Hidden Connections: Land and Labour

Slave emancipation in the United States

Almost universally, freedpeople linked their prospects for political equality to being able to secure land and establish themselves independently of their former owners. “Gib us our own land and we take care of ourselves,” a Charleston freedman told a travelling Northern correspondent, “but widout land, de ole massas can hire us or starve us, as they please.” In the closing months of the war, the federal government had raised freedpeople’s expectations that the property of the largest of the South’s planters might be redistributed among those who had worked it. But it was not to be. 

Confiscation—regarded as a measure of basic justice by freed slaves who had never been compensated for their labour—was advocated by a vocal minority among the Radical Republicans, but was opposed both by Southern planters and the Northern industrialists who heavily influenced the moderate Republican majority. And among the most crippling blows which Andrew Johnson’s administration dealt to the hopes of freedpeople was his decision to restore to its former owners the lands granted under General Sherman’s wartime order — a decision that produced armed confrontations between freedpeople on the South Carolina Sea Islands and the U. S. troops sent out to drive them from the land. 

Restoration did not definitively settle the question of freedpeople’s economic status, however. Sharing racial assumptions that had developed over many years, planters and other employers doubted whether the ‘free labour’ system could work in the plantations South. Deeply engrained habits of labour management persisted, producing confrontations throughout the period of Reconstruction. Where freedpeople exercised a degree of leverage—as in the rice and sugar fields, or on the docks along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts—labour strikes aimed at improving their wages and conditions developed. 

But in the long run, despite the political convulsions, the federal government’s unwillingness to tamper with the planters’ property rights or to intervene in laying the economic foundations for freedpeoples’ independence, meant that propertied whites continued to hold the upper hand. Overwhelmingly destitute and propertyless, former slaves were compelled to come back to whites seeking a means of making a living. In the long run this had profound implications for the scope and quality of black political autonomy as well.

Georgia Field Hands Picking Cotton

Georgia field hands picking cotton

U.S Library of Congress

Freepeople Attempt to Resist Restoration of Lands of their Former Owners at St John's Island, South Carolina

Freepeople Attempt to Resists Restoration...

New York Times, February 2 1866

Freepeople at Work: Building levees at Baton Rouge; Steamboat Roustabouts on the Mississippi; Phospate Workers in the Carolina Lowcountry

Freepeople at Work

Harper's Weekly, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper

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