Slavery of the African Americans may have the status of having been the most horrible economic relations history has ever witnessed. Still, its social consequences over the years, even after the Emancipation, have become even more daunting. Houston Hartsfield framed it even grotesquely, that “The colored people did not know how to be free, and the white people did not know how to have a free colored person about them.” Even in the aftermath of Emancipation, distrust, violence, and horrid conditions remained the common plight of the freedmen. A lot of reconstruction work went into bridging the gaps and making race relations normal for many years with no avail. The Civil Rights Movement led by Rev. Martin Luther King in the 1960s at least made considerable progress, but among poor African American populations, discrimination and racial prejudice remain the hallmark of their American experience. In underscoring the plight of the freedmen, it is important to highlight the bleak institutional systems and the legal frameworks as well as the economic circumstances of the freedmen.
The Role of the Freedmen’s Bureau
The U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was created by the U.S. Senate as the first major form of social welfare plan to resettle and give oversight for the incorporation of about 4 Million African American freed slaves. Popularly known simply as the Freedman’s Bureau, the institution did much to offer support, build schools, establish Black Churches, and advance resources to the African American freed slaves during the reconstruction era. The transition from slavery to freedom was characterized by unprecedented suffering and destitution among the slaves because they were unwelcome in the predominantly white neighborhoods they called home. The most recognizable contribution was the setting up of about 1,000 schools for the black community. The organization also funded the education of teacher training institutions to the tune of about $400,000. These institutions trained teachers for the African American communities.
Freedman’s Bureau employed agents who worked as legal representatives of the freedmen in the southern states where most of them remained confined. The institution also assisted the freedmen to reconnect with family members and community, which were largely hampered by the war. The Bureau only controlled a limited section of land, which could have been sufficient to the sentiment and economic welfare of all the 4 million freedmen. However, its operations were restricted because Sothern states still wanted a duplication of conditions similar to what existed as slavery and did everything within their powers to reduce the freedoms and privileges. While mediating between the former masters who rebuilt their farms with the freedmen, the Bureau enabled a great many to return to work for the planters for a wage contract. The organization also advocated for new relations based on worker and employer free-market prototype on behalf of the freedmen. Intensely criticized for promoting laziness among the freedmen, and faced with budget cuts, the Bureau was in a precarious position to advance its campaign and soon ended its support.
The Subordinate State of Freedman’s Plight under the Black Codes
The Black Codes were specific laws passed in the United States, specifically to regulate and govern the conduct of the African American freedmen. Between 1865 and 1866, these laws were adopted by the Southern States to compel African Americans to take unrewarding jobs of poor wages. In the northern states, these laws had existed prior because escaping Black slaves fled to the states of the north, where slavery was not institutionalized. The essential contribution of these laws is that they entrenched inequality and disadvantage in terms of economic and political privileges conferred on the African American people. Most of these laws scuttled the right to education, the right to vote and these laws in their diverse forms targeted many personal freedoms among the Black Community.
Although slavery had been abolished, these new laws restricted the movement of African American freedmen, which predominantly kept them in the Southern States. Most of the northern states enacted laws to restrict the settlement of the Black Community. The consequence was that the same horrid conditions and environments that had enslaved the Black Community became the trap after freedom. In those Southern States, a predominantly agricultural economy still existed nothing much of the industrialization in the Northern States, which could provide meaningful opportunity. Back Codes stipulated vagrancy laws, which allowed local leaders to arrest freedmen found with any minor infractions and put them back into forced labor. The convicted freedmen also faced even far humiliating conditions if they were leased to established aristocrats for labor by the authorities. Subordination occurred naturally because of the confluence of legislative forces, restricted movement and unprivileged social and political conditions among harsh and exploitative masters.
The Labor Opportunities Designated the Freedmen
Restricted in the Southern states with an agricultural economy, most of the freedmen went back to work in the farms for a small wage to set up autonomous homes within the farms. Although a few started small businesses from these menial jobs earnings, they primarily supported a hand-to-mouth way of life. Moreover, the highly restrictive annual labor contracts ensured the freedmen were still trapped to compliance and supervision by their employers on the farms. What also came about the new conditions is that they were more restrictive, pitting freedom as a mere mirage. Farm work involved the cultivation of crops and tending to animals. They still worked in the stores and processed farm produce for a small wage. The comprehensive Black Code made every specification as to what social or political rewards the African Americans could obtain from the Emancipation Proclamation, and during the Reconstruction, their plight was always bleak.
Freedmen worked as household servants, and these tasks were mainly for women. A great number worked predominantly in farm-related jobs with a small wage to construct autonomous livelihoods. However, the little earnings were insufficient, and their plight always remained precarious and vulnerable. Only a few African Americans who obtained education at an early stage could work secretarial work, and office assistance within the farms and their wages were still limited, and the conditions of work harsh as a result of the still legislations and unfavorable contractual agreements.
