Land and Labor, 1866-1867

Land and Labor, 1866-1867

Land and Labor, 1866-1867

Land and Labor, 1866-1867

Synopsis

Land and Labor, 1866-1867 examines the remaking of the South's labor system in the tumultuous aftermath of emancipation. Using documents selected from the National Archives, this volume of Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation depicts the struggle of unenfranchised and impoverished ex-slaves to control their own labor, establish their families as viable economic units, and secure independent possession of land. Among the topics addressed are the dispossession of settlers in the Sherman reserve, the reordering of labor on plantation and farm, nonagricultural labor, new relations of credit and debt, long-distance labor migration, and the efforts of former slaves to rent, purchase, and homestead land. The documents--many of them in the freedpeople's own words--speak eloquently for themselves, while the editors' interpretive essays provide context and illuminate major themes.

Excerpt

A new year promises new beginnings, and the winter of 1865–1866 presented a broad field of possibilities in the erstwhile slave states. On the South’s plantations and farms, crops had been harvested, and former slaves and former slaveholders were making arrangements for the next year’s work. The Thirteenth Amendment, which became part of the U.S. Constitution on December 18, 1865, abolished slavery throughout the nation, ensuring that the crops of 1866 would be the first since the seventeenth century to be produced by a labor force without a single slave. In Washington, Congress convened in December after being out of session in the critical months following the conclusion of war. Empowered to enforce the new amendment “by appropriate legislation,” the lawmakers assembled with reconstruction of the former Confederate states and the future of the emancipated slaves at the top of their agenda.

For former slaves and their former owners, free labor remained unfamiliar ground they were learning to navigate. Slavery had not expired until the previous spring and summer—even later in remote parts of the defeated Confederacy and in the Union states of Kentucky and Delaware. In its place stood the hastily instituted labor arrangements of 1865 under which federal authorities had prohibited corporal punishment and insisted that ex-slaves be compensated for their work, but otherwise awarded employers authority in the workplace. Freedpeople on plantations and farms had labored under agreements that required them to remain to the end of the year and delayed payment until the contract was fulfilled, while employers had been required to feed and house all the ex-slaves on their estates, workers and nonworkers alike. Intent on maintaining order and securing the harvest, federal officials had discouraged freedpeople from leaving the places where they resided at the conclusion of the war. With the year’s end, however, they were now at liberty to negotiate new terms of work with their current employers or to go elsewhere, while former slaveowners and other employers were at liberty to hire whomever they wished. It was, in a sense, a second emancipation.

Brief though it was, the postwar debut of free labor had left a legacy of issues that would remain contested for the remainder of Presidential Reconstruction and well . . .

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