Peonage: Why it Thrived and How Some Escaped
(C) 05/2005 Angela K. Mack
Many people currently and ignorantly believe that the African American was set free with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. Yet, the truth is that the lives of many African Americans in the south were trapped in a system of peonage or debt servitude which was just as bad if not worse than slavery. So why didn’t they just run away and head north the moment they heard of their so-called “freedom”? Why on earth did they stay in the south? Why did so many remain on their plantations, on the very land that they were slaves on? At a first glance, it doesn’t seem logical. These questions can be answered as I expand upon the conditions of and reasons for peonage in the south as well as give examples of how some African Americans were able to escape this system of bondage in the post Civil War era.
Peonage is defined by the Encarta Dictionary: English (North America) as “a former system used in Latin America and the southern United States under which a debtor was forced to work for a creditor until a debt was paid”. It actually evolved during the Civil War as the systems of sharecropping and crop-lien began. (August Meier and Elliot Rudwick 166). Sharecropping meant that a landowner would give the laborer a “share” of the crop in exchange for labor of the land. After the Civil War, it seemed like a reasonable idea at the time for both parties. Labor was needed to restore a war torn south and there was a lack of cash. Immediately after the war, landowners tried to operate the farms with hired laborers, but they did not have enough cash to pay the workers. So sharecropping seemed like the perfect system to have the new freedmen work for. “The system not only overcame the disruption of the labor supply but it also helped solve problems resulting from a lack of cash…” (Monroe Lee Billington 228).
Many ex-slaves did not choose to be a part of this system, however. After the Emancipation Proclamation, General Nathaniel P. Banks issued regulations that required freedmen to return to their plantations and work. They could not leave without a pass and received low wages. “The absence of ‘perfect subordination’ could result in freedmen losing pay or food rations”. Furthermore, in 1865 and 1866 southern lawmakers enacted the Black Codes. This system of social control kept the Negro in a subordinate place within society. They were required to provide cheap labor. An unemployed black man without a permanent residence was considered a vagrant. (August Meier and Elliot Rudwick 168, 170).
This system was able to thrive in the south despite Amendment XIII of the U.S. Constitution Section 1 which states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, nor any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (Robert A. Divine..et al. Appendix A-15). Yet it contained unjust components which kept African Americans in an even greater bondage than slavery. The term “involuntary servitude” was not clearly defined for a very long time after Amendment XIII. “It was not until United States v. Kozminski (1988) that slavery, in its derivative form, involuntary servitude, was formally outlawed.” (Gale Group Bailey v. Alabama).
But even still, “Negroes preferred to be renters rather than hired laborers. Renting was desirable, even under a sharecropping rather than a cash arrangement, because tenants could organize their own time and be more independent than a hired laborer. Moreover, they could raise their own food.” (August Meier and Elliot Rudwick 172). The fact that they had strong family, friendship, and community ties was incentive enough for them to remain stagnant in the south as well.
However, it did not take long for the African American sharecroppers to realize that they were being taken advantage of and controlled. They needed to purchase items from the store to survive on such as food and clothing. Having no money, they had to purchase things on credit. The crop was the lien. But because of the heavy racism that still existed in the south, merchants charged them unfair and outrageous prices for such items. High interest rates were tagged onto the charges and they didn’t have control or knowledge of the accounts. When the harvest came and the crop was sold, they found themselves in debt to the landowner and merchant. (August Meier and Elliot Rudwick 173)
Because they were in debt, they were forced to stay on the plantation another year to work off their debt. They could not leave. If they did, they could possibly be lynched. The system of peonage offered little, if any, hope.
Founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Carter G. Woodson, describes in 1918 a lack of ambition as being another reason why African Americans remained in bondage to the system of peonage:
“Generally speaking, the Negroes are still dependent on the white people for food and shelter. Although not exactly slaves, they are yet attached to the white people as tenants, servants, or dependents. Accepting this as their lot, they have been content to wear their lord’s cast-off clothing, and live in his ramshackled barn or cellar. In this unhappy state so many have settled down, losing all ambition to attain a higher station. The world has gone on but in their sequestered sphere progress has passed them by.” (Carter G. Woodson 468).
But some were ambitious and did rise above. Former vice-chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Fannie Lou Hamer, was able to escape the sharecropping system despite the hopelessness she felt about it in her childhood. She longed for change yet it seemed impossible. “The weight of the system was too great”. (David Rubel 29). It was her faith in God that carried her through the hopeless times. (13).
