After Slavery: Educator Resources

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11. A Freedpeople's 'Co-operative' in Colleton County, South Carolina

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Three: Land and Labor in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

By the mid-1870s, it was becoming clear that there would be no large scale transfer of land to those who had not owned it before the war. The wartime measures had been turned back by President Andrew Johnson, and such a revolutionary act as breaking up and redistributing plantations could probably only have succeeded in the fast-paced world of military control. The more measured actions of the South Carolina Land Commission ran into a number of problems: corruption, not enough good quality land for sale, and buyers who simply lacked the resources to hang onto land once they did buy it, particularly as the economy declined during this time period and the price of cotton dropped. A rare but potentially useful alternative was the cooperative arrangement described here in 1873 in Colleton County, South Carolina, a center of rice production between Charleston and Beaufort.

A Freedpeople's 'Co-operative' in Colleton County, South Carolina


Some of the largest plantations in Colleton County, South Carolina, are now owned and successfully conducted by colored people, who have united their resources and combine in their labor. Their manner of operation is thus described by a South Carolina paper: "A number of them, in some cases as many as fifty, form themselves into a society, elect their officers, and adopt by-laws. They have regular meetings, at which the officers report, and a specified amount is paid into the treasury by each member. When sufficient is accumulated in the treasury a suitable plantation is selected and the purchase made; usually the payments are in one, two, or three years, a good portion being paid at the time of the purchase. The land is equally distributed by the officers elected for that purpose among the members of the society, or so much as they may wish to cultivate. Each is free to work as suits him, and each can dispose of his crop as he deems proper. The only thing required is honesty and a prompt payment of all dues, which are usually very light. Any one willfully failing to meet his dues, or convicted of dishonesty, has all amounts previously paid by him for the purchase of the place refunded, and is required to move off the plantation, all his rights and claims having been forfeited.

If, however, any one desires to leave the society, he is paid for all amounts paid by him toward the purchase and for all permanent improvements erected by him. No new member is admitted except by the consent of the whole society. All sick are cared for by the society if unable to care for themselves, officers being elected to look after such cases and report their wants to the society at its weekly meetings or at special meetings, if the exigency of the case requires it. All disputes arising between members are brought before the society, certain of the officers being designated to hear and endeavor to amicably arrange all dissensions, and it is very seldom, if ever, they fail. Petty litigation, that is the great bane of the colored people in many sections, is in this way avoided. These societies are principally formed from people who work for hire, fifty cents per day being the sum generally paid; the plantation is usually bought as soon as sufficient funds are in the treasury to make the first payment; but few, if any, own any animals in that time, their small resources being expended in the purchase-money and erection of houses. Still they have, in all cases where an exorbitant price was not paid for the land, proved successful, failures for a time occasionally arising where incompetent or unfaithful officers have been selected; but with their usual shrewdness these incompetent officers were soon detected, and others more capable were elected in their places. Upon those that have been in operation three or four years the land has been paid for, and the members have acquired considerable personal property and are generally prosperous.

A sort of rivalry seems to spring up between them, which is productive of economy and thrift. These societies are located in the low country east of the Savannah and Charleston Railroad. We do not presume to say that only the colored people who have formed themselves into these societies show thrift and the accumulation of property, for a number who, six or seven years ago, were not worth a dollar now carry on successfully large rice and cotton plantations, and are becoming heavy tax-payers. But in the particular section in which these societies are formed, more property exists among their members than among those who are now fighting the battle of life and death on their own account, while from the formation of these societies they are enabled to purchase more valuable property and secure greater privileges than they could if each laid his money out in a separate purchase, in which case ten or twenty acres of poor land would be all he would be able to buy, as no planter would consent to cut off and sell small tracts of his best land and retain himself the poorer portion. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons of their success, as on nearly all the plantations in this section a large proportion of the land is almost valueless.

By securing the whole plantation they obtain sufficient good land for their purposes, while he who purchases for himself generally gets such land that it is impossible to make more than a poor subsistence from.

Source: "Negro Co-operation," New York Times, August 17, 1873.


Questions to Consider

  1. Colleton County was home to many large rice plantations both before and after the war. Is it likely that the black farmers discussed in this document were growing rice? Why or why not?

  2. What advantages would the system of self-government for the cooperative plantations have for its members?

  3. Why was "petty litigation . . . the great bane of the colored people in many sections"?

  4. Why might the cooperative purchase of a large plantation be more successful than individual purchases of smaller farms?

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