Were the Freedmen Really Free? – An Analysis of Three Documents

How did whites use sharecropping, black codes, and violence to perpetuate slavery, despite Lincoln’s promise at Gettysburg that the Civil War would bring “a new birth of freedom?”

This lesson can be used with The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

Two Snakes

“Slavery wus a bad thing en’ freedom, of de kin’ we got wid nothin’ to live on wus bad. Two snakes full of pisen. One lying wid his head pintin’ north, de other wid his head pintin’ south. Dere names wus slavery an’ freedom. De snake called slavery lay wid his head pinted south and de snake called freedom lay wid his head pinted north. Both bit de nigger, an’ dey wus both bad.”

-Patsy Mitchner, former slave in Raleigh, NC; interviewed in 1937 (at age 84) for the Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration.

Document A: A Sharecropper’s Agreement

Read and analyze the following, a contract between Thomas J. Ross of Tennessee, a plantation owner, and a group of freedmen, perhaps his former slaves, laying out the terms by which these freedmen would work Ross’s land.

Things to consider:

  1. Create a table with two columns — “Obligations of Thomas J. Ross” and “Obligations of the Freedmen on the Rosstown Plantation.” Complete this table using information you glean as you read the following document.
  2. Who benefits the most from the arrangement outlined in this contract? Who is most likely to lose?
  3. Refer to these rules for the management of enslaved people on a plantation in 1853. In your opinion, how different is the situation of the freedman from their previous status as slaves?
  4. Why would a freed slave enter into an agreement like this?

This indenture of Bargain and agreement made and entered into in the year of our Lord One Thousand Eight and Sixty Five (1865) Dec 23 by and between Thomas J. Ross of the County of Shelby & State of Tennessee of the first part and the Freedmen on the Rosstown Plantation in County & State aforesaid whose names will appear below of the second part, witnesseth that whereas the said Thomas J. Ross agrees to employ the said Freedmen to plant and raise a crop on his Rosstown Plantation for the year 1866 in Shelby County, Tenn. On the following Rules, Regulations and Renumerations. To wit-the said Ross agrees to furnish the land to cultivate, and a sufficient number of mules & horses and feed them to make and house said crop and all necessary farming utensils to carry on the same and to give unto said Freedmen whose names appear below one half of all the cotton, corn and wheat that is raised on said place for the year 1866 after all the necessary expenses are deducted out that accrues on said crop. Outside of the Freedmen’s labor in harvesting, carrying to market and selling the same and the said Freedmen whose names appear below covenant and agrees to and with said Thomas J. Ross that for and in consideration of one half of the crop before mentioned that they will plant, cultivate, and raise under the management control and Superintendence of said Ross, in good faith, a cotton, corn and oat crop under his management for the year 1866. And we the said Freedmen agrees to furnish ourselves & families in provisions, clothing, medicine and medical bills and all, and every kind of other expenses that we may incur on said plantation for the year 1866 free of charge to said Ross. Should the said Ross furnish us any of the above supplies or any other kind of expenses, during said year, are to settle and pay him out of the nett proceeds of our part of the crop the retail price of the county at time of sale or any price we may agree upon-The said Ross shall keep a regular book account, against each and every one or the head of every family to be adjusted and settled at the end of the year. We furthermore bind ourselves to and with said Ross that we will do good work and labor ten hours a day on an average, winter and summer. The time to run from the time we commence to the time we quit. The time we are going to and from work shall not be computed or counted in the time. We further agree that we will loose all lost time, or pay at the rate of one dollar per day, rainy days excepted.

A sharecropper family chopping the weeds from cotton near White Plains, in Georgia, US (1941). The systems of sharecropping and legal segregation put into place at the end of the Civil War persisted well into the 1960s.

     We furthermore bind ourselves that we will obey the orders of said Ross in all things in carrying out and managing said crop for said year and be docked for disobedience and further bind ourselves that we said Freedmen will keep up the fences around the enclosures, and lots especially and if any rails be missing by burning or otherwise destroyed by said Freedmen, we will pay for the same or otherwise reconstruct the fence anew at our expense…

     –All is responsible for all farming utensils that is on hand or may be placed in care of said Freedmen for the year 1866 to said Ross and are also responsible to said Ross if we carelessly, maliciously maltreat any of his stock for said year to said Ross for damages to be assessed out of our wages for said year, all of which is understood by us Freedmen in the foregoing contract, or agreement, the said Ross assigning his name and ours following. It is further agreed by us whose names appear below that we will keep a sufficiency of firewood hawled up at all times and make fires in the room of said Ross, when desired, attend to all stock properly, under direction of said Ross.


