Visions of Freedmen as Workers



Page overview: click on a link to go directly to a discussion of that topic below.

Many of the articles published in the Northern press and the reports issued by the federal government about the freedmen during the Civil War focused on the question: "Will they work?" The Union depended upon the industry of the freedmen to perform a number of key jobs to support the military effort and the domestic economy. Many freedmen, for example, were put right back to work on the plantations where they recently been slaves, in order to continue the production of cotton on confiscated lands. And yet, so strongly ingrained in the popular imagination was the stereotype of the "lazy slave," that some articles and images ostensibly illustrating the labors of freedmen actually depicted people at rest. In other cases, the belief that African-Americans were particularly suited to hard work led commentators to depict the most grueling work as only "moderate labor."In their letters, freedmen's teachers describe their efforts to promote industry and offer examples of the efforts of the freedmen to support themselves under the most difficult circumstances.


Click on any topic below to OPEN/CLOSE once the page has finished loading:

or choose + Open All Topics   or  - Close All Topics

 

Northern Concerns Over Freedmen as Workers


From the first instance in which the Union accepted fugitive slaves as "contrabands" of war, the government's treatment of former slaves was shaped by the belief that a willingness to work hard was an important element in character, and the fear that African-Americans were naturally indolent.

The willingness to work was regarded by nineteenth century Americans both as a moral virtue and as a requirement for success. In his 1846 advice book, The Young Man's Guide, William Andrus Alcott offered contrasting comments about the industrious and the indolent individual:

Nothing is more essential to usefulness and happiness in life, than habits of industry. `This we commanded you,' says St. Paul, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.'"

An indolent person is scarcely human; he is half quadruped, and of the most stupid species too.

  Industry was also regarded as a quintissentially American trait.

For example, an important element in Lincoln's successful presidential campaign was a biography that profiled his rise from log-cabin to Washington through hard work.

The two-page portrait of Lincoln on the left, featured in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper shortly before the innauguration, was surounded by smaller images illustrating the future president's earlier days splitting rails, harvesting corn, and practising law (see below).

The scenes of Lincoln's early life of manual labor are depicted on the bottom border of the image while the depictions of his work as a lawyer and politician are part of the top half of the illustration, suggesting that it is hard work that allows men to rise in life.

 

 

During and immediately after the war, government reports addressed to freedmen routinely included exhortations about the importance of hard work.

In fact, Abraham Lincoln felt it necessary to offer advice to the slaves he was freeing in the Emancipation Proclamation, writing:

"I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages."

The document to the left, circulated among freedmen during reconstruction, warned the former slaves:

"You must be industrious and frugal,"

"You have now no masters to provide for you in sickness and old age, hence you must see the necessity of saving your wages while you are able to work, for this purpose."

"It is feared that some will act from the mistaken notion that Freedom means liberty to be idle. This class of persons, known to the law as vagrants, must at once, correct this mistake."

These kinds of comments suggest the degree to which racist stereotypes of African-Americans as inherently lazy had influenced Northern perceptions of the freedmen.

 

Edward Pierce and the First Governmental Reports on the Freedmen as Workers


The first three fugitive slaves to be recognized as "contrabands" of war by General Butler were immediately put to work building a new bakehouse for Fort Monroe. Butler had defended his refusal to concede to the slaveowner's demands for the return of their "property" by pointing out that the labor of the slaves was being used to fortify the Confederate war effort. Thus, as additional slaves flocked to the fortress, they were quickly organized into work groups in support of the Union war effort and put under the supervision of officer Edward L. Pierce.

This episode was to be the beginning of a long relationship between Pierce and the freedmen. After his departure from the army, Pierce--a Boston lawyer and an abolitionist--was sent back to the South by Treasury Secretary Chase to assess the situation of the freedmen. His report opened with the following bold statement:

Two questions are concerned in the social problem of our time. One is, ‘Will the people of African descent work for a living? and the other is, Will they fight for their freedom? An affirmative answer to these must be put beyond any fair dispute before they will receive permanent security in law or opinion.

Published in 1862 as The Negroes at Port Royal: Report of E.L. Pierce, Government Agent, to the Hon. Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury and The Negroes at Port Royal, S.C. Report of the Government Agent, Second Report, Pierce's recommendations became the basis of the government's policy for dealing with freedmen through most of the war. He advocated appointing superintendents to oversee the freedmen living and working on plantations in the possession of the Union. The former slaves were to be compensated with wages "graduated with reference to the wants of the laborer and the ability of the employer or Government" and provided with the services of missionaries and teachers.

