Tag Archives: Norfolk Post

- 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 … read more »