streets, and finally hired out to an employer under a contract arbitrarily prepared by the Bureau officer. If he chose to work elsewhere, he also faced in some regions the possibility of being blacklisted by other planters, particularly if he had a previous record as a malcontent or rebel. Dissatisfied with conditions, a laborer in Guilford County, North Carolina, left his place of employment and settled a few miles down the road. “I gathered up some o’ our boys,” his former employer declared, “and we went down to this place whar I thought he was at, and told him he’d make tracks before night, and if he was found in this neighborhood arter next day we’d shoot him wharever we found him.… We a’n’t agoin’ to let niggers walk over us.” Finally, if laborers combined among themselves to resist a contract they considered unacceptable, they faced the likelihood of intervention by local militia units or Federal troops.125

Having found no alternative that could sustain them, the vast majority of blacks returned each year to their familiar labors under a contractual arrangement. But it often proved to be a precarious truce rather than a planters’ jubilee. Although blacks found their bargaining power sharply circumscribed, that did not guarantee the quality of their subsequent labor or an orderly plantation. The opprobrium heaped upon black labor in 1865 would be repeated with even greater regularity and the usual expressions of dismay in subsequent years—disregard for contracts, erratic work, arrogant behavior, insolent language, and a contempt for any kind of authority. Few planters considered themselves more exemplary in their behavior and attitudes than Everard Green Baker of Panola, Mississippi. As a slaveholder, he claimed to have made every effort to keep his blacks “joyous and happy,” and the wartime experience no doubt solidified his self-image. While the slaves of neighboring planters fled, his blacks showed “their good sense & stood true to mine & their interests.” After emancipation, they remained with him, and in January 1866 he noted how “cheerfully” they went to work—“perhaps better than any others in the neighborhood.” Six months later, however, for reasons Baker found inexplicable, his freedmen worked only “tolerably,” failing to report early in the morning and remaining in their cabins for two or three hours at noon. “I do not think I will be bothered any more with freedmen,” the discouraged planter confided to his diary. One year later, he added a footnote to that entry: “I had better have adhered to the above resolution. I did not & much regret it.”126

Even if they successfully contracted with their work force, some planters found little relief in the day-to-day ordeal of supervising free black laborers, many of whom refused to surrender their newly acquired prerogatives or accommodate themselves to a contract they had been compelled to sign. On the plantations in South Carolina she had managed since the death of her husband in 1864, Adele Allston had endured work stoppages and near rebellions. With each new crisis her confidence ebbed still further until finally her patience ran out. “Negroes will soon be placed upon an exact equality with ourselves,” she wrote in late 1866, “and it is in vain for us to strive against it.” In 1869, after most of her properties had been sold at auction, she retired to Chicora Wood, her sole possession, and planted a few acres of rice. With similar resignation, Ethelred Philips, the Florida physician and farmer, replaced his “worthless” black servants with “a poor ignorant white girl” and contemplated removing himself and his family to California, where they might be free of “the everlasting negro” rather than have to wait out his inevitable extinction. “They have the China man in place of the African and do what they please with him and no one cares about it—he does not happen to be fashionable color.”127

Few gave up the struggle with greater reluctance and internal torment than Mary Jones, the deeply religious owner of three plantations in Liberty County, Georgia. After the death of her husband in 1863, she had resolved to carry on the family tradition of paternal affection and beneficent regard for the black children of God. If only they had not also been her laborers, acting all too often as adult men and women, the rewards might have been greater. The plantations languished, the freedmen manifested their discontent with the conditions of labor, and an incident early in 1866 proved to be a turning point. Shortly after two blacks—July and Jesse—asked to see a copy of the contract, the black foreman reported to his employer that the laborers “one and all” refused to work; they were dissatisfied with the contract and thought she intended to deceive them. Along with July and Jesse (whom she suspected as the “ringleaders”), Mary Jones proceeded to the nearest office of the Freedmen’s Bureau, where the local agent advised them that the contract was perfectly legal, even if other planters in the area had offered a greater share of the crop to their laborers. That ended the affair and the freedmen returned to work, but for Mary Jones it had obviously been a demeaning experience.

I have told the people that in doubting my word they offered me the greatest insult I ever received in my life; that I had considered them friends and treated them as such, giving them gallons of clabber every day and syrup once a week, with rice and extra dinners; but that now they were only laborers under contract, and only the law would rule between us, and I would require every one of them to come up to the mark in their duty on the plantation. The effect has been decided, and I am not sorry for the position we hold mutually. They have relieved me of the constant desire and effort to do something to promote their comfort.

The relief this may have afforded Mary Jones failed to instill in her workers any greater appreciation for the conditions under which they labored. Several months after the incident, Charles C. Jones, Jr., advised his mother to avoid still another skirmish with the “ingrates” and sell the plantations. Problems would persist everywhere in the South, he warned, as long as whites allowed themselves to be “led by the Negroes” rather than direct and control their labor.

