Teaching with Online Primary Sources: Documents from the National Archives: "To Labour Diligently" Searching for Economic Independence in the Post-Civil War South

Article excerpt

On December 30, 1865, landowner John Taylor and nine freedman signed a labor contract in Mecklenburg County, Virginia. Under the terms of this contract, Taylor agreed to pay the freedmen "one third (1/3) part of the entire crop made by them on his plantation in the year 1866." Taylor would not provide food or clothing but would furnish lodging and firewood. In return, the freedmen "obligate[d] themselves ... to labour diligently and faithfully and to perform all duties required of them ... and be obedient and respectful to their employer and the head man appointed over them ... They also agree to work after night (if necessary) ..." (1)

With the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, slavery had come to an end as a legal institution in the United States. However, landowners' need for agricultural labor and freed men and women's need for income continued. It was not to be a peaceful transition. As historian Eric Foner has argued, "Between the planters' need for a disciplined labor force and the freedmen's quest for autonomy, conflict was inevitable." (2) Accustomed to near-absolute control over a slave workforce, former slave owners faced a new reality in which, at least to some degree, freedpeople were able to exercise some control over their working lives.

Interposed between white landowners and the recently freed slaves was the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen's Bureau), established in March 1865. Charged with providing rations, education, and legal protection to former slaves, the bureau also served as an intermediary in the formation of a new labor system to replace slavery. Specifically, the bureau placed great faith in the ability of labor contracts--such as the one referenced above--to ease racial tension and to restore southern agricultural productivity. (3) Indeed, the Bureau all but required freedmen and women to accept work. According to General O.O. Howard, the Bureau's Commissioner, freedmen and women "should be encouraged, and if necessary, compelled to labor for their own support." (4) Orlando Brown, the Virginia Freedmen's Bureau assistant commissioner, instructed his subordinates that:

   Your duties will be to protect the negroes in their rights as
   freemen, to see that ... they are not oppressed or injured by their
   former masters by false charges, unjust punishment or otherwise.

   You will aid them, by your advice, in making contracts for their

   You will also let them understand, that when their contracts for
   services are made with the whites, they are under obligations to
   and must fulfill the same. You will annul all contracts that may
   have been made with the freedmen, that are injurious and

   You will not issue rations to any person able to work, for whom
   employment can be found. (5)

It remained to be seen to what extent the labor contracts negotiated by the Freedmen's Bureau would differ from work formerly compelled by masters of their slaves. One Louisiana contract, for example, required a freedwoman to behave "myself as when I was owned by him as a slave." (6) Other landowners used more subtle language in an attempt to reassert the authority they had held as slaveowners. (7) Landowner John Taylor, for example, required that the freedmen contracting with him "labour diligently and faithfully and to perform all duties required of them." This language is broad enough that Taylor might have assumed that his new employees were little different from the slaves he once owned.

Additionally, some landowners opted not to honor labor agreements. For example, Alfred Goffney, a freedman, had been hired by a Virginia landowner, "Widow" Strange at $8 per month. Without receiving any pay, he was ordered off her land, in August 1865. Indeed, she "threatened to shoot him if he did not leave...." However, the Bureau ordered Strange to pay $5.20 in wages to Goffney. …