Friday, November 28, 2008

The War Provided an Opening

"The legal foundation that buttressed Negro landownership, strangely enough, was inspired not so much by radical pressures as by the simple requirements of war." (Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction).

Though it is complicated and requires close historical analysis, the Civil War did in fact provide an opening for black landowership. At several refugee or contraband camps, officials did attempt to create such opportunity for a certain class of blacks. As Rose writes (a comment implied by DuBois), superintendents needed not only the labor of masses of blacks but the expertise of the negro driver, who had a thorough knowledge of farm operations. These blacks, who might also know how to navigate the local geography since they had probably done so on business for their masters, naturally became teamsters during the war delivering clothing and other supplies to their black brethren. These men stood ready then to take advantage of any small opening within the war machine.

Openings were created from inconsistency in jurisdiction. At one point, the Department of Freedmen (Army) had control of the camps. At another point, the Treasury Department took control. I have surmised that superintendents had more control over the camps and more opportunity to create avenues to black landownership when the Department of Freedmen was in control. We see this with the example of the President Island Experiment, where John Eaton (via the Federal Government) purchased a local tract of land and divided it among the freedmen.

We see this also at Port Royal where Treasury agents were in constant conflict, and officials themselves thwarted efforts to create black landowners because of their own greed. Nevertheless, a few blacks actually came for a time to occupy in South Carolina the plantations of their masters. By default of taxes, plantations were lost by whites and bought by whites and blacks (who pooled their small earnings) for 1.00 an acre. Though there is a positive side to this story, there is also a negative side since blacks, advised to squat on desired land, were later removed from the land, which was sold out from under them. Still, a number of blacks were able to acquire and maintain the land they had sought.

Annotated Bibliography

These works touch upon the general topic of black farming in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Eaton, John (Ph.D., Brig. Gen., General Superintendent of Tenn.) Grant, Lincoln,
and the Freedmen, Reminiscences of the Civil War, New York: Longman
Green, and Co., 1907.

Some people say that Eaton, an educator, looked down upon the freedmen, but in this book Eaton describes himself as overwhelmed by the enormous task at hand. He describes the "ragged and suffering negroes" (18). He articulates the task as transforming the slave into a free man. He writes that whenever it was "feasible," he and other officials bargained with blacks to pick, gin, and bale cotton. It is from these opportunities that I think a handful of blacks began earning money and made the slow trek toward landownership.
Eaton assigned Chaplain A.S. Fiske, superintendent over the contraband at Memphis. Camp Fiske became the largest settlement of blacks in Memphis. By May of 1863, when the War Department ordered the organization of black troops, black men at Camp Fiske had already been armed in order to guard the camp. These men, as well as men at other camps, would later muster into the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Men who had specifically been guarding the camps became part of the Invalid Corps, a.k.a. Home Guard per Eaton's and Grant's requests. These units, the 63rd and 64th regiments, were much praised by Eaton, and there is reason to believe that his sentiments, as well as trust in their abilities, is what led him to open avenues to farming. This was too Grant's desire.
Eaton writes, "Other Negro planters sold their crops, standing, for sums ranging from four to eight thousand dollars" (210).

Fink, Gary. Race, Class, and Community in Southern Labor History.
Reed, Merl E.

Fink's work suggests that Eaton's predecessors in Memphis (Sherman and Veach) allowed slave owners to enter the ranks to retrieve their slaves. This work also blames failure to achieve widespread black landownership on the absence of "transitional structures of opportunities." Blacks wanted to become landowners or at least to have land rented to them. They strongly resisted the offer of labor contracts, a system that reminded them of slavery. They also tried to keep their wives from having to work.
With Grant's encouragement, Eaton bought a parcel of land on President's Island. This land had been the site of Camp Dixie, and when it was sold there were still 3,000 blacks living there. The land was acquired with the purpose of creating black landowners. There is reason to believe that some blacks were able to rent land there though it also seems that at some point in 1864 or early in 1865 operations on the island officially ceased.