But Mary Jones held on, sustained by her faith in “His infinite wisdom and special guidance,” even as she lost all faith in the ability of her former slaves to become intelligent and reliable free workers.

The whole constitution of the race is adverse to responsibility, to truth, to industry. He can neglect duty and violate contracts without the least compunction of conscience or loss of honor; and he can sink to the lowest depths of want and misery without any sense of shame or feeling of privation which would afflict a sensitive Caucasian.

After still more outbreaks of disaffection (“they dispute even the carrying out and spreading the manure”), new fears (“they all bear arms of some sort”), new losses (“Gilbert is very faithful, and so is Charles. They are the exceptions”), she acceded to her son’s warning that they would all face troublesome times “before the white race regains its suspended supremacy.” Early in 1868, Mary Jones gave up the plantations, which had now become for her “the grave of my buried hopes and affections.”128


ONLY A FEW YEARS after the war, the sight of an old master gathering around him his former slaves, all of whom still maintained that same deference in his presence, filled a white observer in South Carolina with nostalgic memories. He had seen more than enough, he conceded, to know that such exhibitions of the old affections stood out “like an oasis in the desert.” On the eve of Radical Reconstruction, most planters and freedmen appeared to be dissatisfied in various degrees with the workings of the new labor system. While planters fretted over erratic work habits, freedmen complained of little inducement to work. Where it had only recently been popular to contemplate the rapid demise of the African race under freedom, the talk now turned increasingly to the demise of the plantation system, if only because the blacks refused to work as slaves, rebelled against white authority, and rejected any organization of labor that resembled the old times. “If a man got to go crost de riber, and he can’t git a boat, he take a log,” a freedman on James Island, South Carolina, declared after the planters had repossessed their lands. “If I can’t own de land, I’ll hire or lease land, but I won’t contract.”129

Even as the freedman returned to work for wages or shares, disillusionment with the meager rewards of his labor kept alive that persistent “mania for owning a small piece of land” and farming for himself. That is, he retained an aspiration he had seen many whites and even a few blacks realize. With the end of each agricultural season, the aspiration seemed to take on a new life. While trying to explain the unwillingness of blacks to contract in early 1866, a Freedmen’s Bureau officer in South Carolina made a revealing observation, perhaps without fully appreciating its implications: “They appear to be willing to work, but are decisive in their expressions, to work for no one but themselves.” Only a week earlier, another Bureau officer noted the unanimity with which the laborers refused to contract unless they could control the crops they made. After considering the options open to them, the freedmen on Edisto Island, who were about to lose the lands they had been cultivating, declared that nothing could induce them to work again for their former masters under the old system. But if they could rent the lands they now worked, they were willing to remain. It was the only way to retain at least a semblance of the independence they were now being asked to surrender.130

The experiences of planters in various sections of the South testified to the determination of the freedman to “set up for himself.” After paying wages for three years and treating his hands “with the utmost kindness,” a planter in Maury County, Tennessee, seemed perplexed by their “growing dislike to being controlled by or working for white men. They prefer to get a little patch where they can do as they choose.” Before his laborers would agree to contract, a Louisiana planter reported, they insisted on having tracts of land set off for their exclusive use. No sooner had she paid off her hands, Frances Leigh noted, than a number of them took their money and purchased small, inadequate lots out in the pine woods, “where the land was so poor they could not raise a peck of corn to the acre.” Although she thought they had been defrauded, she was still impressed by the obvious enthusiasm with which her former laborers cleared the lots, built their log cabins on it, and prepared to live “like gentlemen.” With similar amazement, she had previously witnessed the remarkable transformation that came over former slaves she thought “far too old and infirm to work for me” when they came into possession of any land. “Once let them get a bit of ground of their own given to them, and they became quite young and strong again.”131

The drift of these experiences, reflecting both old aspirations and recent disappointments, was unmistakable. Unable to acquire ownership of land, whether because he lacked the funds or local custom barred him, the black laborer increasingly resolved on an alternative that would provide him with the feeling if not the actual status of a family farmer. He became a sharecropper. In the usual arrangement, the planter divided his land into small units or “farms” and rented them to individual black families; he also furnished the necessary implements, work animals, and seed. In return, the tenant or “farmer” paid the planter one half of the crops he raised; if he supplied his own tools and animals, he generally paid one fourth to one third of his crops. In either case, he might have to pledge another portion of the prospective crops to the supply merchant (or the landowner serving in that capacity) for the food and clothing he purchased.132

