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The Aftermath of Slavery Previous
Digital History ID 465


Except for Haiti, the American South was the only region in the western hemisphere in which slavery was overthrown by force of arms. It was the only region, except for Brazil, in which slaveowners received no compensation for the loss of their slave property; and the only region, except for Gaudeloupe and Martinique, in which former slaves received civil and political rights. And it was the only postemancipation society in which large slaveowners were deprived of right to hold public office and in which former slaves formed successful political alliances with whites.

Nevertheless, the abolition of slavery did not mean that former slaves had achieved full freedom. Throughout the western hemisphere, the end of slavery was followed by a period of reconstruction in which race relations were redefined and new systems of labor emerged. In former slave societies throughout the Americas, ex-slaves sought to free themselves from the gang system of labor on plantation and establish small-scale, self-sufficient farms, while planters or local governments sought to restore the plantation system. The outcome, in many former slave societies, was the emergence of a caste system of race relations and a system of involuntary or forced labor, such as peonage, debt bondage, apprenticeship, contract laborers, indentured laborers, tenant farming, and sharecropping.

In every postemancipation society, the abolition of slavery resulted in acute labor problems and declining productivity, spurring efforts to restore plantation discipline. Even in Haiti, where black revolution had overthrown slavery, repeated attempts were made to restore the plantation system. On Caribbean islands--like Antigua, Barbados, and St. Kitts--where land was totally controlled by white planters, the plantation system was reimposed. In other areas--like British Guiana, Jamaica, or Trinidad where former slaves were able to squat on unsettled land and set up subsistence farms, staple production fell sharply. To counteract the precipitous decline in sugar production, the British government imported tens of thousands of "coolie" laborers from China, India, Java, and West Africa into Guiana, Jamaica, Mauritius, Surinam, and Trinidad. In many plantation societies, governments sought to force former slaves back to work on plantations with strict vagrancy laws, coercive labor contracts, and regressive taxes.

The story of Reconstruction in the American South echoes that broader concern with labor control. Immediately following the war, all-white state legislatures passed "black codes" designed to force freed blacks to work on plantations, where they would be put to work in gangs. These codes denied blacks the right to purchase or even rent land. Vagrancy laws allowed authorities to arrest blacks "in idleness" and assign them to a chain gang or auction them off to a planter for as long as a year. Other statutes required blacks to have written proof of employment and barred blacks from leaving plantations. The Freedmen's Bureau, ostensibly designed to aid former slaves, helped to enforce laws against vagrancy and loitering and refused to allow ex-slaves to keep land that they had occupied during the war. One black army veteran asked rhetorically: "If you call this Freedom, what did you call Slavery?"

Such efforts to virtually reenslave the freedmen led Congressional Republicans to seize control of Reconstruction from President Andrew Johnson, deny representatives from the former Confederate states their Congressional seats, and pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and write the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution to extend citizenship rights to African Americans and guarantee them equal protection of the laws. In 1870, the country went even further by ratifying the Fifteenth Amendment, which extend voting rights to black men. But the most radical proposal advanced during Reconstruction--to confiscate plantations and redistribute portions of the land to the freedmen-- was defeated.

The freedman, in alliance with carpetbaggers (Northerners who had migrated to the south following the Civil War) and southern white Republicans known as scalawags, temporarily gained power in every former Confederate state except Virginia. Altogether, over 600 blacks served as legislators in reconstruction governments (though blacks comprised a majority only in the lower house of South Carolina's legislator). The Reconstruction governments drew up democratic state constitutions, expanded women's rights, provided debt relief, and established the South's first state-funded schools. During the 1870s, however, internal divisions within the southern Republican party, white terror, and northern apathy allowed white Democrats, known as Redeemers to return to power in the South's state governments. The North's failure to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments permitted racial segregation and disfranchisement in the South.

During Reconstruction, former slaves--and many small white farmers--became trapped in a new system of economic exploitation--sharecropping. Lacking capital and land of their own, former slaves were forced to work for large landowners. Initially, planters, with the support of the Freedmen's Bureau, sought to restore gang labor under the supervision of white overseers. The freedman, who wanted autonomy and independence, refused to sign contracts that required gang labor. Ultimately, sharecropping emerged as a sort of compromise.

Instead of cultivating land in gangs supervised by overseers, landowners divided plantations into 20- to 50-acre plots suitable for farming by a single family. In exchange for land, a cabin, and supplies, sharecroppers agreed to raise a cash crop (usually cotton) and to give half the crop to their landlord. The high interest rates landlords and merchants charged for goods bought on credit transformed sharecropping into a system of economic dependency and poverty. The freedmen found that "freedom could make folks proud but it didn't make 'em rich."

Nevertheless, the sharecropping system did allow freedmen a degree of freedom and autonomy greater than that experienced under slavery. As a symbol of their newly won independence, freedmen had teams of mules drag their former slave cabins away from the slave quarters into their own fields. Black wives and daughters sharply reduced their labor in the fields and instead devoted more time to childcare and housework. For the first time, black families could divide their time between fieldwork and housework in accordance with their own family priorities.

Chattel slavery had been defeated. The gang system of labor, enforced by the whip, was dead. Real gains had been won. But full freedom remained an unfulfilled promise.

In 1970, the countries of the Arabian peninsula became the last in the world to abolish legal slavery. Nevertheless, the buying and selling of human beings continues to flourish in many parts of the world. Each year, an estimated one million Asian women and children, in Bangladesh, Burma, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and elsewhere, are sold or auctioned into slavery to serve as prostitutes or child laborers. Methods of procurement have changed since the 18th centuries; instead of being kidnapped, slaves are bought in impoverished villages for a few hundred dollars. But the cruelties of slavery remain, with contemporary slaves chained to beds in brothels or at workbenches in sweatshops. The final chapter in the history of slavery remains unfinished.



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