Harwick, Kevin. "’Your Old Father Abe Lincoln is Dead and Damned’: Black
Soldiers and the Memphis Race Riot of 1866." Journal of Social History,
Vol. 27, Fall 1993, 109-28.

Harwick's article provides the immediate post-war scenario of black Memphis and of racial tensions between blacks and whites, particularly the Irish. Harwick analyzes the Memphis Riot of 1866 and puts forth the idea that resentment over the new identity and role of black soldiers as leaders of the community is what led to the riot. Black leadership was symbolized in the soldier's uniform, which many men continued to wear after the war for special celebrations. The uniformed men reminded whites of Union occupation. Accoding to Harwick, whites greatly resented this new role of blacks. Harwick rejects earlier arguments that the riot was caused by struggle for jobs since he argues that white rioters and blacks were not in competition for the same jobs. Rather, whites wanted to put down black self-assertion. Harwick's work helps readers draw a picture of the mood of blacks and whites directly following the war.

Harwick also comments on black labor conditions during the war including the coercion of blacks to sign labor contracts. According to him, pressure was placed on General Dudley of the Freedman's Bureau to send blacks to surrounding plantations, and Dudley agreed that idle blacks should be removed from the city. Dudley did not believe these blacks had the same rights as more industrious ones. He ordered black soldiers to arrest vagrants.

Phillips, Paul David. "Education of Blacks in Tennessee during Reconstruction,
1865-1870." Carroll Van West, Eds. Trial and Triumph, Essays in Tennessee’s
African American History. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2002,

Phillips' work takes a more positive look at Eaton's superintendency, focusing on his goal of educating the freedmen. According to Phillips, Eaton moved the camps in Hardeman County Tennessee to Memphis in December of 1862. The freedmen were educated using the Freedman's Primer. Fugitives were indoctrinated with the gospel of work and family stability.

Rose, Willie Lee. Rehearsal for Reconstruction, the Port Royal Experiment
Indianapolis, IN: The Bobs-Merrill Co, Inc, 1964. (Introduction by
C. Vann Woodward)

Rose provides a history of the Port Royal Experiment of South Carolina. Like other experiments including the President's Island Experiment, these attempts at transitioning blacks to freedom were fraught with the philosophical and political conflicts of all of the parties that played a role in Reconstruction. Another factor, which we can infer from Rose as well as from others who have written of the contraband camps, is that officers were tempted to line their own pockets. According to Rose, General Sherman hired cotton collectors (whites) while blacks received one dollar for every 400 pounds of unginned cotton (24). However, it appears doubtful that most blacks received the money. They also became victims of price gouging. Nevertheless, it is clear that blacks were needed, and Rose writes that "the most useful ally" of the superintendent was the negro driver since they knew more about farm operations than anybody else. The driver, in Rose's opinion, was at "the uppermost rank" of the black hierarchy on plantations. Their job might include reporting on crops, and because of this important role masters sometimes taught them to read. Camp officials would come to count on these men to provide an example to other blacks.

At Port Royal, industrious blacks asked to plant their own crops, as well as plots for sustenance.

Rose writes that the Treasury agents were "at cross purposes" (25), and this is what dogged all efforts concerning blacks.

Abstract: Early Black Farmers on the Island

In 1882, in a northwest Mississippi town, three brothers, sons of a former slave and in fact former slaves themselves, purchased three hundred and fifty acres. This achievement, which took place nineteen years after Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, is tied to the fact that in that same year, this slave and his children left the Mississippi county where they had been held in bondage and traveled to a contraband camp in the Mississippi River off of Memphis, Tennessee. At the camp for refugees, the elder's desire to become a farmer met with a charge given Superintendent of Freedmen in the western district, John Eaton of New Hampshire, later chaplain of the 27th Ohio. Eaton's legacy is tainted by the claim that he coerced masses of blacks to sign labor contracts, a precedent to sharecropping, yet the case of this one particular slave and his progeny provides proof that Eaton found a way to create farming opportunities for at least some blacks. Freedman's Bureau records, pre-bureau records, and Eaton's own words further support the idea that under his leadership blacks farmed on the island before the end of the war.