After Slavery: Educator Resources

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2. Freedmen's Bureau Report on the Treatment of Plantation Laborers in Gates County, North 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.

The Confederate surrender in April 1865 did not necessarily bring immediate relief to newly freed slaves. In some places along the South Carolina and Georgia coast, planters had lost their grip in the early period of the war and freedpeople enjoyed relatively wide latitude in shaping the new society that would replace the Confederacy. But in rural areas, out of the path of federal troops and away from the protective shield of Union garrisons, white southern employers retained the upper hand, and there are reports from the interior of slaves being informed of their freedom as late as August and September 1865—four or five months after the war's end.

Even where emancipation was formally acknowledged, embittered whites resisted making any real changes to the labor regime. The report below, from Freedmen's Bureau agents in eastern North Carolina, shows in gruesome detail the persistence of the deeply ingrained habits of management carried over from slavery. For freedpeople themselves, and for their allies attached to the federal government and the Republican party, the struggle to rid their working lives of physical brutality and degradation would be difficult and treacherous.

Freedmen's Bureau Report on the Treatment of Plantation Laborers in Gates County, North Carolina

I forward to you . . . a report of a case which occurred in Gates county, on the northern border of the State, far away from any influence of troops, and where the military power of the government had been little felt. No doubt it illustrates others in similar localities far from garrisons and northern influences . . . . Reports had reached me of the way in which David Parker, of Gates county, treated his colored people, and I determined to ascertain for myself their truth. Accordingly, last Monday, August 20, accompanied by a guard of six men from this post, (Elizabeth City,) I proceeded to his residence, about forty miles distant. He is very wealthy. I ascertained, after due investigation, and after convincing his colored people that I was really their friend, that the worst reports in regard to him were true. He had twenty-three negroes on his farm, large and small. Of these fourteen were field-hands; they all bore unmistakable evidence of the way they had been worked; very much undersized, rarely exceeding, man or woman, 4 feet 6 inches—men and women of thirty and forty years of age looking like boys and girls. It has been his habit for years to work them from sunrise to sunset, and often long after, only stopping one hour for dinner—food always cooked for them to save time.

He had, and has had for many years, an old colored man, one-eyed and worn out in the service, for an overseer or "over-looker" as he calls himself. In addition, he has two sons at home, one of whom has made it a point to be with them all summer long—not so much to superintend as to drive. The old colored overseer always went behind the gang with the cane and whip, and woe betide the unlucky wretch who did not continually do his part; he had been brought up to work, and had not the least pity for any one who could not work as well as he.

Mr. Parker told me that he had hired his people for the season: directly after the surrender of General Lee he called them up and told them they were free; that he was better used to them than to others, and would prefer hiring them; that he would give them board and two suits of clothing to stay with him until the 1st day of January, 1866, and one Sunday suit at the end of that time; that they consented willingly—in fact, preferred to remain with him, &c. But from his people I learned that though he did call them up, as stated, yet when one of them demurred at the offer his son James flew at him and cuffed and kicked him; that after that they were all 'perfectly willing to stay;' they were watched night and day; that Bob, one of the men had been kept chained nights; that they were actually afraid to try to get away.

There was no complaint of the food nor much of the clothing, but they were in constant terror of the whip. Only three days before my arrival, Bob had been stripped in the field and given fifty lashes for hitting Adam, the colored over-looker, while James Parker stood by with a gun, and told him to run if he wanted to, he had a gun there. About four weeks before, four of them who went to church and returned before sunset were treated to twenty-five lashes each. Some were beaten or whipped almost every day. Having ascertained of these and other similar facts, I directed him to call them up and pay them from the first of May last up to the present time. [After investigating] I then arrested him and his two sons . . . intending to send them to Newberry for trial. But on account of the want of immediate transportation I concluded to release them on their giving a bond in the sum of $2,000 to [Freedmen's Bureau officials].

Source: Report of Captain James, included in Testimony of Col. E. Whittlesey, [Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner for North Carolina], 39th U. S. Congress, Joint Select Committee Report on Reconstruction, June 1866


Questions to Consider 

  1. Why was it important that, in undertaking his investigation, Captain James managed to convince the laborers that he was "really their friend." Why might this be difficult?

  2. Why do you suppose these conditions are more likely to prevail "far away from any influence of troops?" If this treatment became common in outlying areas, what effect might this have on population movement? On the availability of labor in rural districts?

  3. How can we explain the behavior of the colored 'over-looker' in inflicting such harsh punishments on field hands? How does his behavior challenge assumptions about black racial solidarity during this period?

  4. According to his own account, James is compelled to give up his attempts to prosecute the Parkers because of inadequate resources (inability to secure transport, in this case). If similar problems of resources continue to confront the Freedmen's Bureau, what will be the effect on its ability to protect freedpeople?

Return to Exhibition: Unit Three