Continued from last week. If you missed last week’s installment, please visit theaustintimes.com
Once slavery was made illegal, blacks were no longer representative of a white man’s investment. They were simply expendable. If you were a former white master of great wealth who had seen his net worth plummet to near nothing with the stroke of Lincoln’s quill, you might be pretty pissed. You might take out your anger by killing a few black people here and there, just because you felt like it.
Any sheriff or judge in your area was going to understand your frustration and look the other way.
As quoted in the Slave Narrative of Tines Kendricks:
“When my race first got their freedom and begin to leave their masters, a heap of the masters got raging mad and just tore up truck. They say they going to kill every nigger they find. Some of them did do that very thing…I’m telling you the truth. They shot niggers down by the hundreds. They just wasn’t going let them enjoy they freedom. That is the truth.”
The Freedmen’s Bureau was responsible for keeping records of crimes committed against the former slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau website has a number of documents listed under the heading “Murders and Outrages.”
Two sample entries from a document entitled: 1867 Report of Freedmen murdered and assaulted in the sub district of Athens, Georgia follow:
Freedman Assaulted: ANDREW PRICE. Date: May 15. Injuries: Stabbed. Cause: “for not bringing WESTMORELAND a cup of coffee immediately when asked for.” Attacker: R. W. WESTMORELAND (student, white). Disposition: WESTMORELAND was tried by J.D. PELLARD, Intendant, Athens, Georgia. he was fined $50.00 and costs. WESTMORELAND is at large, place unknown.
Name of Person Murdered: NANCY WRIGHT (colored). Place: Camden. Supposed Murderer: DR. WM. WRIGHT (white). Date of Killing: 5 May 1866. Remarks: The deceased was about 14 years old was shot by DR. WRIGHT when he was drunk. A bill was found against the doctor. He made his escape before being arrested.
The reports on the Freedmen’s Bureau site list many similar situations, across many counties, in all the former Confederate States.
So, again, Tolliver and Jemima were most likely living in a state of fear, want and unimaginable frustration. White on black crime was high during the time of these reports and this was a period when Union troops were still occupying the South, offering protection to the former slaves. By the time Tolliver and Jemima were married, the Union troops had abandoned the South and things had grown significantly worse.
Whites often formed loose coalitions whereby they were able to ensure that former slaves continued to work for their former masters. A black man who refused this arrangement could, at worst, be killed and at best, be unable to find work anywhere else.
In the book, “Slavery by Another Name,” Douglas Blackmon writes on page 53:
“An 1865 Mississippi statute required African American workers to enter into labor contracts with white farmers by January 1 of every year or risk arrest. Four other states legislated that African Americans could not legally be hired for work without a discharge paper from their previous employer – effectively preventing them from leaving the plantation of the white man they worked for. In the 1880s, Alabama, North Carolina and Florida enacted laws making it a criminal act for a black man to change employers without permission.”
The degree to which the former slaves were locked into ongoing relationships with their former masters varied from town to town. In many instances, blacks were free to leave but were denied work elsewhere and returned to their old plantations out of desperation. Being in good standing with your former master also afforded a good degree of protection from white violence.
Being in good standing meant working hard, not complaining and not expecting anything more than what your former master had decided to afford you.
Tolliver and Jemima became sharecroppers. They may have purchased food, clothing, seed and supplies on credit, from their former master. If not their former master, then certainly someone white. The white person, probably a local planter or merchant, set the prices at which Tolliver and Jemima would buy things and the prices at which they would sell their crops.
According to the 1900 Census, both Tolliver and Jemima were able to read and write. This surely would have improved their lives in many ways, including being able to track their purchases. Yet, their literacy likely had no effect on their ability to make a profit.
They had no leverage to use to negotiate deals. There were no laws stating that commerce could not be practiced in a discriminatory way. And they would not have found a better price from any of the white merchants in any of the surrounding towns.
White former slave owners used any number of tactics to keep blacks from prospering and to keep the sharecroppers in debt to them.