The Contract Arrangement forged for the Freedmen under the New System
The federal government provided a suitable plan and procedures for the establishment of a self-sustaining and thriving community among the freedmen. Nonetheless, contrarian forced, particularly in the South, rivaled the provisions and tended to defeat the intended purposes of the settlement. The freedmen were forced to sign an agreement for shared support from master-like white neighbors. Due to the ever-present violence and hostility, the freedmen were compelled to sign annual labor contracts to be able to fend for themselves and to have the legality of their existence as free or they would face the still force of the law on the basis of vagrancy laws. Moreover, very stiff penalties against theft kept most of the freedmen in the legal system. Labor was still the single most important resource the freedmen could expend to sustain their existence on the farms. Although the proclamation of Emancipation granted freedom, it changed the situation, which had committed the African American to the domestic economy of the farm for survival. After Emancipation, extracting any benefits from the very farms they worked would be dabbed a theft and serious consequences resulted.
The Essence of Sharecropping among Freedmen
Freedmen preferred sharecropping because they largely did not find security and a supportive social and economic structure to settle and progressively develop their communities. The perpetually precarious existence in America forced a great number of them to rely on the white neighbors through signed arrangements of protection and care to avoid the sudden adversity of a precarious existence. The elusive promise of freedom only afforded some form of medical aid, settlement, and some direct transfers. In these kinds of conditions, freedmen considered being tenant farmers because they did not have any land to cultivate and make a meaningful income. The lack of land and equipment or farm tools to do their own work compelled the freedmen to volunteer to work on farms of their masters in exchange for a disproportionate share of the harvest as compensation.
Labor Conditions during the Reconstruction and the Current State for African Americans
During the Reconstruction, the government provided certain kinds of welfare safeguards, which have been hailed as the first American welfare program dabbed the Freedman’s Bureau. Under the program, many initiatives to build schools for the Blacks was achieved and a good number of teacher training institutes opened for them to train them to become civilized, and employable. However, the target professions out of these educational programs were not highly rewarding professional jobs like doctors or engineers. They were to fit in the positions at the west end in the labor market designated to the less politically and economically represented in the hierarchical social structure. Even more appalling was the sudden insecurity and occasional violence because of vagrancy laws, which made the White pupations terror-stricken. As contrasted to today’s scenario, African Americans enjoy favorable fruits of progress and developments attained in the Civil Rights Movement, which has considerably changed the conditions of many.
The African Americans after Emancipation settled into unskilled menial labor that predominantly did not yield much better welfare compared to the dominant white population who held most of the landed property and businesses. The composition of the labor system has changed very minimally as most of the African Americans over the years lived in seclusion within inner city ghettos where their rate of access to schooling has been disproportionately poor compared to the other ethnicities. Although American economy has grown significantly and the society is largely transformed, the hierarchal process defined in terms of race and ethnicities largely characterize most American cities and communities with the African Americans occupying the lowest position. While incomes have generally improved over the years, the incomes of the African American population show a stark disparity within recent surveys, which attest to low privileged position as a community.
The African Americans did not know how to adjust to freedom because whatever they thought was freedom was even more sinister. One commentator termed the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln as “worse than failure and tantamount to serfdom.” In many circumstances, the freedmen had to work as more under very unpredictable circumstances and under very restrictive laws to survive. The plight of the African American slave did not change significantly despite the many years of freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Part of the reason was that Emancipation did not confer landed property to the freedmen to enable them attain full freedom like equal citizens. Moreover, Black Code laws ensured they were predominantly restricted to live in the southern states with only a predominantly agricultural economy. The freedmen had to sign annual labor contracts as a way of keeping their freedom and to evade stiff vagrancy penalties.
Barber, Stephen P. “In His Own Words: Houston H. Holloway’s Slavery, Emancipation, and Ministry in Georgia by Houston Hartsfield Holloway.” Journal of Southern History 83.2 (2017): 420-422.
Litwack, Leon F. Been in the storm so long: The aftermath of slavery. Vintage, 1980.
Lynch, John Roy. The facts of Reconstruction. Neale Publishing Company, 1913.
McPherson, James M., James M. McPherson, and George Henry Davis. The struggle for equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Vol. 72. Princeton University Press, 1964.
Rable, George C. But there was no peace: The role of violence in the politics of Reconstruction. University of Georgia Press, 2007.
Robinson, Cedric. “A Critique of WEB Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction.” The Black Scholar 8.7 (1977): 44-50.
Wilson, Theodore Brantner. The black codes of the South. No. 6. University of Alabama Press, 1965.
. Barber, Stephen P. “In His Own Words: Houston H. Holloway’s Slavery, Emancipation, and Ministry in Georgia by Houston Hartsfield Holloway.” Journal of Southern History 83.2 (2017): 420-422.
. Robinson, Cedric. “A Critique of WEB Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction.” The Black Scholar 8.7 (1977): 44-50.
. Wilson, Theodore Brantner. The black codes of the South. No. 6. University of Alabama Press, 1965.
. McPherson, James M., James M. McPherson, and George Henry Davis. The struggle for equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Vol. 72. Princeton University Press, 1964.
. Litwack, Leon F. Been in the storm so long: The aftermath of slavery. Vintage, 1980.
. Rable, George C. But there was no peace: The role of violence in the politics of Reconstruction. University of Georgia Press, 2007.
. Lynch, John Roy. The facts of Reconstruction. Neale Publishing Company, 1913.
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