After several years of highly precarious planting, the landowner was not necessarily averse to the rental system, preferring to reorganize the plantation rather than continue an increasingly unprofitable arrangement. At best, he hoped to achieve a modicum of economic success without compromising his ownership of the land and without having to suffer the ordeal of supervising black labor. Such a decision, nevertheless, was not always reached easily. Only when he despaired altogether of operating the place successfully along the old lines did the planter usually agree to divide and rent. That was the only way he could procure labor “under any terms,” an Alabama planter conceded, and still realize “a bare support” from his land. Despite the anguish that often accompanied such decisions, however, the plantation system itself remained very much intact. Only apportionment of land and responsibility on the plantation had been altered.133

But to many freedmen, the new arrangement—tenant farming—seemed promising at first glance because of the feelings of independence it imparted, making them in effect mock farmers and freeing them from the cultivation of staple crops and from working in field gangs under supervision. As if to underscore such feelings, the new tenant might move his cabin from the old slave village out onto the plot of land he had rented or else build a new cabin to symbolize his new autonomy. In opting for this arrangement, moreover, he fully expected to make this plot of land his own through hard work and frugality—precisely as his leaders and many of his white friends from the North had advised him. But in most instances, such aspirations remained unfulfilled and the tenant found himself little better off than he had been under the previous arrangement. “We made crops on shares for three years after freedom, and then we commenced to rent,” Richard Crump recalled. “They didn’t pay everything they promised. They taken a lot of it away from us. They said figures didn’t lie. You know how that was. You dassent dispute a man’s word then.”134

No matter how often the black press celebrated the few examples of economic success and landownership, the great mass of laboring freedmen, whether they rented lands or worked for wages or shares, remained laborers—landless agricultural workers. Even the illusion of independence imparted by tenant farming could not obscure for very long the fact that the black “farmer” enjoyed neither ownership of the soil nor the full rewards of his labor. He worked the white man’s land, planted with the white man’s seeds, plowed with the white man’s plow and mules, and harvested a crop he owed largely to the white man for the land, the seeds, the plow, and the mules, as well as the clothes he wore and the food he consumed. And if his own leaders could offer him little more than the mid-nineteenth-century shibboleths of hard work, perseverance, frugality, and honesty, to whom could he turn? How could he be frugal if he had no money to save? Why should he be honest only to have the white man defraud him? Why should he work hard and persevere if the results of that labor left him even further removed from acquiring the land on which he toiled? “The negro’s first want is, not the ballot, but a chance to live,—yes, sir, a chance to live,” a prominent white Georgian declared in late 1865. “Why, he can’t even live without the consent of the white man! He has no land; he can make no crops except the white man gives him a chance. He hasn’t any timber; he can’t get a stick of wood without leave from a white man. We crowd him into the fewest possible employments, and then he can scarcely get work anywhere but in the rice-fields and cotton plantations of a white man who has owned him and given up slavery only at the point of the bayonet.… What sort of freedom is that?”135

If the freedman’s “mania” for renting or owning land came to symbolize his yearning for economic independence and personal freedom, the betrayal of those expectations confirmed the persistence of the old dependency. The former slave found that all too little had changed. By resorting to a sharecropping arrangement, he had hoped to achieve a significant degree of autonomy; instead, he found himself plunged ever deeper into dependency and debt, pledging his future crops to sustain himself during the current crop. In that brief flurry of excitement and anticipation at the moment of freedom, there had been all kinds of talk about land and “living independently” and being able to do what the white folks did. But the talk was now of survival, their principal hopes remained unfulfilled, and some freedmen were certain they had been hopelessly betrayed. “We thought we was goin’ to get rich like the white folks,” recalled Felix Haywood, who had been a slave in Texas. “We thought we was goin’ to be richer than the white folks, ’cause we was stronger and knowed how to work, and the whites didn’t and they didn’t have us to work for them anymore. But it didn’t turn out that way. We soon found out that freedom could make folks proud but it didn’t make ’em rich.”136

More than seventy years after emancipation, Thomas Hall, who had been born a slave in Orange County, North Carolina, could still shake with anger when he thought about the way his people had been freed. “Lincoln got the praise for freeing us, but did he do it? He give us freedom without giving us any chance to live to ourselves and we still had to depend on the southern white man for work, food and clothing, and he held us through our necessity and want in a state of servitude but little better than slavery. Lincoln done but little for the negro race and from living standpoint nothing.” While relating a history of white betrayal, North and South, the bitterness overflowed and he finally turned it upon the white interviewer.

You are going around to get a story of slavery conditions and the persecutions of negroes before the civil war and the economic conditions concerning them since that war. You should have known before this late day all about that. Are you going to help us? No! you are only helping yourself. You say that my story may be put into a book, that you are from the Federal Writers’ Project. Well, the negro will not get anything out of it, no matter where you are from. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I didn’t like her book and I hate her. No matter where you are from I don’t want you to write my story cause the white folks have been and are now and always will be against the negro.137

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