Recognizing the paternalistic nature of the system he was describing, Pierce went on to suggest that the program was transitional in nature, designed to prepare the "freedmen" to become "freemen."

The plan proposed is, of course, not presented as an ultimate result: far from it. It contemplates a paternal discipline for the time being, intended for present use only, with the prospect of better things in the future. As fast as the laborers show themselves fitted for all the privileges of citizens, they should be dismissed from the system and allowed to follow any employment they please, and where they please. They should have the power to acquire the fee simple of land, either with the proceeds of their labor or as a reward of special merit; and it would be well to quicken their zeal for good behavior by proper recognitions. I shall not follow these suggestions, as to the future, further, contenting myself with indicating what is best to be done at once with a class of fellow-beings now thrown on our protection, entitled to be recognized as freemen, but for whose new condition the former occupants of the territory have diligently labored to unfit them.

Pierce published a number of additional articles in popular northern periodicals on this subject, including: "The Contrabands at Fortress Monroe," Atlantic Monthly, November, 1861; and "The Freedmen at Port Royal," Atlantic Monthly, September, 1863. In addition, he served as a vice-president of the New England Freedmen's Aid Society, and when that organization merged with several others to become the American Union Commission Pierce served on that board as well.

Below is Pierce's account of his first experience of directing the work of the freedmen.

 


"Morning Mustering of the 'Contraband' at Fortress Monroe, on Their Way to Their Day's Work, Under the Pay and Direction of the U.S.--From a Sketch by Our Special Artist at Fortress Monroe," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, November 2, 1861, 375.

 

A First-Hand Account of the Willingness of Contrabands to Work

It was necessary for the protection of the post that some breastworks should be thrown up, and a line was planned extending from the old cemetery northward to the new one, a quarter of a mile distant. Our own troops were disinclined to the labor, their time being nearly expired, and they claiming that they had done their share of fatigue duty both at the fort and at Newport News. A member of Brigadier-General Pierce's staff--an efficient officer and a humane gentleman--suggested the employment of the contrabands and the furnishing of them with rations, an expedient best for them and agreeable to us. He at once dictated a telegram to General Butler in these words:--"Shall we put the contrabands to work on the intrenchments, and will you furnish them with rations?" An affirmative answer was promptly received on Monday morning, July 8th, and that was the first day in the course of the war in which the negro was employed upon the military works of our army. It therefore marks a distinct epoch in its progress and in its relations to the colored population. The writer--and henceforth his narrative must indulge in the frequent use of the first person--was specially detailed from his post as private in Company L of the Third Regiment to collect the contrabands, record their names, ages, and the names of their masters, provide their tools, superintend their labor, and procure their rations. My comrades smiled, as I undertook the novel duty, enjoying the spectacle of a Massachusetts Republican converted into a Virginia slave-master. To me it seemed rather an opportunity to lead them from the house of bondage never to return. . . .

Passing through the principal streets, I told the contrabands that when they heard the court-house bell, which would ring soon, they must go to the court-house yard, where a communication would be made to them. . . . Upon the ringing of the bell, about forty contrabands came to the yard. A second exploration added to the number some twenty or more, who had not heard the original summons. They then came into the building, where they were called to order and addressed. I had argued to judges and juries, but I had never spoken to such auditors before in a court-room. I told them that the colored men had been employed on the breastworks of the Rebels, and we needed their aid,--that they would be required to do only such labor as we ourselves had done,--that they should be treated kindly, and no one should be obliged to work beyond his capacity, or if unwell,--and that they should be furnished in a day or two with full soldiers' rations. I told them that their masters had said they were an indolent people,--that I did not believe the charge,--that I was going home to Massachusetts soon and should be glad to report that they were as industrious as the whites. They generally showed no displeasure, some even saying, that, not having done much for some time, it was the best thing for them to be now employed. Four or five men over fifty years old said that they suffered from rheumatism, and could not work without injury. Being confirmed by the by-standers, they were dismissed. Other old men said they would do what they could, and they were assured that no more would be required of them. Two of them, provided with a bucket and dipper, were detailed to carry water all the time along the line of laborers. Two young men fretted a little, and claimed to be disabled in some way. They were told to resume their seats, and try first and see what they could do,--to the evident amusement of the rest, who knew them to be indolent and disposed to shirk. A few showed some sulkiness, but it all passed away after the first day, when they found that they were to be used kindly. One well-dressed young man, a carpenter, feeling a little better than his associates, did not wear a pleasant face at first. Finding out his trade, we set him to sawing the posts for the intrenchments, and he was entirely reconciled. Free colored men were not required to work; but one volunteered, wishing, as he said, to do his part. The contrabands complained that the free colored men ought to be required to work on the intrenchments as well as they. I thought so too, but followed my orders. . . .

