The Black Worker: Race, Labor, and Civil Rights Since Emancipation

The Black Worker: Race, Labor, and Civil Rights Since Emancipation

by Eric Arnesen

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University of Illinois Press
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

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The Black Worker

Race, Labor, and Civil Rights since Emancipation

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2007 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07380-9

Chapter One

"Sweet Dreams of Freedom": Freedwomen's Reconstruction of Life and Labor in Lowcountry South Carolina

In his memoir of Civil War and Reconstruction, rice planter Charles Manigault offered what he regarded as some of the "leading Characteristicks of The NEGRO, and ... The Times, through which we have recently passed." For Manigault, those characteristics were exemplified by his former slave Peggy, who offered ample evidence of how emancipation and Confederate defeat had turned Manigault's world upside-down. Manigault noted that as the war came to a close, former slaves plundered and destroyed planter homes throughout his lowcountry South Carolina neighborhood. Peggy "seized as Her part of the spoils my wife's Large & handsome Mahogany Bedstead & Mattrass & arranged it in her own Negro House on which she slept for some time" and in which Manigault bitterly imagined she enjoyed "her Sweet Dreams of freedom." Peggy also confiscated from the Manigault residence "some Pink Ribands, & tied in a dozen bows the woolly head of her Daughter, to the admiration of the other Negroes." Lastly, Manigault noted Peggy's response when he,joined by his son and a former overseer (and Confederate officer), came onto the farm and "immediately began to pitch the Negro Effects" into two wagons, intending to evict the freedpeople. Only Peggy ("the lady of the Big Mahogany Bed") tried to intervene: "placing her arms akimbo, [Peggy] said She would go off to the Provost Marshal in town & stop our unlawful proceedings with their property in their own homes."

Peggy's appropriation of her former mistress's furniture, her use of contraband ribbons to style her daughter's hair, and her public challenge to Manigault's authority all signaled to Manigault that Peggy was pursuing her freedom with a literal vengeance, or what Manigault described as "recklessness and Ingratitude." In the actions of freedwomen such as Peggy, and also in the responses that she and freedwomen like her provoked from former owners and from the civilian and military agents of Reconstruction, lies one of the most underexplored dynamics of the South's transition from slavery to freedom and the subject of this essay: the influence of former slave women's defining acts of freedom on the South's transition to a free labor society.

In the past fifteen years, historians have produced an impressive body of work reexamining the South's transition from slavery to freedom during and after the Civil War, work that has yielded new information and a richer understanding of the complex process, and implications, of American emancipation. Yet much of this scholarship, despite its emphasis on the multifaceted involvement of former slaves in shaping the South's transition to a free labor society, has omitted the actions and experiences of half of the four million who passed from slavery to freedom. Too often the transition from slavery to freedom has been investigated and portrayed as though slave women did not share that experience or failed to contribute to the process; enslaved African American women like Peggy, it would seem, had little if any specific or general influence on the shape of the path slaves forged that led from slavery to freedom.

Historians' failure to come to terms with freedwomen's role in the wartime and postbellum South has not been entirely a matter of omission. Despite the dearth of research, many scholars have characterized freedwomen's role in the postbellum conflict as allegedly withdrawing and retreating from the labor force, a conclusion that relies upon the infallibility of contemporary observations by northern and southern whites, and also on census-based estimates of freedwomen's labor-force participation. Even with limited evidence, scholars have freely interpreted freedwomen's motivations and expectations based on their alleged withdrawal from the paid workforce. Some posit that freedwomen gladly yielded to the demands of their husbands that they withdraw from agricultural employment, that they voluntarily collaborated with their husbands' postemancipation claims to the privileges and prerogatives of a patriarchally ordered family and household. Others suggest that freedwomen were imitating white behavior, anxious to claim for themselves the privileges they perceived in elite white women's domesticity-not the least of which was an escape from the physical demands of field work and the demeaning labor of domestic service. The work of Jacqueline Jones and Gerald Jaynes has offered a significant departure from speculation, given their more focused investigations into the actions of freedwomen in the postwar South. Both have turned their attention to freedwomen's creative attempts to choose productive and reproductive labor in their own and their families' best interests. Yet although Jones posits that "Only at home could [freedwomen] exercise considerable control over their own lives and those of their husbands and children and impose a semblance of order on the physical world," Jaynes has persuasively argued that freedwomen's actions must be evaluated in the context of specific postwar agricultural economies, offering an important challenge to the somewhat deterministic implication that all freedwomen acted alike. The conclusion that freedwomen's refusal to work in the manner demanded or prescribed by southern or northern whites actually culminated in women's wholesale withdrawal from labor markets across the South is premature, and its acceptance as "common knowledge" has deterred closer investigation of freedwomen's influence over and participation in wartime and postbellum conflict.

With the themes of withdrawal and retreat used to characterize women's postbellum experience, freedwomen like Peggy have been easily ignored as actors on the public landscape, the landscape from which historians typically identify the "facts" of Reconstruction. Yet Peggy's actions were both public and, as this essay will argue, typical for lowcountry freedwomen. In the actions of freedwomen like Peggy we find clues to some of the many ways in which former slave women distinguished their freedom from their slavery-from the vengeful ransacking of their former owners' homes, to the significance of dress and hair style in claiming and asserting a new personal dignity, to "reckless" confrontations with the plantation whites who had defined the day-to-day nature of exploitation under slavery. Recent research suggests there were also other important arenas in which former slave women tried to give meaning and substance to their freedom. Sharon Holt has revealed how freedwomen's (and -men's) efforts to increase their autonomy and their resources were intertwined with their desire to build, staff, and sustain schools, churches, mutual and benevolent societies, and a host of other independent institutions. Elsa Barkley Brown has reminded us that when Radical Reconstruction opened the political arena to freedmen, freedwomen also brought forward their own claims to citizenship, to political meetings and rallies, to voter registration, and to the polls. Work, which had been so central to women's experience of slavery, was also critical to women's definition of freedom. In lowcountry South Carolina, freedwomen escalated the battle to define black freedom when they sought autonomous control over plantation lands, when they negotiated and reconstructed plantation and domestic labor, and when they defended the new autonomy of their families and household economies from exploitation by planters and unwelcome intervention by northern agents of Reconstruction. In seeking control over their field labor on lowcountry rice plantations, women sought to distance themselves from the power and control of former slave-owning whites outside of the rice fields as much as in them.

Determined to pursue freedom on their own terms, freedwomen who sought the means and the opportunity to live and subsist as free from white intervention as possible encountered considerable opposition from several sources. Opposition came from white vigilantes, planters, mistresses, and overseers, all anxious for the return of a reliable and subordinate labor force, and from U.S. soldiers and agents of the Freedmen's Bureau who were frustrated by former slaves' unwillingness to embrace the tenets of the free labor society many northerners envisioned for the postwar South. The letters, reports, complaints, and official responses generated by freedwomen's observers and antagonists offer a rich record of freedwomen's efforts to reconstruct life and labor in lowcountry South Carolina. They also reveal that an important part of the work of defining freedom lay in freedwomen's determined efforts to reveal and disrupt the relations of power and domination that had marked their lives as enslaved laborers in the rice fields and planter residences of lowcountry plantations. When freedwomen insisted on working "in their own way and as such times as they think fit," they were articulating a politics of Reconstruction in which women's experience of gender, race, and a history of enslavement were inseparable. They made the issue of reconstructing work their own, an integral part of their desire and intent to secure black freedom.


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