Former slave with horn historically used to call slaves, Texas, 1939.

     –It is further agreed by a special agreement with Herod and his wife Linda, whose names appear below that the said Ross furnishes one fourth of provisions consisting of meal, and meat for said year. Furnish medicine and hire attention whilst in sickness to himself wife and four children, RalphRindaOsborn and ZackeryRinda is to act as nurse and have her meals and clothing free for her services to said Ross. Osborn & Zackery to wait in minor matters, Ralph to work on the farm. The foregoing obligations are sufficiently understood by us as Freedmen and hereby assign our marks with names attached, with a witness, the said Ross assigning first.

Witness

Wm. Stublen                                                                            Thomas J. Ross 
                                                                                                Herod (X) Pap

The special agreement with Herod & wife Linda applies to all below.

Witness to the last five names                            Thomas J. Ross
C. W. Hill                                                                Samuel (X) Johnson 
                                                                               Thomas (X) Richard
 
                                                                                  Tinny (X) Fitch
 
                                                                                 Jessie (X) Simmons
 
                                                                                 Sophe (X) Pruden
 
                                                            She assigns for Henry & Frances
                                                                                 Henry (X) Pruden
 
                                                                              Frances (X) Pruden
 
                                                                                  Elijah (X) Smith

Document B: The Black Codes

The Black Codes were laws passed by Southern states in 1865 and 1866 in the United States after the American Civil War with the intent and the effect of restricting African Americans’ freedom, and of compelling them to work in a labor economy based on low wages or debt. Black Codes were part of a larger pattern for Southern whites, who were trying to suppress the new freedom of emancipated African-American slaves, the freedmen. Mississippi was the first state to legislate a new Black Code after the war. It is extensive, but excerpted below.

Things to consider:

  1. As you read the document below, create a simple list of rules and consequences for breaking those rules.
  2. Considering what you know about sharecropping arrangements (described above) as well as the legal requirements for employment detailed below, why would it be hard for a freedman to move away?
  3. Are the freedmen free? Explain your answer.

CIVIL RIGHTS OF FREEDMEN

Section 3: . . . [I]t shall not be lawful for any freedman, free negro or mulatto to intermarry with any white person; nor for any person to intermarry with any freedman, free negro or mulatto; and any person who shall so intermarry shall be deemed guilty of felony, and on conviction thereof shall be confined in the State penitentiary for life; and those shall be deemed freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes who are of pure negro blood, and those descended from a negro to the third generation, inclusive, though one ancestor in each generation may have been a white person.

Section 5: . . . Every freedman, free negro and mulatto shall, on the second Monday of January, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-six, and annually thereafter, have a lawful home or employment, and shall have written evidence thereof . . .

Section 6: . . . All contracts for labor made with freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes for a longer period than one month shall be in writing, and a duplicate, attested and read to said freedman, free negro or mulatto by a beat, city or county officer . . . and if the laborer shall quit the service of the employer before the expiration of his term of service, without good cause, he shall forfeit his wages for that year up to the time of quitting.

Section 7: . . . Every civil officer shall, and every person may, arrest and carry back to his or her legal employer any freedman, free negro, or mulatto who shall have quit the service of his or her employer before the expiration of his or her term of service without good cause . . .

VAGRANT LAW

Section 1: . . . That all rogues and vagabonds, idle and dissipated persons, beggars, jugglers, or persons practicing unlawful games or plays, runaways, common drunkards, common night-walkers, pilferers, lewd, wanton, or lascivious persons, in speech or behavior, common railers and brawlers, persons who neglect their calling or employment, misspend what they earn, or do not provide for the support of themselves or their families, or dependents, and all other idle and disorderly persons, including all who neglect all lawful business, habitually misspend their time by frequenting houses of ill-fame, gaming-houses, or tippling shops, shall be deemed and considered vagrants, under the provisions of this act, and upon conviction thereof shall be fined not exceeding one hundred dollars, with all accruing costs, and be imprisoned, at the discretion of the court, not exceeding ten days.

