After Slavery: Educator Resources

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6. The Problems of Family-based 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.

Ben Holmes was not alone in brokering a labor agreement for his wife, Henrietta. As the first year of freedom drew to a close, freedmen across the former Confederacy demanded that agricultural employers especially accept freedwomen and their children back onto their plantations.

On the one hand, these family-based labor agreements were a boon to ex-slaveholders. Such agreements also gave women and children homes to live in, food to eat, and in the case of able-bodied women who were not obliged to tend to small children, sometimes even a small wage. These were not insignificant advantages in the rural South, a place where the only real alternative for black women was what Gillie Arrington faced: homelessness and starvation. Yet in taking women and their small children back onto their estates, planters were not signaling a change of heart and as the report below suggests, it was a situation that could turn sour at any moment.

The Problems of Family-based Labor

[Columbia, S.C.,] May 31, 1867

Destitution seems to be on the increase... There is a large class who are really in a destitute condition, but to whom I have not felt authorized under existing instructions to issue [rations to]. These are where the Father and older children are employed by planters on a contract for a share in the crop, but having a large number of children too young to labor and requiring the mother's attention thereby keeping her from working. Those of the family who labor are provided by the planters, but the scanty earnings of last year have now been consumed by the non-producers and they suffer.

[Planters] feel disposed only to feed the laborers, as in almost every instance they have pledged animals and lands to secure the factors who make them the necessary advances to enable them to make the crop, and in many instances paying ruinous rates some as high as eighteen percent for these advances.

Source: [illegible] Greene to HW Smith, 31 May 1867, M869 (Records of the Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina), RG 105: Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands


Questions to Consider

  1. What motivates the planters? What are they trying to achieve? How do those expectations and actions impact freedpeople's lives? To what extent, and why, might we consider these workplace problems to be "gendered"?

  2. What is the role of the marketin animals, seed, and supplies as well as in laborin creating the conditions that in turn, created the female and youthful population of paupers of which Greene writes? To what extent then, and why, should we consider the market a potentially "gendered" institution?

  3. Thinking forward, imagine how scenarios such as the one Greene describes might shape the kind of political demands black farmer workers would make under Radical Reconstruction? What can you see rural black voters wanting from their new governments? Would their demands necessarily be shared by all former slaves everywhere? Why or why not?

Return to Exhibition: Unit Seven