The contrabands worked well, and in no instance was it found necessary for the superintendents to urge them. There was a public opinion among them against idleness, which answered for discipline. Some days they worked with our soldiers, and it was found that they did more work, and did the nicer parts--the facings and dressings--better. Colonels Packard and Wardrop, under whose direction the breastworks were constructed, and General Butler, who visited them, expressed satisfaction at the work which the contrabands had done. On the 14th of July, Mr. Russell, of the London "Times," and Dr. Bellows, of the Sanitary Commission, came to Hampton and manifested much interest at the success of the experiment. The result was, indeed, pleasing. A subaltern officer, to whom I had insisted that the contrabands should be treated with kindness, had sneered at the idea of applying philanthropic notions in time of war. It was found then, as always, that decent persons will accomplish more when treated at least like human beings. …

On Monday evening, July 15th, when the contrabands deposited their tools in the court-house, I requested them to stop a moment in the yard. I made each a present of some tobacco, which all the men and most of the women use. As they gathered in a circle around me, head peering over head, I spoke to them briefly, thanking them for their cordial work and complimenting their behavior, remarking that I had heard no profane or vulgar word from them, in which they were an example to us,--adding that it was the last time I should meet them, as we were to march homeward in the morning, and that I should bear to my people a good report of their industry and morals. There was another word that I could not leave without speaking. Never before in our history had a Northern man, believing in the divine right of all men to their liberty, had an opportunity to address an audience of sixty-four slaves and say what the Spirit moved him to utter,--and I should have been false to all that is true and sacred, if I had let it pass. I said to them that there was one more word for me to add, and that was, that every one of them was as much entitled to his freedom as I was to mine, and I hoped they would all now secure it. "Believe you, boss," was the general response, and each one with his rough gravelly hand grasped mine, and with tearful eyes and broken utterances said, "God bless you!" "May we meet in Heaven!" "My name is Jack Allen, don't forget me!" "Remember me, Kent Anderson!" and so on. No,--I may forget the playfellows of my childhood, my college classmates, my professional associates, my comrades in arms, but I will remember you and your benedictions until I cease to breathe! Farewell, honest hearts, longing to be free! and may the kind Providence which for-gets not the sparrow shelter and protect you!

--from Edward L. Pierce, "The Contrabands at Fortress Monroe," Atlantic Monthly, November, 1861

 

"Our Cotton Campaign in South Carolina--Gathering, Packing, and Shipping the Cotton Crop of the Sea Islands at Porty Royal By the Federal Army, Under General Sherman," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Feb 15, 1862, 20-2-1

 

Representations of Freedmen in the Northern Press as Lazy


--"Negroes Taking Refuge at Fort Monroe," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 8, 1861, 55

 

The article immediately below from the an August, 1862 New-York Illustrated News expressed outrage over the idea that Northern soldiers were being required to do physical labor while former slaves watched. Although the text suggests that African-Americans "always beg and pray for the privilege of working," it seems fair to suggest that they are represented in the accompanying picture in postures suggestive of indolence. Only three months later, the same newspaper published "Sketches of the Contrabands" profiling African-Americans employed on cotton-plantations on behalf of the Union, and the article claimed to offer a definitive and triumphant answer to the question: "Will they work?"

The success of all experiments that have yet been made to make negro labor paid labor, proves most conclusively the utter falsity of the assertion that the negroes will not work except under the lash of the overseer. Whenever they have been set to work at their accustomed tasks with the assurance that they were to be paid for that work, they have proved willing, docile and industrious.

And yet, as you peruse the illustrations that appeared with the article, you may notice that all of them feature African-Americans at rest rather than at work.