Section 2: . . . All freedmen, free negroes and mulattoes in this State, over the age of eighteen years, found on the second Monday in January, 1866, or thereafter, with no lawful employment or business, or found unlawful assembling themselves together, either in the day or night time, and all white persons assembling themselves with freedmen, free negroes or mulattoes, or usually associating with freedmen, free negroes or mulattoes, on terms of equality, or living in adultery or fornication with a freed woman, freed negro or mulatto, shall be deemed vagrants, and on conviction thereof shall be fined in a sum not exceeding, in the case of a freedman, free negro or mulatto, fifty dollars, and imprisonment at the discretion of the court, the free negro not exceeding ten days . . .


Convicts leased to harvest timber circa 1915, in Florida.

Section 5: . . . All fines and forfeitures collected by the provisions of this act shall be paid into the county treasury of general county purposes, and in case of any freedman, free negro or mulatto shall fail for five days after the imposition of any or forfeiture upon him or her for violation of any of the provisions of this act to pay the same, that it shall be, and is hereby, made the duty of the sheriff of the proper county to hire out said freedman, free negro or mulatto, to any person who will, for the shortest period of service, pay said fine and forfeiture and all costs . . .

CERTAIN OFFENSES OF FREEDMEN

Section 1: . . . That no freedman, free negro or mulatto, not in the military service of the United States government, and not licensed so to do by the board of police of his or her county, shall keep or carry fire-arms of any kind, or any ammunition, dirk or bowie knife, and on conviction thereof in the county court shall be punished by fine . . .

Section 2: . . . Any freedman, free negro, or mulatto committing riots, routs, affrays, trespasses, malicious mischief, cruel treatment to animals, seditious speeches, insulting gestures, language, or acts, or assaults on any person, disturbance of the peace, exercising the function of a minister of the Gospel without a license from some regularly organized church, vending spirituous or intoxicating liquors, or committing any other misdemeanor, the punishment of which is not specifically provided for by law, shall, upon conviction thereof in the county court, be fined not less than ten dollars, and not more than one hundred dollars, and may be imprisoned at the discretion of the court, not exceeding thirty days.

Section 3: . . . If any white person shall sell, lend, or give to any freedman, free negro, or mulatto any fire-arms, dirk or bowie knife, or ammunition, or any spirituous or intoxicating liquors, such person or persons so offending, upon conviction thereof in the county court of his or her county, shall be fined not exceeding fifty dollars, and may be imprisoned, at the discretion of the court, not exceeding thirty days . . .

Document C: The Ku Klux Klan

The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866 by six former officers of the Confederate army as a secret vigilante group, the Klan targeted freedmen and their allies; it sought to restore white supremacy by threats and violence, including murder, against black and white Republicans.

An interview with Ben Johnson, 85, of Hecktown, Durham, Durham County, May 20, 1937.

Uncle Ben, who is nearly blind and who walks with a stick, was assisted to the porch by his wife who sat down near him in a protecting attitude. He is much less striking than his wife who is small and dainty with perfect features and snow white hair worn in two long braids down her back. She wore enormous heart shaped earrings, apparently of heavy gold; while Uncle Ben talked she occasionally prompted him in a soft voice.

Things to consider:

  1. For you, what is the most remarkable story that Ben tells?
  2. Did Ben mention police, judges, courtrooms, or trials at any time? Why is this important?
  3. Based on Ben’s memories, how do the Ku Klux Klan fit into system of sharecropping and black codes outlined above?

AN EX-SLAVE STORY

“I wuz borned in Orange County and I belonged ter Mr. Gilbert Gregg near Hillsboro. I doan know nothin’ ’bout my mammy an’ daddy, but I had a brother Jim who wuz sold ter dress young missus fer her weddin’. De tree am still standin’ whar I set under an’ watch ’em sell Jim. I set dar an’ I cry an’ cry, ‘specially when dey puts de chains on him an’ carries him off, an’ I ain’t neber felt so lonesome in my whole life. I ain’t neber hyar from Jim since an’ I wonder now sometimes if’en he’s still livin’.

“I knows dat de marster wuz good ter us an’ he fed an’ clothed us good. We had our own gyarden an’ we wuz gittin’ long all right.

“I seed a whole heap of Yankees when dey comed ter Hillsboro an’ most of ’em ain’t got no respeck fer God, man, nor de debil. I can’t ‘member so much ’bout ’em do’ cause we lives in town an’ we has a gyard.