In the Slave Narrative of Andrew Goodman he recounts:
“The first year we worked for him we raised lots of grain and other things and fifty-seven bales of cotton. Cotton was fifty-two cents a pound, and he shipped it all away, but all he ever gave us was a box of candy and a sack of store tobacco and a sack of sugar. He said the ‘signment done got lost. Paw said to let it go, ‘cause we had always lived by what the [former master] Goodmans had said.”
Ai and Eliza certainly worked hard too. Since Ai had arrived in Washington State with his father, mother and three brothers, they were able to count on each other for help clearing the land. They pooled their money to buy a horse or two to lighten their workload.
They helped one another build the log cabins they lived in during those early years. One of the railroad companies hired Ai to clear the land on either side of the railroad tracks and this enabled Ai to develop cash resources. He used those cash resources to buy seed, farm implements, food and clothing.
As hard as Ai worked his land, it’s doubtful that he worked harder than Tolliver during those years. Planting, tending and harvesting wheat in the mild Washington climate was nothing like the crushing labor of picking cotton or tobacco in the sweltering Southern states.
Tobacco requires stooping and cotton picking shreds the skin on the hands.
Ai and the other Camps could lay in bed on the days they felt ill. They could break for water or food any time they wanted. The slowest worker among them was never whipped.
And in fact, blacks who worked as employees on larger farms were still being overseen by white foremen, who were in fact, still whipping them.
So what about this Homestead thing? Could blacks take advantage of the Homestead Act?
In theory, yes, and some did. But for whatever reason, Tolliver and Jemima did not. We can speculate as to the reasons many slaves did not take advantage of Homesteading.
First, it did take some money to pick up and head west. It would also take money to survive in a new place while a family got the land going.
Former slaves were barely able to feed themselves, let alone save up enough to strike out on a risky venture like homesteading. Many blacks were still unable to read, it having been illegal for them to learn during slavery times. Of the illiterate who learned about Homesteading, it would have been through word-of-mouth and there would have been issues of trusting the source.
I imagine it must have sounded to them like it was too good to be true. Or at least, too mysterious to be the worth the risks.
For those who considered escaping West or North, and chose not to leave, their choice to stay might have taken into consideration that older relatives were unfit to travel. Slavery had forced many families apart.
It wouldn’t surprise me if people like Jemima and Tolliver accepted work as usual in exchange for the new luxury of being reunited with their parents and children. Perhaps they were even supporting older family members who could no longer work.
In his Slave Narrative, W.L. Bost describes what things were like around that time:
“[After] the war was over, we was afraid to move. [We were] just like the tarpins or turtles after ‘mancipation. Just stick our heads out to see how the land lay.”
In her Slave Narrative, Delicia Patterson says:
“I don’t know what the slaves expected, but I do know they didn’t get anything. After the War we just wandered from place to place, working for food and a place to stay. Now and then we got a little money, but very little.”
In fact, we do have some sense of what some slaves expected. There were plenty of reasons for former slaves to believe they would be given slave pensions. There were reasons for former slaves to believe they would be given forty acres and a mule.
There were reasons for slaves who had joined the Union Army’s efforts to believe they would receive soldier’s pensions. All of these programs were thwarted in Washington D.C. The former slaves were freed and then abandoned.
“That old story about the forty acres and a mule, it make me laugh. They sure did tell us that, but I never knowed any person which got it. The officers told us we would all get slave pension. That just exactly what they tell. The sure did tell me I would get a parcel of ground to farm. Nothing ever hatched out of that either.
Blackwell worked for the Union Army, then went to work for a railroad company, digging pits for railroad ties. “I get one dollar a day. I felt like the richest man in the world!…Always I was a-watching for my slave pension to begin coming. Before I left the Army, my captain, he telled me to file. My file number, it is 1,115,857. After I keeped them papers for so many years, white and black folks both telled me it ain’t never coming – my slave pension – and I reckon the children tored up the papers. That number for me is filed in Washington.”
Whatever their reasons, Tolliver and Jemima did not leave the South. They managed to avoid trouble. We know this because they didn’t get killed or sent to the convict work camps – the fates that befell many.
In the next installment we’ll look at the period from 1890 through the 1900 and 1910 Census records.