The key to economic independence for freedpeople was land, and they believed they were entitled to it. As Virginia freedman Bayley Wyatt put it, “Our wives, our children, our husbands has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon; for that reason we have a divine right to the land.” General Sherman’s Field Order 15 seemed like a dream come true. 40,000 freedmen were settled on 400,000 acres of land along the seacoast from South Carolina to Florida. Many freedpeople thought the federal government was going to grant 40 acres and a mule to every freed family. But the dream of land ownership did not last. Less than a year after Field Order 15 President Johnson ordered nearly all the land in the hands of the government returned to its former owners. The head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, General O.O. Howard, was ordered to announce the news to the freedpeople. Freedpeople were outraged. The news spread along the Sea Islands, opposition grew, and freedpeople organized themselves, vowing to stand together and refuse to work for White landowners. Howard was moved by their plight and appealed to Congress, but by the end of 1865 more than half of the land in the Sherman reserve was back in the hands of Whites. Many of the freedmen had no choice but to sign labor contracts, putting them back to work - though not as slaves - for White landowners.
For women, freedom meant they were in charge of their own homes. They had privacy. They didn’t have to tolerate abuse. They could devote themselves to the care of their own families and households instead of those of white people. Their families became more secure - freedpeople didn’t have to live in fear of being separated. They could get married. But formerly enslaved people were poor, so freedwomen often worked for whites to make extra money. During slavery, Whites had depended on enslaved women to take care of the laundry. After emancipation many Black women did washing for Whites, but now they were paid for their work, and they had bargaining power to determine wages and hours. Washing clothes by hand was a backbreaking task. “You got to keep on rinsing till the water clear. If the water cloudy you just march back to the pump and tote another tub of water. Pump! I pump water till my arm pure wore out.” The money brought in by freedwomen made a huge difference to the survival of their families in the early years of freedom and beyond. A stable family life became part of the foundation of the Black community, and Black women’s contributions went well beyond economics. Once freed from bondage, women became a driving force in African American life at every level, establishing benevolent associations, orphanages, homes for the elderly, and schools.
A child born into slavery was the property of the slaveowner. Slaveowners could discipline enslaved children as they saw fit, decide when they were old enough to work, and even sell them away from their parents. The end of slavery had a powerful impact on the family life of freedpeople, but there was still one way that Whites could control Black children - apprenticeship. Under the Black Codes of 1865 and ‘66, children whose families were considered unable to take care of them could be forced to work for a White employer. Freedman Jack Gill wrote, “I think very hard of the former owners for trying to keep my blood when I know that slavery is dead.” By 1867, the Republican Congress had overturned the Black Codes, and the children could no longer be apprenticed without their parents’ consent. The families of former slaves became more stable and safe. People of all ages were determined to get an education. The freed people themselves raised money to pay teachers, and donated land and labor to build schools. The schools they established became the foundation of public education in the South.
and cotton planters in the Antebellum South owned vast tracts of land, and their wealth was measured in acreage and slaves. As the Union army advanced through the South during the Civil War, many Confederate landowners fled their plantations. Abandoned land was confiscated by the Union and put under the control of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Now the South, and the nation, faced the question of how to make the transition from slave to free labor in a region and economy shattered by war. Even some Northern politicians had doubts about retaining the military occupation of the South, and in 1865, President Johnson began to pardon former Confederates and restore “all rights of property, except as to slaves” to white owners. Most former slaveowners insisted that they maintain control over their workers, even if they had to use force. Freedpeople were determined to be their own masters and they would not be treated as slaves again. Basically, the old social system had collapsed and nobody knew what the new one would look like. By requiring labor contracts to be entered into by Blacks and their employers, the Freedmen’s Bureau tried to be tried to assure that both Whites and freedpeople would be treated fairly.
Most Blacks had to agree to sharecropping arrangements whereby they gave a portion of the cash crop they raised to the landlords, and purchased supplies from them at high interest rates. The sharecropping system that evolved in the South during Reconstruction – while better than slavery – trapped African Americans in a cycle of dependency and poverty.
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands - known as the Freedmen’s Bureau - was established by Congress in March, 1865, right before the end of the Civil War. The Bureau was responsible for every aspect of the lives of the four million former slaves. Major General Oliver O. Howard, the Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, was sympathetic to freedpeople, but he had to contend with Andrew Johnson, a Southerner, who had become president when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. When President Johnson began issuing pardons and restoring land to former Confederates, Howard defied him and ordered his agents to reserve abandoned and confiscated land for the formerly enslaved. But President Johnson overrode Howard’s directive. Howard himself went to deliver the bad news to the freedmen. At the same time, he began to create the terms for labor contracts. Howard delayed the signing of contracts for two months, hoping the new Republican Congress would find ways for former slaves to become landowners. Congress refused, and the majority of the Southern land returned to the White elites. In the summer of 1872, Congress shut the Freedmen’s Bureau down.
Pork has been a staple of Southerners’ diets for centuries. Enslaved people, who were given the less desirable cuts of the hog, developed sauces and cooking methods to enhance the flavor of the meat using ingredients inspired by traditional African cooking. For freed families, owning hogs meant a secure source of food and degree of independence. Pigs are self-sufficient and don’t require as much pasture land as cattle, and many Southern farmers once let their hogs roam freely in the woods.
This labor contract from Hardeman County, Tennessee, is dated January 19, 1866. It states that a formerly enslaved couple, identified only as Richard and Mary, will work for James Mitchell as sharecroppers. The contract requires Mitchell to provide the couple meat and bread, but they must pay their own medical bills and do any kind of labor that Mitchell deems necessary, an arrangement not very different from slavery. A labor contract from Lumberton, North Carolina dated August 28, 1865, between Robert McKenzie and Truss B. Hall, was generated by the Freedmen’s Bureau and specifies that McKenzie will pay Hall four dollars a month. While this contract sets a work-for-hire agreement, it also states that Hall will serve and obey as he did when he was enslaved.
Mules are hybrid animals, the offspring of a female horse and a male donkey. Known for their hardiness, they were the tractors of their day. Farmers used them for plowing, for hauling crops and firewood, for transportation and many other tasks. Ownership of a mule and other farm implements gave freedpeople some leverage for negotiating a more favorable labor contract with landowners.
Although the majority of freedpeople did not gain land ownership, South Carolina found a way for some of them to obtain land of their own. The South Carolina Land Commission, formed at the 1868 constitutional convention, helped at least 960 African American families acquire title to over 44,000 acres of land.