“De most dat I can tell yo’ ’bout am de Ku Klux. I neber will fergit when dey hung Cy Guy. Dey hung him fer a scandelous insult ter a white ‘oman an’ dey comed atter him a hundert strong.

“Dey tries him dar in de woods, an’ dey scratches Cy’s arm ter git some blood, an’ wid dat blood dey writes dat he shall hang ‘tween de heavens an’ de yearth till he am daid, daid, daid, an’ dat any nigger what takes down de body shall be hunged too.

“Well sar, de nex’ mornin’ dar he hung, right ober de road an’ de sentence hangin’ ober his haid. Nobody’ud bother wid dat body fer four days an’ dar hit hung, swingin’ in de wind, but de fou’th day de sheriff comes an’ takes hit down.

J. Thomas Shipp and Abraham S. Smith were young African-American men who murdered in a spectacle lynching by a mob of thousands on August 7, 1930, in Marion, Indiana. They were taken from jail cells, beaten, and hanged from a tree in the county courthouse square. They had been arrested that night as suspects in a robbery, murder and rape case. A third African-American suspect, 16-year-old James Cameron, had also been arrested and narrowly escaped being killed by the mob; an unknown woman and a local sports hero intervened, and he was returned to jail. As was typical in lynchings, no one was ever charged for their deaths

“Dar wuz Ed an’ Cindy, who ‘fore de war belonged ter Mr. Lynch an’ atter de war he told ’em ter move. He gives ’em a month an’ dey ain’t gone, so de Ku Kluxes gits ’em.

“Hit wuz on a cold night when dey comed an’ drugged de niggers out’n bed. Dey carried ’em down in de woods an’ whup dem, den dey throws ’em in de pond, dere bodies breakin’ de ice. Ed come out an’ come ter our house, but Cindy ain’t been seed since.

“Sam Allen in Caswell County wuz tol’ ter move an’ atter a month de hundret Ku Klux come a-totin’ his casket an’ dey tells him dat his time has come an’ if’en he want ter tell his wife good bye an’ say his prayers hurry up.

“Dey set de coffin on two cheers an’ Sam kisses his ole oman who am a-cryin’, den he kneels down side of his bed wid his haid on de piller an’ his arms throwed out front of him.

“He sets dar fer a minute an’ when he riz he had a long knife in his hand. ‘Fore he could be grabbed he done kill two of de Ku Kluxes wid de knife, an’ he done gone out’n de do’. Dey ain’t ketch him nother, an’ de nex’ night when dey comed back, ‘termined ter git him dey shot ano’her nigger by accident.

“I ‘members seein’ Joe Turner, another nigger hung at Hillsboro in ’69 but I plumb fergot why it wuz.

“I know one time Miss Hendon inherits a thousand dollars from her pappy’s ‘state an’ dat night she goes wid her sweetheart ter de gate, an’ on her way back ter de house she gits knocked in de haid wid a axe. She screams an’ her two nigger sarvants, Jim an’ Sam runs an’ saves her but she am robbed.

“Den she tells de folkses dat Jim an’ Sam am de guilty parties, but her little sister swears dat dey ain’t so dey gits out of it. “Atter dat dey fin’s out dat it am five mens, Atwater, Edwards, Andrews, Davis an’ Markham. De preacher comes down to whar dey am hangin’ ter preach dar funeral an’ he stan’s dar while lightnin’ plays roun’ de dead mens haids an’ de win’ blows de trees, an he preaches sich a sermon as I ain’t neber hyard before.

“Bob Boylan falls in love wid another oman so he burns his wife an’ four youngins up in dere house.

“De Ku Kluxes gits him, of course, an’ dey hangs him high on de old red oak on de Hillsboro Road. Atter dey hunged him his lawyer says ter us boys, ‘Bury him good, boys, jist as good as you’d bury me if’en I wuz daid.’

“I shuck han’s wid Bob ‘fore dey hunged him an’ I he’ped ter bury him too an’ we bury him nice an’ we all hopes dat he done gone ter glory.”

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Trading Card Propaganda: Winning Over the Children of the Revolution

This lesson was reported from:

Adapted in part from open sources.

Continue reading “Trading Card Propaganda: Winning Over the Children of the Revolution”