Fanny Lou Hamer tells the story about her landowner:
“I can remember very well the landowner telling me one day that if I would pick thirty pounds (of cotton), he would give me something out of the commissionary: some Crackerjacks, Daddy-Wide-Legs (a gingerbread cookie), and some sardines. These were things that I knew I loved and never had a chance to have. So I picked thirty pounds that day. Well, the next week I had to pick sixty and by the time I was thirteen, I was picking two and three hundred pounds.” (14). This “bait and switch” tactic was typical. Landowners and merchants alike took advantage of the sharecroppers by making false promises, and preying upon the uneducated ness of the freedmen. Sharecropping was an awful way for the freed slaves to live. However, because they lacked education and desperately needed work, it left them with little or no options. (David Rubel 14). Fannie Lou Hamer was a fighter, though. She watched James Meredith become the first African American student at the University of Mississippi which inspired her to remain strong. (David Rubel 63). When she tried to register to vote, she was kicked off her plantation but a new life awaited her. Although harassed and beaten in prison, she still fought. She became a worker and, later, a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She began to organize townspeople politically and became an effective fundraiser even though she was making just $10 a week. Finally, she worked her way up to being the vice-chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. (David Rubel 6, 67-68).
WWII provided an escape for other sharecroppers. As American men went off to war, laborers were needed to fill jobs primarily in the northern, industrial and urban parts of the United States. “One place these laborers were found was in the kitchen, as many housewives went to work. Another place they were found was down on the plantation.” “Many southern blacks were happy to move and leave the plantation behind.” (David Rubel 27-28). PBS used excerpts from The Journal of Negro History by Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia in their documentary film, “Goin’ To Chicago”. There is an account of a letter written by a southern black from Marcel, Mississippi writing to the Chicago Defender on October 4, 1917.
“….I wants to come to Chicago to live. I am a man of a family wife and 1 child I can do just any kind of work in the line of common labor & I have for the present sufficient means to support us till I can obtain a position…..” (George King).
I conducted an interview with Mr. Greg Eskridge who is an Economic Support Specialist for the State of Wisconsin in Milwaukee County. He shared with me some stories of his parents who were sharecroppers. His dad did not have any formal schooling. His mother went to school up until 6th grade. They married when he was 19 and she was 14. His parents worked for Mr. Morgeson in Grenada, Mississippi. Mr. Morgeson gave half of the crop to Mr. Eskridge and kept a half for himself that Mr. Eskridge and his family had to raise chickens on as well as grow potatoes, leafy vegetables, wheat, and cotton. When Mr. Eskridge’s brother was lynched with no explanation, he decided to look for work in the north. He found work in 1946 as a truck mechanic at the Ford Motor Company. He went back to get his wife and spoke with Mr. Morgeson about leaving. Mr. Eskridge called him a “fair man”; an “O.K. boy”. Their ancestors had known each other and acted cordially in the past, therefore, Mr. and Mrs. Eskridge were able to leave on a handshake without any harassment. Mr. Eskridge raised six sons in the inner city of Chicago and later received an assembly line position at the Ford Motor Company. (Greg Eskridge)
Escape from the plantation oddly came through music as well. One of the great founders of the blues, Charley Patton, came off of his Dockery Plantation in Mississippi, and came to Grafton, WI (just a few blocks from my home) to record his legendary blues at Paramount Recording Studios. His music opened the doors for him to escape life in the south. He became a local celebrity and then his fame grew. He eventually ended up in New York to record shortly before he died.
“Patton would be called up to play at plantation dances, juke joints, and the like. He’d pack them in like sardines everywhere he went, and the emotional sway he held over his audiences caused him to be tossed off of more than one plantation by the ownership, simply because workers would leave crops unattended to listen to him play any time he picked up a guitar.” (Cub Koda).
Peonage was able to thrive even after the Emancipation Proclamation because it seemed to be a good solution to the economic setbacks of the Civil War. The law also enabled it to thrive through Banks regulations, the Black Codes, and the unclear definition of “involuntary servitude”. Some African Americans preferred to stay sharecroppers because of strong family ties in the south. Others accepted peonage as a way of life unable to overcome. Fannie Lou Hamer and Charley Patton were kicked off of their plantations and became famous. Others found jobs that were left vacant due to war. The fact remains; the Emancipation Proclamation did not guarantee freedom. Slavery took upon the new name, “peonage”. Thankfully, some were fortunate enough to escape.
“Bailey v. Alabama.” Great American Court Cases. 4 vols. Gale Group, 1999. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group. <galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/HistRC/>.
Billington, Monroe Lee. The American South. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1971
Divine, Robert A…..(et al.), America, Past and Present. NY…(et al.). Pearson Longman. 2005.
Eskridge, Greg. Interview by author. Grafton, WI, 3 May 2005. Koda, Cub.
King, George. “Letters From Mississippians, 1916-1918”. Goin’ To Chicago. PBS Online. < http://www.pbs.org/gointochicago/migrations/index.html>.
Koda, Cub. “Charley Patton Devil Sent the Rain Blues”. (Audio CD insert): La Spezia, Italy: Comet Records. 2004.
Meier, August and Elliot Rudwick. From Plantation to Ghetto, Third Edition. NY: American Century Series. 1976.
Rubel, David. Fannie Lou Hamer From Sharecropping to Politics. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Silver Burdett Press, Inc. 1990
Woodson, Carter G. “From a Century of Negro Migration (1918)”. From Bondage to Liberation. New York: Faith Berry. 2001.