 

"Fugitive Contrabands in the Army of the Potomac and Northern Soldiers Digging Trenches," The New-York Illustrated News, August 2, 1862, 195

This picture shows a state of facts that has given rise to more grumbling, and more well-founded complaints on the part of our army than any one question in which the contrabands are directly interested. Our white soldiers will be seen toiling in the trenches—wield wearily the pickaxe and the shovel, while the stalwart negroes loll about lazily in the sun.

The picture tells its own story, but we fancy that there will be few more such to tell. Our Northern government is fast recovering from its squeamishness about employing blacks who are fugitives to our lines and doubtless we shall soon see the willing (for they are most willing, and always beg and pray for the privilege of working) negroes toiling with the Pick and Spade, while our white soldiers are reserved for the Bayonet, the Musket, the Sabre, and the R-fied Cannon.

God speed the day!

 

Our artist sends us, from the cotton districts of South Carolina, some very interesting sketches of the negroes who are employed in taking care of the cotton crop. The success of all experiments that have yet been made to make negro labor paid labor, proves most conclusively the utter falsity of the assertion that the negroes will not work except under the lash of the overseer. Whenever they have been set to work at their accustomed tasks with the assurance that they were to be paid for that work, they have proved willing, docile and industrious.

Our pictures gives a mid-day scene, where the laborers are resting from their toil—a view of the “Negro Quarters” after working hours, and the Interior of a Negro Cabin in the Evening.

From our personal knowledge of such scenes, we are able to vouch for the truth and perfect fidelity of our artist’s delineations.

--SKETCHES OF THE CONTRABANDS, The New-York Illustrated News, Nov. 19, 1862, 52.

 

 "That Natural Love of Idleness"

In our paper of Jan. 24 we gave an interesting picture of the festivities of the colored race on New Year’s Day. These were held at Camp Saxton, known formerly as Smith’s Plantation. It is the new headquarters of the 1st Carolina Colored Volunteers, commanded by Col. Higginson, who devotes every energy to overcome that natural love of idleness inherent to all inferior or oppressed races.

--Excerpt from "Port Royal, S.C.," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, February 7, 1863

 

Representations of Freedmen in the Northern Press as Suited for Physical Labor


Although the scene below would seem to depict backbreaking toil, the accompanying article opines:

"It is almost needless to add that no white men could perform this continuous work, whereas moderate labor is beneficial for the colored race."

What impact might the assumption that physical labor was easier for blacks than for whites have had on the debate over race and rights in the Civil War era? It could provide an excuse for assigning particularly demanding physical tasks to African-Americans while giving them less credit for their accomplishments. Indeed, the assumption that African-Americans are peculiarly suited for physical labor, agricultural production, and hot climates would lead one logically to conclude that the ideal vocation for blacks would be work on a plantation!

In addition, the belief that blacks were designed for manual work might suggest that they were unsuited for other kinds of employment. Consider the comment made by Edward Pierce, a staunch abolitionist, as part of his report on "The Contrabands at Fortress Monroe":

"The laborers are working cheerfully, and they now present to the world the example of a well-behaved and self-supporting peasantry of which their country has no reason to be ashamed.”

While clearly intended as a positive statement, this vision of African-Americans as docile peasants implies that they may not have the qualities necearry to rise from manual labor to pursuits of higher status. In an era and a region in which depictions of Lincoln's rise from cabin to white house decorated the pages of Northern magazines, this was no true compliment.

 

 "Contrabands Building a Levee on the Mississippi River, Below Baton Rouge, Under the Direction of General Augur's Staff--Baton Rouge in the Distance.--Sketched March 13 By Our Special Artist, F.H. Schell," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, May 9, 1863, picture 104, text 102

 

BUILDING A LEVEE AT BATON ROUGE.

Our readers no adoubt will recollect the great crevasses in the springs of 1857 and 1861, which spread desolation for miles along the banks of the Mississippi, more especially in the neighborhood of Baton Rouge. In order to guard against a similar visitation this spring Gen. Banks has ordered the construction of an immense levee, beginning on the plantation of Mr. Hall, a short distance below Baton Rouge. This important work has been placed under the immediate superintendence of Capt. Hodge, a member of Gen. Augur’s staff, and a man of great fitness for this most important task.

