Remaking Virginia: A New Labor System

This is the third in a series of four blog posts concerning post-Civil War Virginia and the lives of freedpeople after Emancipation. The posts precede the Library of Virginia exhibition Remaking Virginia: Transformation through Emancipation opening 6 July 2015.

Update: Freemen’s contracts from local government records have been digitized, transcribed, and added to Virginia Untold.

Glimpses at the Freedmen - The Freedmen's Union Industrial School, Richmond, Va. / from a sketch by Jas E. Taylor. Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, v. 23, 1866 Sept. 22, p. 5. Library of Congress. In the months following the end of slavery, a new system of labor emerged under the direction of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The new system forced former slave owners to recognize former slaves not as property but as employees with whom they would have to negotiate terms of employment. The Freedmen’s Bureau administered the negotiations to ensure that the former slaves, now Freedmen, were treated fairly. The new labor system was spelled out in written contracts that in some localities were stored at the local courthouse and remained there after the Freedmen’s Bureau ended in 1872.

The contracts usually specified the dates of the expected employment, obligations of the employee to the employer, and vice-versa. The following example found in the Lunenburg County (Va.) Freedmen’s Contracts, 1865-1866, offers the usual obligations found in freedmen’s contracts. A freedman named Archer Lewis made an agreement on 2 January  1866 with A.L. Davis to be a laborer on Davis’s farm. Davis would pay Lewis one quarter of the corn, oats, wheat, and tobacco that Lewis produced from his labor. Davis agreed to furnish Lewis with the animals and farm implements he needed to farm the land as well as food and housing for Lewis. Each day Lewis failed to show up for work, he would have to pay Davis 25 cents. If Lewis and Davis mutually agreed to annul their contract, they had to do so in the presence of and with the concurrence of an officer from the Freedmen’s Bureau. The agreement was signed by Davis, Lewis, and a H. Archer, an officer of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Freedmen contracts did not always spell out in detail the obligations of the freedmen. Again, in Lunenburg County, a freedman named Dealy Ann bound herself and her two children to Robert Bolling. He agreed to provide Dealy Ann and her children with “good wholesome food” and good summer and winter clothes. He would also furnish Dealy Ann with a pair of shoes. In return, Dealy Ann agreed to remain with Bolling for the entire year of 1866 and do “the work allotted to her.” The contract did not specify what that work was.

Freedmen’s contracts also came in the form of apprentice indentures.  These were contracts in which African American minors were bound out to employers for a period of time to learn a trade, either by their parents or by the  Freedmen’s Bureau in the case of orphans. . Examples of these records can be found in the Brunswick County Freedmen’s Contracts and Apprenticeship Indentures, 1865-1868. One of the indentures found in this collection is that of a six year old orphan named Ransem Hubbard. He was apprenticed to Jesse I. Gee to learn farming. Hubbard was to serve Gee as an apprentice until 1881, when Hubbard turned 21. In return, Gee was obligated to furnish Hubbard with food, clothing, and medical care. He was also to teach Hubbard how to read and write “and cipher in Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication, and Division.”

The new labor system was met with skepticism by a white population who questioned whether Freedmen could carry out their work without coercion. In an editorial titled “The Negro Labor Question” dated 1 August 1865, The Norfolk Post commented on how newspapers in the North and South “have been continually filled with lengthy articles or short paragraphs, the object of which appear to be to prove that the negro as a freedman is a useless and worthless member of society… that in order to make him of any use to himself or benefit to the country, he must be again made a slave.” In a chancery suit heard in Nelson County, one individual testified that farms were much more productive “when the negroes were slaves.” Another said that the system of labor “we have now is not profitable because it can’t be relied upon. If you employ Freedman there is great uncertainty of getting his labor.”

For African-Americans, the new labor system was a positive in that they enjoyed economic freedom. The Freedmen’s contracts ensured that they would receive wages, clothing, and shelter in return for their labor. If the employer failed to abide by the contract, Freedmen could seek legal recourse in the local courts. See Nelson County Chancery Cause 1867-004 Pollard Gaines vs. Royall H. Eubank found in the Library of Virginia’s Chancery Records Index for an example.

Despite the advantages of the new labor system, elements of the old labor system still remained. The language found in the freedmen’s contracts at times contained a master-slave intimation. Following are examples found in the Lunenburg County freedman’s contracts.

 “They (Hatchett family – freedmen) shall at all times behave honestly and obediently towards the said P.M. Hatchett and family … But the said parties (Hatchett family) at all times be under the direction and control of the said P.M. Hatchett.”

“Sally Cralle binds herself to attend to the house business for Wm. M. Bagley … and to labor in a most constant and faithful manner from sunrise to sunset and after sunset when required to do so.”

“They (a group of freedmen) jointly and severally bind themselves to care for and attend to the comfort and wants of the said E.C. Scott and his family as they were cared for and attended to before the said negroes were emancipated. And the whole plantation and everything thereon  … be cared for and attended to by the said negro freedmen as they and it were attended to and cared for before the said negroes were emancipated. The said negro freedmen further contract and bind themselves … not to leave or be absent from the plantation of the said E.C. Scott without his knowledge and permission.”

The Lunenburg County (Va.) Freedmen’s Contracts, 1865-1866 and Brunswick County Freedmen’s Contracts and Apprenticeship Indentures, 1865-1868 are available for research at the Library of Virginia. The processing of both collections was made possible through the LVA’s innovative Circuit Court Records Preservation Program (CCRP) which seeks to preserve the historic records of Virginia’s circuit courts.

 

–Greg Crawford, Local Records Program Manager

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