After Slavery: Educator Resources

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3. A Virginia Freedwoman Critiques the Gendered Nature of Freedom and Free Labor

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Seven: Gender and the Politics of Freedom in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

The vast majority of freedwomen faced a very particular and daunting set of challenges with emancipation. Long valued by slaveholders as much (and often more) for the children they bore than for the labor they could perform, black women suddenly found themselves adrift in freedom, shunned by those who up until the end of slavery had seen their futures in black women's progeny. Indeed, so highly prized after the 1808 closing of the international slave trade were black women that they were often the first purchases of new slaveholders. That value evaporated in freedom. What planters wanted under a free-labor system were first class, prime "No. 1" hands: generally men who could perform tasks such as splitting three or four hundred fence rails raised between dawn and dark and plowing up new ground. They also had to perform such services on a dependable day-by-day basis. Women, especially those with nursing babies, "stay in too much & jeopardize the crop." This is not to say that planters got their way. To be sure, countless numbers of agricultural employers hired black women, but their preference for the able bodied and usually male workers meant that black women entered the labor market at a severe disadvantage, often working for little more than their room and board. If a woman had any children too small to be put to work, they could expect to pay out far more than they earned for the rations that fed those children. The consequences of this "re-gendering" of the South's agricultural labor system had profound and immediate consequences. It was a stark and brutal truism captured in the document reproduced below, a letter written by a freedwoman from south-central Virginia.

A Virginia Freedwoman Critiques the Gendered Nature of Freedom and Free Labor

[Franklin County, Va. October 1866]


As I am entirely without a home. & have tried in every direction to get one & have failed, I know not to whom to apply except the authorities at Rocky Mt

I have three little children & have no husband-consequently no one to support them; as they are not large enough to earn their own living, the eldest not being but five years old, the youngest a babe four months old. I can't find anybody that will take us on any terms, & have neither father nor Mother, brother nor sister to look to. By my labor I can't feed my children, let alone clothe them, & they have been very poorly fed, & scarcely clothed atall since I left my former Master, who is now getting old & is not able to keep & do justice to his own family. I never knew to want the necessaries of life untill since I left him. I never freed myself, & was doing well before freedom came about, since which time I have & had no one to look to, for assistance & have fared worse than I ever did in all my life & now starvation, seems at length to be the price I & my helpless children must pay for freedom, a bargain I had no hand in making- freedom is to us, but permission to go naked & starve & none to help, I have been staying at different places, wherever I could get something to eat- I have been indebted to the charity of those to whom I applied for subsistence for my living up to now-but have had no clothes & as cold weather approaches I know not whither to turn my head.

I had a good master, but he has now to support his own family, by his own labor, & can't afford to rear my children & keep me any longer. And now to you I apply to know what I must do.

All these statements I can prove if necessary by both black & white folks.
[signed] Gillie Arrington

Source: Statement of Gillie Arrington, [Oct. 1866], enclosed in Lt. W. F. De Knight to Bvt. Brig. Genl. O. Brown, 31 Oct. 1866, ser. 3802, Narrative Reports of Conditions of Bureau Affairs, VA Asst. Comr., RG 105.


Questions to consider

  1. What kind of problems does Gillie face? What kind of solutions has she looked for?

  2. What does Gillie mean when she writes about "freedom, a bargain I had no hand in making"? Was freedom an agreement? If it was, who did have a hand in making that agreement and what does your answer reveal about the gendered dimensions of the world Gillie saw herself occupying?

  3. What do we learn about such issues as race and racism from Gillie's offer to provide statements "from both black & white folks"?

  4. How does Gillie's critique of free labor help us think about the relationship we see between slavery and freedom? Is Gillie a big fan of freedom? Why or why not? What does that in turn reveal about how she conceived of slavery?

  5. If some of Gillie's ideas make us uncomfortable, does that mean that we as historians can disregard her words altogether? Why or why not?

Return to Exhibition: Unit Seven