The work is carried on by contrabands, who are moderately worked and liberally paid. They labor cheerfully and efficiently, and their conduct proves that paid negro labor would be more productive than slave labor. About 1,000 are thus usefully occupied, in which number there are about 150 women. It is almost needless to add that no white men could perform this continuous work, whereas moderate labor is beneficial for the colored race. Mr. Schell’s sketch is very interesting. In the background is Baton Rouge, where the Union fleet is preparing for their attack on Port Hudson, which occurred the day after. The spectator is supposed to be looking north.


See also: Letter from Lucy Chase to Major General John A. Dix, Commanding Department of Virginia, Craney Island, VA, January 19, 1863

 

Representations of Freedmen as Workers in the Letters of Freedmen's Teachers


Northern publications and the letters of freedmen's teacher often championed the importance of teaching the freedmen to stand on their own. This reflected the American belief in self-help and the Protestant work ethic, and the fear of nineteenth-century benevolent groups of encouraging "laziness" through charity. It may also have reflected a belief in racial stereotypes that portayed African-Americans as lazy and childlike. However, the letters of freedmen's teachers and articles in publications of freedmen's aid organizations often attempted to counteract those stereotypes by bearing witness to the industriousness of the freedmen, as can be seen in the examples below.

 


"The War in South Carolina -- 'Payday' Among the Negro 'Contrabands' Employed in Gathering Cotton on the Sea Islands, Port Royal. From a Sketch By Our Special Artist, Mr. Crane." Supplement to Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, April 5, 1862

 

Paying for Their Clothes, Their Seeds, Their Hoes, and Their Horses

But the policy of the Freedmen’s Aid Societies has not been to make these people beggars. “Aide-toi et Dieu t’aidera,” is their motto. The black people know they must support themselves, as they always have done. Except in the cases of immediate suffering, when a herd of refugees rushes into a station, they are taught to earn and pay for their clothes, their seeds, their hoes, and their horses. They know that they must build and repair their churches. They look forward to the time when they shall build and repair their school-houses and bear the general charges of instruction. That time, according to the best observers, is not distant more than two or three years. This is so evident in the district of Tennessee and Arkansas that Colonel Eaton, the General Superintendent of Freedmen there, has issued an order requiring that tuition-fees shall be paid for each scholar,
ranging from twenty-five cents a month to one dollar and twenty-five cents, according to the parents’ ability; that free admission shall be furnished only in case of inability of the
parents. The money thus collected is to be used for the incidental expenses of the schools and the wages of the teachers; and Colonel Eaton believes that after a little time there will be sufficient for all purposes.

--"The Education of the Freedmen" North American Review, October, 1865, 528-550

 


"Got Any Pie for Sale, Aunty?" Detail from Plate 10, Edwin Forbes, Life Studies of the Great Army : A Historical Work of Art, in Copper-Plate Etching, Containing Forty Plates, Illustrating the Life of the Union Armies During the Late Rebellion, New York: 1876


At the back door of every cabin or farm-house on the line of march could be seen groups of irrepressible Yankee soldiers with one question: “Got any pies for sale, Aunty?” and when such things were obtainable, eager hands stretched forth to receive them. Often hoe-cake and biscuits were offered instead of pies, and seemed just as desirable to the hungry men. They always paid liberally for such supplies, and many poor people made considerable sums of money in thus catering to their wants.

--from "The Ever-Hungry Soldier," Edwin Forbes, Thirty Years After: An Artist's Memoir of the Civil War, 1890, 17

 

 

July 1, 1864

Have I told you that I hope, if I am in the field next winter, to furnish remunerative work to women? I can command as many sewing machines as I may desire, but I think it unwise simply to teach the use of them. To teach it too to women unlikely to go far from Norfolk, where many private machines are now lying idle while their owners beg work from door to door. Now, if the Government will let the machines sew for it, the machine-worker can be furnished with present means of support and those who become experts, may secure here, or elsewhere, permanent situations in manufacturing establishments. That will be one spoke in my grand industrial wheel. I have already put into the hands of a shoemaker five sets of tools, for apprentices, all of whom shall be cripples, incapable of active work. But some efforts, even on a large scale, could not meet my demand for Ready opportunity for labor with the assurance of a ready reward. Let the transmutation of dollars into clothing cease at the North.

