Post-War Slavery

Written by Tim Talbott on. Posted in Uncategorized

McRobertsBy Jacqueline Katz, Wellesley High School, Wellesley Hills, MA, and Melissa Katz, PS 73X, Bronx, NY

The adoption of the 13th amendment marked the official end of legal slavery in the United States, yet because the freedmen were subjected to a labor system that favored whites, an institution remained in Kentucky and the rest of the South that was remarkably similar to slavery. The “Estate of Andrew McRoberts slave sale document” from the Kentucky Historical Society archives reveals the practice of selling enslaved persons to resolve debts through a public auction.  

Undersigned Executors of Andrew McRoberts Dec’d would make the following report to the Lincoln County Court of the sale of two slaves which fell into their hands after the death of Margaret McRoberts.  The sale of said slaves was made at public auction before the Court House door in Stanford on Monday 2nd day of Jany 1865 as follows 1st Moses to Geo McRoberts at $360.00 2nd Thomas to John McRoberts at $75.00 Hire of Moses for part of the year 1864 $105.00 $540.00 Which amounts in the aggregate To the sum of $540. remaining in their hands as Executors aforesaid, and now ready for distribution amongst the Heirs of said decedent.  All of which is respectfully reported March 10th 1865 John McRoberts Exec William M. Higgins Exec [1]

Though the sale of the slaves represented in this document was legal at the time, the practice of selling African-Americans in public places to pay debts continued after 1865. Florida

This image [2] from the Library of Congress could easily be a pictorial representation of the McRoberts slave sale document. It is important to note, however, that the image is from 1867 and depicts a freedman, not a slave, being sold to pay his fines in Monticello, Florida. The similarity between a slave sale document and Reconstruction image is actually not so surprising. The former slave states like Kentucky, where many citizens felt betrayed by a government that had stated it would not abolish slavery, protected and maintained their former way of life, i.e. controlling black labor, despite the passage of the 13th amendment. As historian David Oshinsky posits, “[e]mancipation had ended slavery but had not destroyed the assumptions upon which slavery was based.”[3]

While some freedmen moved north, most remained in the South to farm, particularly where it seemed the Freedman’s Bureau would oversee contracts for sharecropping, tenant farming or purchasing land. While the Bureau did help with negotiating these contracts, its main prerogative was to ensure the freedmen became self-supporting rather than to get them fair contracts.  Even then, some residents in the eastern half of Kentucky refused to hire freedmen who registered with the bureau.[4] By the 1870s, the role of the Freedman’s Bureau was dissolved and freedmen negotiated contracts without any aid, leading to further unjust treatment of whites towards blacks. As one plantation owner said, “’Let everything proceed as formerly, the contractual relation being substituted for that of master and slave.’”[5] Groups in Kentucky assembled to plan out the new labor system and favored contracts lasting one year.[6]  In practice, these contracts worked to the disadvantage of blacks, as they could not testify against planters when planters broke the contract and furthermore, could be dismissed from the contract for minor infractions.[7] 

The aforementioned minor infractions put many former slaves in the position of the freedman in Monticello, Florida.  Blacks who violated contracts were sold to pay off the rest of their contract or, worse, were entered into the prison labor system.  Violating contracts was not the only reason that freedmen could be forced into labor.  The emergence of “pig laws” (based on a Mississippi law), where black perpetrators of minor thefts received sentences of years in prison, became a way to create a labor system that was not only cheaper than slavery (convicts were more replaceable than slaves), but also legal; it did not violate the 13th amendment because involuntary servitude was a punishment for crime.  Vagrancy laws were also established, forcing freedmen into signing contracts, even if they knew they were unfair, to avoid arrest for being “idle.”[8] Once sentenced to jail, these freedmen were forced into plantation labor systems or fined. If they could not pay their fine, they were sold to the highest bidder for forced work.  These workers comprised the new forced labor system of Kentucky and the rest of the South. A black freedman noted, “It looks to me, that the white people are putting in prison all that they can get their hands on.”[9] By the 1870s, jails became full of freedmen who had violated their contracts, minor laws or arrested for vagrancy.

By the end beginning of the 20th century, however, the convict leasing system was largely limited to the Deep South. The states “authorized the hiring out of virtually every convict in the state […] after dismantling its penitentiary.  Railroads, mining and lumber companies, and planters competed for this new form of involuntary labor.”[10] As the numbers of convicts rose, measures were taken to ensure the obedience of the convicts and so convict labor came to resemble the plantation system strongly.  Upon entry, through a justice system that worked against freedmen, the inmates were characterized similarly to the fugitive slave ads that ran in newspapers across the country prior to the Civil War.  An ad from the Frankfort Tri-Weekly Commonwealth in March 1863, described “a negro man calling himself Nelson […], about 21 years of age, 5 feet 2 inches high, weighing 140 pounds, dark brown skin, think break, full round face, thick lips, flat nose, and high forehead, scar on back of right hand.”[11] Over 30 years after the 13th amendment, a register from Parchman Farm, a convict labor camp, printed a similar description for a convict: “Age, 38 years; height 5 feet, 8 inches; weight, 139 lbs; nativity, TN; complexion, mulatto; hair, black; eyes, brown; mole on stomach; narrow face; narrow head; black mole on cheek near nose; has deep scowl between eyes.”[12]  African-Americans, as part of a new forced labor system, were seen and characterized in a similar way as to when they were enslaved. Living conditions were also comparable to those of slaves. At Parchman Farm, convicts slept in communal cabins surrounded by barred windows that resembled slave quarter cabins. White overseers monitored their labor and had drivers to discipline and regulate the workforce. Furthermore, on the camps, corporal punishment was common. This included whipping, which of course had strong racial overtones after having been used against slaves for centuries.[13] While corporal punishment was outlawed by states outside the South by 1900, this practice remained common in the South through the 1950s.

Clearly the passage of the 13th amendment did not guarantee freedom for the freedmen. For a variety of economic, political and social reasons, documents produced prior to the passage of the 13th amendment strongly resemble documents produced as late as 1900.  While slavery was outlawed by 1865, features of the slave system continued to be prevalent for decades afterward and arguments could be made that its effects are still felt today.

[4] Howard, 97.

[5] Foner,  61.

[6] Howard, 95.

[7] Howard, 96.

[8] Foner 93.

[9] Foner, 250.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Frankfort Tri-Weekly Commonwealth, March 23rd, 1863.

[12] Oshinsky, 138.

[13] Oshinsky, 149.

Works Cited:

Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction. New York: Harper Perennial, 1990. Print.

Howard, Victor B. Black Liberation in Kentucky: Emancipation and Freedom, 1862-1884. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1983. Print.

Oshinsky, David M. Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. Print.

Taylor, James E.  Selling a Freedman to Pay His Fine, at Monticello , Florida. 1867. Wood engraving. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

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