The jailer in this scene is a member of a class of poor Southern white people who didn’t benefit greatly from slavery and were ensnared in a rigid caste system. Because there was little or no universal or public education in the South, only wealthy elites went to school, and most poor whites were illiterate. Illiteracy meant that they remained ignorant of politics at the national level, helping to preserve slaveholders’ grip on political and economic power. Slaveowners emphasized that whites, no matter how poor, would never be members of the lowest class of society, thereby turning white laborers against Blacks. In 1855, abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote that the slaveholders, "by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the black…made the white man almost as much a slave as the black slave himself. . . . Both are plundered, and by the same plunderers."
This agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau is serving as the mediator in a labor dispute between the landowner and the freedman, who has been jailed under the Black Codes. The growth of Black Codes in the South made it clear that freedpeople needed the support and protection of the federal government. On March 3, 1865 Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, to provide relief and help formerly enslaved people become self-sufficient. Although the government severely underfunded the Bureau, in many Southern communities Freedmen’s Bureau agents were the only federal representatives. But in 1868, Congress began scaling the Bureau back, responding in part to unrelenting hostility from white Southerners. By 1872 Congress had completely terminated the Freedmen’s Bureau.
The Black man in this jail cell has been locked up for refusing to sign a labor contract. Under the Black Codes he is considered a vagrant. Freedpeople had to sign labor contracts to work for whites, or be convicted of vagrancy and fined. If they couldn’t pay the fine, they could be auctioned off to the highest bidder, for whom they had to work for a year. Black Codes established certain rights for freedpeople, including limited access to courts, property ownership, and marriage, which had been prohibited during slavery. But in many ways the laws treated Black people like slaves and tried to reestablish white supremacy. Passage of the first Civil Rights Act in 1866 granted citizenship to Black men, invalidating the Black Codes, and by 1868 most states had repealed them.
The wife of the jailed freedman has come to the jail to support her husband in his contract dispute with the white landowner. In 1865 and 1866, following the example of Northern Blacks, freedpeople in the South held protests against racist laws such as the Black Codes. Free men and women across the South organized conventions, boycotts and strikes to demand the right to vote, own land and receive an education, and they sent stacks of petitions to Congress. Their activism made an impact. After reconvening in 1865, Congress took up the Civil Rights Act and soon afterward the Fourteenth Amendment, both passed in 1866. In 1867 Congress passed the Military Reconstruction Act requiring states to hold constitutional conventions that established the right to vote for Black men.
Like most former Confederates, this landowner resents the authority of U.S. Army officers and the Freedmen’s Bureau. Fearful that their agricultural economy would collapse without the free labor of the enslaved, white elites were determined to take back self-rule and control Black people. The new state governments that whites created under the Johnson form of Reconstruction established laws known as the Black Codes that severely limited the freedoms of former slaves, creating conditions similar to slavery. Many of the states that passed these laws also established systems of convict labor. Prisoners were forced to work for whites for no pay, creating an incentive to arrest Black men.
After the abolition of slavery and the end of the Civil War, free Black people wanted to work for themselves, but most of them did not have land of their own and had to go back to work for white landowners. Formerly enslaved African Americans and their former masters had to develop a new system of agricultural production. Landowners divided their plantations into small plots that a single family could farm, and gave Black workers a share of the crop in exchange for housing and other necessities. The Freedmen’s Bureau helped create labor contracts that were supposed to be fair to both parties, but in many cases established conditions not much better than slavery. This system became known as sharecropping, and it lasted well into the 20th century among both Black and white farmers in the South.
This scene was shot inside the Orangeburg County Jail, also known as the Pink Palace, in Orangeburg, South Carolina. The jail was built in 1860 with offices on the first floor and cells for prisoners on the second floor. The central tower was used for executions by hanging. In February, 1865, General William T. Sherman’s troops burned the building but it was later restored to its original appearance.