—Stores for the negroes are now liberally supported, at all their central camps. Those persons who find employment at the hands of chance and circumstance can avail themselves of the opportunity furnished at these stores to buy at less than market prices, and they may well thank the good fortune that has made two feet sufficient for each one to stand upon, and two hands quite enough for his main-stay. To each we (all of us) furnished opportunity and now we further honor them by leaving them alone. But why should we increase the misfortune and degradation of those who have drifted away from all things needful for their physical comfort, and now find themselves stranded on our fallow shores? They open their mouths and we feed them, and they stretch out their arms and we clothe them. “Yes,” we say, “heads were made to push with, hands were made to work with.” “There is work for you now, at the North, but you mustn’t go there. There’ll be work for you here, at the South, when the war is over! ! Here’s a nice broad shelf we of the North have made for you. Pocket your hands and tuck up your feet, you wont need them here. Crawl upon it. Leave all to us. We won’t let you fall off.” This is what you of the North (or rather we, your representatives) have done. But there is a highway, that leads to Independence, which the negro would gladly travel, if the North would pave it. Every foot-fall therein should be labor which would bring the sweat to his brow, and weariness to his frame. But the courage, in his heart, would be freshened by that sweat and it would be a crown of manliness to his brow. On the stage, at the North, you have “The Ticket-of-leave-Man.” When our houses of opportunity are opened here, the negro shall enter them with his ticket of leave to be a man. Let come that day, ) Government! Even in these burning days, with the thermometer 1000 in the shade, our benighted friends still work vigorously at [?] planting.

--from Lucy Chase, July 1, 1864

 

 

Reports by Freedmen's Aid Groups on the Work Done by the Freedmen

Craney Island is six miles from Norfolk . . . . The island comprises 12 acres. No opportunity is offered for extended agricultural labors, but the Dr designs planting to the very water's edge. He hopes, when we have made the women good sewers, to get an army contract for their needles, and, then, with the mines of wealth in his oyster beds he hopes his commmunity will be self-supporting. . . . The negroes at Newport News, and other districts in this neighborhood, were recently gathered here, by government order, and, many of them coming as they did from their Master's plantations, feel their deprivations, and look upon Craney Island as a slave-pen. The grumblers see no reason why they could not have been left s they are; ask passes to Norfolk, and elsewhere, that they may find work and wages; but the masses see the promise of the dawn.

--Lucy Chase, Craney Island, South Carolina, January 15, 1863


The schools are never full till Winter--all working, who are able, as long as they can get "jobs"; many selling cakes and candies bout the streets.

--Sarah Chase, December 1, 1865


The American negro has had however, one advantage, which, though far from neutralizing all the ill effects of his bondage, gives a favorable augury for his future. He has been trained to labor.

"You Quashee, — idle Quashee, I say you must get the Devil sent away from your elbow, my poor dark friend. In this world there will be no existence for you otherwise." Mr. Carlyle ought to have remembered that the Devil of Idleness has no prejudice against color, and that white not black hands are those which on the plantation are idle. Slave-labor is carried on after a slovenly fashion, intolerable to a New-England farmer: still it is better than idleness. Even such poor board and lodging as reward the black man's long years of labor are better than the wages which habits of sloth pay, whether the recipient be slave or master. Now, not to compare the colored freedman in these regards with the Sandwich Islanders, or with the Asiatics whom Christian Missionaries are trying to civilize as well as Christianize, he has an advantage in his training and habits, over even more advanced peoples. It is not too much to say, that the freedmen in South Carolina do more work in a week than the Roman peasants who are excavating the Baths of Caracalla, and the Forum, or the Neapolitan lazzaroni, who do not even seem to work anywhere, do in a month. Labor in a Southern clime is never so energetic as in a Northern clime. There are black laborers, as there are white ones everywhere, who do not like to work. Sometimes they ask more than reasonable wages. They have difficulties on this score with employers. The black man needs the spur of white competition. He is accustomed to sluggish and clumsy ways, and cannot be readily induced to change them. His employers often lose patience with him on these accounts, but all this is not peculiar to Port Royal, Norfolk, and the banks of the Mississippi. Much of it is incidental to the relation of employers and employed everywhere. Much of it is incidental to a transition period, and will soon pass away. Much of it would be deprived of its point when quoted in the way of disparagement or discouragement, were this simple question weighed: How much better would white men of a low class in society have done in their place?

