As the Civil War came to an end, there were many questions yet to be answered concerning the political, social and economic issues that circled between the North and the South. The undeniable matter at hand, however, was what was to be done with the southern plantations, and more importantly, how the South was to strive economically with the new elimination of slavery. For the remainder of 1865, and the years that followed, the United States would see a significant change in the status if freedmen, and their relationships with their plantation owners. More importantly, the country began to realize that the diminishing of the slavery and bondage institutions were not to be overlooked, and that any attempt to create a new agricultural labor system relying on these methods, would surely fail.
Although the conclusion of the Civil War was supposed to bring about instant change, especially in favor of the former slaves, the country was far from resolving and settling the issue of what exactly were the new rights and freedoms of blacks. Union officers, the army and Freedmen’s Bureau all contributed to informing blacks of their new rights and in keeping order between the apprehensive landowners and the freedmen. However, unless a planter owned a small plantation and was able to maintain a personal understanding between himself and his workers, many southern whites saw the new labeling of blacks as “free men,” as a threat. A combination of “impudent” freedmen unwilling to work, fear of rebellion, and racism as a whole, gave the southerners even more initiative to mistrust and take advantage of the workers. In many instances, planters conned the freedmen into signing contracts that mirrored the ideals of slavery, yet that were approved by the Freedmen’s Bureau. As a result, southern planters adopted a new method of labor that immediately became widespread in the South; sharecropping. After the end of the war, the South did not have enough currency to pay the workers in wages, so by using this new system the freedmen would be paid in crop shares to avoid money hassles.
In the winter of 1865, after about six months of dealing with this type of labor, the position of the landowners and freedmen changed when the new season brought a need for more workers, and the “pressure was on the planter to find the laborers rather than on the Negro to find employment.” In turn, many freedmen did sign up for employment, but they demanded alterations within the contract that would give them their fair share of what they were working for; instead of receiving one-sixth of the crop, the average share was one-quarter, and some workers were even paid in wages. Despite this, there were still instances of workers getting cheated economically by their landowners, yet although reluctant to sign contracts, the freedmen continued to do so through the following few years. Within these years, the people began to realize why African Americans chose share-cropping over wage labor.
In the eyes of a Southern planter, share-cropping worked well because crop shares were easier to handle than currency at the time, and some felt it gave the freedmen more of a drive to work since they had a share of interest in the crop. Yet, as mentioned previously, it was quite an economic disadvantage to the African American workers. However, altogether this system gave the freedmen an actual sense of the freedom and independence they were promised. They were able to work in solitude or in small groups rather than in hordes, and they also did not have to be supervised; a luxury that the wage laborers did not have. In addition, it gave the blacks a sense of pride and responsibility for they were making a living for themselves, and they were no longer subservient to a master but were rather a part of a business among his or her landowner. In addition, by creating a comfortable atmosphere for working conditions, and establishing a good relationship between worker and planter, the chances of economic success in the South were assumed to increase. Although many landowning whites in the South still had difficulty grasping the idea of African Americans working alongside them equally, many realized that the southern economy depended on their labor.
Despite the economic changes that came about after the war, the more obvious change was the moral issue of slavery that still lingered in the country. Many attempts were made by southerners, plantation owners, and whites as a whole to keep institutions of slavery and bondage alive, by reflecting the ideals of the master-slave relationship onto any new form of agricultural labor that was created. Yet it became evident that despite what restrictions were placed upon their rights and freedoms, blacks did no longer consider themselves lower-class citizens to white landowners. They were now part of a system which rose above them, and were passionate about being one step closer to a “free man.” In this way, the sharecropping system was advantageous to both freedmen and southern whites, but moreover reflected a glimmer of hope for future African American independence.
Essay # 1: Free Plantation Labor/ an excerpt taking from the text below:
Harcourt Horizons: US History: Civil War to Present , Volume 1