After Slavery: Educator Resources

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7. Sawmill Operator Tries to Prevent Employees from Voting the Radical Ticket

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Six: Pursuing Citizenship: Justice & Equality in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

Being formally granted the right to vote was one thing: exercising that right was more complicated. Particularly in isolated, rural areas where freedmen's employment options were severely limited and where individual planters wielded considerable economic and political power, employers leveraged their economic advantage to attempt to coerce blacks into voting the conservative ticket. The following series of letters, from a sawmill operator somewhere in the vicinity of Hamburg, South Carolina, shows both the intense politicization among freedpeople in the fall of 1868 and the exasperation of an employer who, in this case, seems to have failed in persuading those dependent on him to refrain from voting. All the letters below were sent by George Ghiselin to his client, Edgefield planter Thomas J. McKie.

Sawmill Operator Tries to Prevent Employees from Voting the Radical Ticket


[October 9, 1868]

Dear Sir,

Yr favor of this day's date is at hand & contents noted. I have notified Jack that I shall retain $4 (Four Dolls) of his wages, the amt due to you & therefore adjourn [?] the debt.

I send you 15 plank at 21 ft. 10 plank at 16 ft. & 30 Slats -3x1-16 ft. long. The 14 in by 1 1/2 plank I will endeavor select & send when yr team is next here.

Tho' not positive of such being the case, I am somewhat of the impression that my Employees will relinquish their votive [sic] privilege. If so they must decide on or before Saturday Evg. should they persist however I shall at once send off for white men, unless there be concert of action on the part of the Employers both as regards white & black labor, the matter of steady & reliable employees must of necessity be a thing of the future.

P.S. I must do Jack the credit to say that he most cheerfully recognized his indebtedness to you.


[October 27, 1868]

Dr Sir,

Your favor of this day's date is at hand & I Send by your team 30 plank 21 ft. long...

I fully concur with you as to the entire absence of merit in the African race entitling them to confidence. On Sunday last I permitted two of those in my employ to ride mules to the Store at "Crofton's". They chose to go as far down as the ferry without my knowledge or consent to attend a radical meeting. On learning of it yesterday I called the employees together, pointed out to them in the plainest & most forcible manner the folly & error of their voting in favor of radicalism, but the poison has taken to deep a hold & they all seem resolved on voting as directed by radical Emissaries on Tuesday next, in which event I have assured them they can no longer work for me.

I trust every gentleman in the neighborhood will sustain me by refusing to give them employment as no other cause for dissatisfaction exists. I shall endeavor in Augusta or elsewhere to secure negro laborers freed from such infatuations, or else employ White men.


[November 2, 1868]

Dear Sir,

On Saturday last I sent you 30 planks 16 ft. long 12x1, but was too much engaged to give your Teamster a memo of it... This morning I discharged 3 of my hands[:] Jack, Jacob & Dan. I gave them from Monday until Saturday night to decide to whether or not they would vote, they were unwilling to give me a positive answer & I thereupon told them I would dispense with their services. I hope & expect to have their places filled by white men. I [kept] two who promised me last week in my parley that they would stay at the Mill & attend to their work.


[November 5, 1868]

...Last night about 15 ft in length of lumber cut from my sawbelt was carried off, I suppose it was done in consequence of my discharging the hands.


[November 28, 1868]

Dear Sir

Since 31st ulto, I have been mainly relying upon hands hired pr diem to keep the saw mill in operation, & such I fear will be the case until the 1st Jany next for consequence I have to pay higher rates for labor & settle weekly. The difficulty of making collections in and above this vicinity, subjects me to the necessity of making another application to you on account of lumber delivered, & much as I regret it, before all you require is hauled [?] away...

Source: George R. Ghiselin to Thomas J. McKie, Thomas Jefferson McKie Papers, Duke University Special Collections


Questions to Consider

  1. Some critics of black suffrage warned that planters and other employers would use their advantages to compel blacks to vote the conservative ticket. Does the evidence in these letters confirm or refute these predictions?

  2. Why does Ghiselin consider it important that employers act together in disciplining their "white and black laborers"? Does he appear confident that such a strategy will succeed?

  3. In weighing up whether to agree to the conditions outlined in Ghiselin's "parley" with his workforce, what factors might freedmen have to take into consideration?

  4. Three men refuse to agree to 'relinquish' their vote. Where will they now go for employment?

  5. In some ways, his coercive approach seems to backfire on Ghiselin. What are the unexpected consequences of his actions?

Return to Exhibition: Unit Six