Due allowance made for all these circumstances, there is no reason for doubting that under the influence of new incitements, —new rewards, new wants, new hopes, —the freedman will, nay does now, compare favorably with the laboring classes in any Southern country. He works better under freedom than under slavery.

Mr. Philbrick states that even at Port Royal, — where the work-people are those who have not been received into the army, because not able-bodied,—that these gin twice the quantity of cotton per day that used to be the assigned task of an able-bodied slave.

Mr. Saxton writes, "So far as the operations of this department were intended as a trial of the capacity of the blacks for civilization, the experiment has been entirely satisfactory. It has demonstrated beyond controversy, that, under the usual inducements of free labor, they will be industrious and efficient laborers." And Dr. Eliot of St. Louis, — whom no one would accuse of extravagance of statement, — says, that, owing to the different habits of industry previously, "the difficult question in future, will be, not what we are to do with the poor blacks, but what we are to do with the poor whites."

--Excerpt from "The Second Annual Report of the New England Freedmen's Aid Society," The Freemen's Record, April, 1865


In South Carolina, where the work was first begun, and where its subjects were among the least promising, the results have been such as to convince the most sceptical. Herds of human chattels, impelled by force, have been converted into communities of human beings, regulated by law. Ten thousand ignorant blacks, degraded to the lowest point within the power of slavery, have been lifted up to a condition of comparative intelligence. These now constitute a self-supporting, law-abiding, wealth-producing community; and one more orderly, or better behaved, may not easily be found. While the able-bodied among them have helped to fight our battles in the field, others, not fit for military duty, have raised food and forage for the army; the children, meanwhile, being in the schools, fitting themselves for the graver responsibilities yet in reserve for them.

Receiving wages for their labor, many of these people have acquired property, and some of them comparative wealth. A few have become planters on their own account A Freedmen's Bank has been established in Beaufort, in which, on the 1st of July, six months after it was started, upwards of $160, 000 were placed on deposit by men who, but a little while ago, were plantation slaves. It is noticeable, — as was to be expected, — that, in proportion as these freedmen rise in the scale of civilization, they acquire its wants. As slaves, their needs were comprised in a few rude articles absolutely necessary to maintain existence. Now they are indefinitely extended by the opportunities and desires which are furnished and stimulated by freedom.

Stores have been established among them by Northern capital, at which goods are sold, amounting, in the course of the year, to hundreds of thousands of dollars. A single one of these stores, established by a gentleman of Boston for the benefit of a single neighborhood, sold goods in the last year amounting to $90,000.

What has been said of the freedmen's enterprise in South Carolina may be asserted, with equal truth, of every other similar undertaking in the Southern States. In a late authenticated report from the Freedmen's Bureau, it is stated that, "in Mississippi nearly ten thousand acres of land are being worked exclusively by freedmen, on their own account At David's Bend, the families are organized into a laboring community, with an allotted portion of land for each. They have established courts for themselves, choosing the officers at large; and the decisions of the judge have been carried into effect by the superintendent of the colony. The plan has worked well, and the people take great interest in their elections. They choose their best men; and they have recently elected a school board to serve six months. Their industry has been stimulated by their own ambition, without the control of white men, or threat of punishment. Physicians who practise among them receive their pay as among whites. The shopkeepers are colored. The Government rations are being repaid by crops."

--from "The Address of the American Freedmen's Aid Commission," The Freedmen's Record, December, 1865


Many families earn a scanty support by taking lunches to the train but the depot agent kicks and cuffs them unmercifully and knocks their waiters from their heads. One young consumptive, in whom I felt a great deal of interest, found his way to the cars with his waiter, one day, after weeks of close confinement. He was weak, and was really unable to work, but he had a wife and babe at home, and felt proud that his weak hands could still support them. But Mr Scott overturned his waiter, scattering his provisions and breaking his crockery. The poor man has lately died. He was an eloquent eulogizer of "the North" and it was refreshing to talk with him.

--Lucy Chase, 1869?

 


American Antiquarian 
Society logo

An American Antiquarian Society Online Resource
Curated by Lucia Z. Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College

All primary sources in this exhibit are in the collections of the American Antiquarian Society.
This site and all contents © 2006 American Antiquarian Society