Former slaveholders groused endlessly about the unwillingness of black women and men to work hard in freedom. For many, such contentions became the rationale for demanding back their whips and other implements by which planters had driven black workers in slavery. Others demanded—and in South Carolina passed—legislation that allowed employers to use state power to discipline and drive free workers. But statements from former slaves suggest that the problem was not that freedpeople refused to work, but that they refused to work in ways dictated by their erstwhile masters. In the document transcription below, three freedmen from lowcountry Georgia write about their experiences as workers since emancipation, offering what amounts to a rebuttal of white southerners' claims about lazy and indolent ex-slaves.
Former Slaves Describe Conditions on a Georgia Plantation
Medway church Liberty county [Ga.] Nov 28th 1865
Dear Sir We the People of Liberty county & State of georgia Set Free from the oppression of Slavery, Desire through our Delegates, Messrs, Toney, Golden; Gabriel, Andrews; & Toney Axom; To appeal to you asking aid and counsel in this our Distressed condition; We Learned, from the Address of general Howard that we were to Return to the Plantation and Work for our Former owners at a Reasonable contract as Freemen;and find, a Home and Labour, Provided We can agree But these owners of Plantation out here Says they only Will Hire or Take the Prime Hands and our old and Infirm Mothers, and Farthers and our children will not Be Provided for; and this you will See Sir Put us in confusion; yet there are some that have Become free are op[un] Plantations, that Do not know of their Freedom and we Dare not Mention that they are free: We cannot Labour for the Land owners and know that our Infirm and children are Not Provided for; and not Allowed to educate or Learn More than they were permitted in Slavery; our School that was established in the county are Broken up, and We are Destitute of Religious Worship, having No Home or Place to Live when we leave the Plantations Returned to our Former owners; we are A Working class of People and We are Willing and are Desirous to worke for A Fair compensation; But to return to work opon the Terms, that are at Present offered to us, Would Be we Think going Backe into the State of Slavery that we have Just to some extent Been Delivered from; We Appeal to you Sir and through you to the Rulers of the country in our Distressed state, and Declare that We feel, unsettled as Sheep Without A Shepard, and Beg you Advice and Assistance, and Believe Sir that this is an Earnest Appeal from, A Pour But Loyal Earnest People Most Respectfully Submitted for your consideration In Behalf of the People of Liberty county By
William, Toney Golden
Source: William, Toney Golden et al. to Col, H. F, Sickles, 28 Nov. 1865, Unregistered Letters Received, ser. 1013, Savannah GA Subasst. Comr., RG 105: Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands.
Questions to Consider
1. What kind of problems have the authors of this letter encountered since emancipation? What kind of problems or issues do they not talk about?
2. What is that they want to do, and what (or who) stands in their way?
3. On what terms are the authors of this letter willing to work? Who has the right to determine what those terms ought to be?
4. How do the ideas about freedom that emerge in this document compare to those put forward by the committee who wrote General Howard from Edisto Island? (See Document 7) Do they want or value the same things in freedom? Why or why not?
5. How might the ideas and expectations outlined in this letter shape political debates between freedmen after enfranchisement? To put it differently, what kind of policies might they be inclined support?
6. How do you imagine William Barnes (Document 6), A. T. Oliver (Document 5), or Andrew Johnson (Document 2 and Document 3) responding to this letter? On what points might they differ? On what points might they agree?