Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery

Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery

Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery

Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery


As Louisiana and Cuba emerged from slavery in the late nineteenth century, each faced the question of what rights former slaves could claim. Degrees of Freedom compares and contrasts these two societies in which slavery was destroyed by war, and citizenship was redefined through social and political upheaval. Both Louisiana and Cuba were rich in sugar plantations that depended on an enslaved labor force. After abolition, on both sides of the Gulf of Mexico, ordinary people-cane cutters and cigar workers, laundresses and labor organizers-forged alliances to protect and expand the freedoms they had won. But by the beginning of the twentieth century, Louisiana and Cuba diverged sharply in the meanings attributed to race and color in public life, and in the boundaries placed on citizenship.

Louisiana had taken the path of disenfranchisement and state-mandated racial segregation; Cuba had enacted universal manhood suffrage and had seen the emergence of a transracial conception of the nation. What might explain these differences?

Moving through the cane fields, small farms, and cities of Louisiana and Cuba, Rebecca Scott skillfully observes the people, places, legislation, and leadership that shaped how these societies adjusted to the abolition of slavery. The two distinctive worlds also come together, as Cuban exiles take refuge in New Orleans in the 1880s, and black soldiers from Louisiana garrison small towns in eastern Cuba during the 1899 U. S. military occupation.

Crafting her narrative from the words and deeds of the actors themselves, Scott brings to life the historical drama of race and citizenship in postemancipation societies.


At the midpoint of the nineteenth century, the plantation production of sugar in both Louisiana and Cuba rested on the enslaved labor of tens of thousands of men and women of African descent. On both sides of the Gull of Mexico slaves planted, hoed, cut, lifted, and hauled the sugar cane. On through the night work crews kept the mills grinding and the kettles boiling to turn the cane juice into crystals. It seemed that there would be no end to constraint and exertion.

Yet in the second half of the nineteenth century each of these slave systems was destroyed by war and by the upheaval and legislation that followed war. At this moment, when the two economies faced enormous challenges, former slaves stepped forcefully onto the public scene. As soldiers, laborers, and traders, as farmers and activists, they sought to win and then give durable meaning to their freedom. the place of black and white workers within the sugar economy, and the conditions of their encounters with each other, proved to be a crucial element in a struggle in which labor and politics were inextricably linked. There is, in effect, no convincing way to isolate something called “race relations” from the spe-

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