The end of the Civil War and slave emancipation arrived in the middle of the agricultural growing season in the South. To abandon the crops that had been planted in the spring would be to invite widespread hunger come winter, for all southerners, black and white, who depended on the year's yield of corn, potatoes, vegetables, and fruit for their next year's subsistence. The health of the staple crops too was of paramount importance. Southerners needed the income derived from the sale of cotton, sugar, and rice to begin the arduous process of rebuilding their lives. Thus, often without any prompting from northern authorities, farmers and planters entered into agreements that would ensure sufficient supplies of agricultural workers to see their crops through to harvest. For former slaveholders, this was an enormous step. While many white southerners were familiar with hiring workers (they had routinely hired carpenters to build homes, coopers to make barrels, and mechanics to repair cotton gins), they had generally owned those who had labored in their fields. With freedom, planters had few choices but to enter into contractual relations with those they had once called property.
Although the following contract was drawn up by a planter in Austin County, Texas, landowners across the South produced similar agreements in late spring and summer of 1865.
Usually read aloud by planters in the same speeches in which they announced emancipation to their former slaves, contracts like this one used by A. T. Oliver speak volumes about the kind of social, economic, and political system that the South's planters hoped to enforce after emancipation.
A Planter's Vision of Freedom and Free Labor
July 1st 1865
Copy of contract
We the following named negroes, formerly belonging to A. T. Oliver, do agree to remain as heretofore, and work as heretofore, for A. T. Oliver on his plantation; to cultivate and save his crop on said plantation from this date July 1st 1865, until the 1st of January 1866; the said Oliver agrees to furnish them, the following named negroes, their usual clothing, medicines, and attention when sick for themselves and children; and at the end of the year, he agrees to pay them what he thinks is right for each one according to his value in making, and saving said crop; the said negroes are to do good, and faithful work under the control, and direction of said A. T. Oliver or agent, and not to leave the plantation without a pass from said Oliver, and conform to all the rules of the plantation as heretofore, Cummins, Lidia, Moses, Eli, Manda Andrew, Georgiana, Dave, Harreitt & 3 children, Bene & 1 child, Billy, Jane & 2 children, Martha Hobson, Rena, Marsh, Quince, Louisa & 4 children Jack, Mariah & 1 child, Thomas, Lucy & 1 child, Israel Frank, Mitchel, Clary & 1 child, John, Charlotte & 3 children, Dorrick, Helen & 3 children, Edmond Watson, Jane & 2 children, Paddy 7 years old, Frank Isaac, Mariah, Asaline & 5 children, Louis, Lina, & 2 children, Aggy, worthless, two boys Osca, & Virgil, Jacob Emily & 3 children, Primus, Isham, Docia & 3 children Frances, Ham, Vina, Eliza & 2 children, Crockett, Martha & 3 children, Henry (boy) Mat, Sam, Rachael, Jerry, America Taylor, Kitty, Amonette & 3 children, Stephen 2 children, Charles, Sally & 2 children In testimony whereof I hereunto sign my name, and affix my seal, using scroll for seal, this the day and date above mentioned.
[signed] A. T. Oliver
Source: Contract between A. T. Oliver and Cummins et al., 1 July 1865, filed with 1st Lt Levi Jones to Col W. H. Sinclair, 26 Mar. 1866, J 1 1866, Registered Letters Received, ser. 3620, TX Asst. Comr., RG 105.
Questions to Consider
1. With whom is A. T. Oliver contracting?
2. What are the terms of employment as Oliver lays them out? What does he expect Cummins, Lidia, Moses, and all the rest to do? What does he obligate himself to do?
3. The contract stipulates that the black women and men "to remain as heretofore, and work as heretofore." Why do you think this phrase appears in the first line of the contract? What does it tell us about Oliver's expectations? How do those expectations compare to the ideas put forward by Charles Soule (Document 4)?
4. Who signs this contract? What does that suggest about whose ideas are imbedded in it?
5. Why would Cummins, Lidia, Moses, and all the rest decide to stay (and we know that they do)? What sort of advantages do you see accruing to them when they agree to stay on Oliver's plantation? What might be some of the costs in leaving? How do your answers help us understand at least these black women and men's ideas about and expectations for freedom?
6. It is all too tempting to view all forms of inequality and oppression as the same. It is a tendency that often leads scholars of the post-emancipation period to see slavery lurking behind every corner, especially when they consider contracts like the one drawn up by A. T. Oliver. Yet is this a valid conclusion? Do you see in this contract an effort by Oliver to reinstate slavery on its antebellum terms? Why or why not?
7. Can you see any commonalities between the terms of this contract and the labor regulations spelled out by South Carolina lawmakers in the 1865 "Black Codes"? (See Unit 3, Document 8.)