Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Reconstruction in the Cane Fields: From Slavery to Free Labor in Louisiana's Sugar Parishes, 1862-1880

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Reconstruction in the Cane Fields: From Slavery to Free Labor in Louisiana's Sugar Parishes, 1862-1880

Article excerpt

Reconstruction in the Cane Fields: From Slavery to Free Labor in Louisiana's Sugar Parishes, 1862-1880. By John C. Rodrigue. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. Pp. xvi, 224. Acknowledgments, abbreviations, introduction, illustrations, epilogue, appendix, bibliography, index. $55.00, cloth; $24.95, paper.)

John C. Rodrigue examines emancipation and its effects on labor in a single area of the American South, Louisiana's sugar parishes. In Reconstruction in the Cane Fields, Rodrigue argues that, unlike the cotton South, Louisiana's sugar-growing region turned to wage labor in the postwar years to meet the peculiar demands of sugar production. A "forced crop," sugar called for a centralized plantation system, one in which laborers had to complete specific tasks at certain times of the year to insure a successful crop. To maintain such a system, planters had to attract and maintain a steady work force. Freedmen realized this need afforded them leverage to bargain for fair wages and working conditions. Rodrigue writes, "The labor market enabled freedmen to harmonize their desire for autonomy with the demands of sugar production, and it compelled planters to meet freedmen's terms on wages, working conditions and other matters" (p. 121). Rodrigue's analysis of how labor conflicts between sugar planters and freedmen were resolved within this southern Louisiana region during a time when both parties' roles were being re-written is an important contribution to our understanding of Reconstruction as it played itself out on the many stages of the postwar South.

"Essentially a social history, one that tells the story of the relations between contending social classes within a specific agricultural context" (p. 7), Rodrigue's work begins with a historical overview of the Louisiana sugar industry, its production demands, and plantation routines. With an analysis of free labor as it developed between 1860 and 1880, Rodrigue looks at the beginnings of the monthly wage labor system during the war, the emergence of a labor market during Presidential Reconstruction, and black political mobilization during Radical Reconstruction and its impact on freedmen's working lives. Rodrigue also details planter persistence through the difficulties of the postwar years, the uncertainty of the labor market, and the modernization of the sugar industry as Americans struggled for a foothold in an expanding world market. …

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