The Freedmen's Bureau and Reconstruction: Reconsiderations

By Paul A. Cimbala; Randall M. Miller | Go to book overview

9
The Freedmen's Bureau and
Wage Labor in the Louisiana
Sugar Region

John C. Rodrigue

IN EARLY 1868, John H. Brough, the Freedmen's Bureau assistant subassistant commissioner at Donaldsonville, Louisiana, reported on the unsettled state of affairs in his district. ""T"he Freedmen are unwilling to go to work for such wages as the Planters can afford to give them," Brough noted, "but are insisting for very high wages, which as Planters have but barely cleared expenses and many are entirely broken up—cannot be given." Freedmen throughout the area were conducting meetings, he added, "addressed by persons who are advising the Laborers not to work unless they can get from $20 to $25 per month with rations included." Admitting that "it is the right of the freedmen to get the best wages possible," Brough nonetheless contended that "this holding aloof from work, because they cannot get high wages is ruinous to themselves and will eventually bring them to penury and want, and all the consequent results."1

Brough's report highlighted several key issues in the development of wage labor in the Louisiana sugar region—located in the southeastern part of the state—after the Civil War. Freedmen had mastered the internal workings of the labor market, and they had shrewdly discerned how, by acting collectively, they could make it work to their advantage, even going so far as to demand what Brough believed were unreasonably high wages. Although Brough acknowledged that the former slaves had the legal right to seek the highest possible compensation for their services, he also expressed the fear of many Bureau agents that the freedmen's "holding aloof from work" would prove to be self-destructive. Yet Brough's evident inac-

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