After Slavery: Educator Resources

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1. The Social and Domestic Price of 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 end of 1865 brought with it the end of contracts that for the most part recast entire former slave labor forces as wage workers. In turn, the termination of that first round of labor agreements brought with it the requirement that planters pay their former slaves for services rendered. It was a revelation that compelled ex-slaveholders and southern employers to quickly reconfigure their work forces. The most profitable workers, the workers they were most willing to pay wages to, were those they considered the best workers. It was a new expectation that privileged former slaves who could split three hundred or more fence rails in a single day for example, lift 500-pound bales of cotton on and off wagons, or manipulate the heavy cast-iron ploughs that farmers routinely used for opening up new fields and preparing old ones for a season's crops. Thus as planters began to recruit workers for the 1866 season, they applied a new calculus—one born out of the new circumstances of freedom, and one, more over, that tended to favor black men.

In the report published below, a Freedmen's Bureau agent from Georgia's eastern cotton belt reflects on the unexpected price planters' new expectations levied against those who could not work like able-bodied men.

The Social and Domestic Price of Free Labor

Eatonton Putnam Co. Ga. 25th Dec. 1865.
Sir Such a variety of cases amongst the freedmen arises that I must trouble you for instructions in regard to these at least. a part of such as have been presented & to ask for general instructions in relation to such cases as may yet arise for which no provision is made.

Some men have abandoned their old wives by whom they have several children & taken new wives & are trying to get possession of the older children who are able to assist the mother leaving the helpless ones to the mother. in such cases it is impossible for the mother to find employment which will afford subsistence There are many women whose husbands left last N[ov]. 12. months with the army of Gen. Sherman leaving the mothers with several small children, then there are many helpless and decrepid men & women whose children cannot take care of them Now where are those to be sent[?] & by what means? there are no Hospitals or Assylums here. Believing that human sagacity can not foresee all the cases that may arise out of this new state of things is the reason that general instructions & powers is asked for. In all cases not perfectly clear. It is preferred that the Agent call to his aid two intelligent men. Respectfully
[signed] Wm B Carter

Source: Wm. B. Carter to [Gen. Davis Tillson], 25 Dec. 1865, Unregistered Letters Received, ser. 632, GA Asst. Comr., RG 105.


Questions to Consider

  1. It is often easy to conceive of human life as a series of separate compartments. But as William Carter discovers, people do not actually live their lives this way, with one part labeled work, one labeled family, one labeled politics, and perhaps another labeled church or school. Instead, those different categories overlap, collide, and otherwise exist simultaneously. In reading this letter, think about the intersections that influence freedpeople's lives, the various forces that they come up against in their daily lives. In your opinion, which are the most important ones for the people Carter writes about?

  2. Is Carter surprised by these connections? How about southern white officials? What kind of evidence supports your answer?

  3. One of the central stories of slavery, and later, of freedom, were the extraordinary lengths to which black women and men went to keep their families intact. In slavery, men would risk everythingincluding their livesto run away from their owners in order to reunite with their wives. In freedom, parents would publish advertisements in newspapers, seeking news about children who had been sold away during slavery. Yet the black men of whom William Carter writes were choosing to abandon wives "by whom they have several children." As historians, how do we account for this? What kind of circumstances might drive husbands and fathers to "to get possession of the older children"?

Return to Exhibition: Unit Seven