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Freedmen's Labor in Coastal South Carolina

by Christine Bell

In the nineteenth century, the economy of the coastal areas of South Carolina was based on the production of plantation crops, mainly cotton and rice. The production of those crops depended on the labor of the slaves brought from the West Coast of Africa and their descendants. At the time of the Civil War and Emancipation, slaves had formed a majority of the population along the Carolina coast for more than a century. The way in which these newly freed people fought to reclaim their lives and re-negotiate the terms of their labor is the story of one of the greatest social transformations in our country’s history.

Sweet Potato Planting, Hopkinson's Plantation, Edisto Island, SC, 1862 [1]

In A Woman Rice Planter, written in 1913, Elizabeth Allston Pringle looks back on her experience on the family rice plantation in the Georgetown district of South Carolina. Every summer the white occupants would migrate to the coast, as “no white person could remain on the plantation without danger of the most virulent fever… to remain here a Summer would be Suicide” (Pringle 1913). The absence of the owner families for almost half of every year, and then completely in the later years of the war, allowed enslaved people to retain many of their African cultural traditions, and a strong network of family and community ties.

Prior to the War, labor on plantations was commonly assigned on a task system. A task was the amount of labor expected from a healthy adult slave in one day, usually nine-to-ten hours work. At harvest time, a day’s task was to cut down a half-acre section of rice. Children usually entered the fields at the age of twelve to fourteen as one-quarter or one-half hands. They were assigned work next to their parents, who were responsible for teaching them how to work, as well as finishing any work the child could not complete.

After the age of fifteen, a young enslaved person would move up to the next highest rating, becoming a full hand by the age of twenty. Slaves remained full hands for twenty to thirty-five years, or until overwork or illness reduced their productivity. If they lived to be over sixty, they were assigned odd jobs, but no regular task work (Schwalm 1997).

Some labor was strictly divided along gender lines. Women sowed and milled the rice, while men took care of the maintenance of the rice fields. Men ploughed, and women hoed. But many tasks were not specific to gender or age. The youngest, strongest slaves could complete daily work quotas fairly quickly, and could then work in family gardens, go fishing, or produce trade items to aid the family’s survival. However, overseers understood the strength of family connections, and often assigned overlarge burdens to weaker slaves, knowing that stronger family members would come to their aid rather than see them punished.

Many plantations set aside small plots for slaves to raise food crops, and poultry and livestock. Slaves also made and traded articles such as baskets, horse collars, furniture and pottery (Saville 1994). This allowed slaves some small measure of control over the products of their labor.

The Civil War brought Emancipation, but also the deterioration and destruction of agriculture and living conditions. In the first year of freedom, with the countryside largely burned and destroyed, many former slaves were displaced from their homes, separated from their families, and robbed of provisions and supplies by soldiers on both sides (Schwalm 1997).

Epidemics of smallpox, measles and other diseases wiped out large numbers of freedpeople, and left both plantation crops and family food supplies untended. With the end of the war came the job of reuniting families and communities, and assimilating thousands of former slaves returning to the lands of their birth. In 1865 there were 400,000 freedpeople in South Carolina (Saville 1994).

Hopkinson's Plantation, Edisto Island, SC, 1862 [2]

Many were attracted to the cities, such as Charleston, seeking provisions and opportunities. Free blacks and former slaves held public meetings to address the future of Reconstruction. But military authorities began forcing freedpeople out of the city and back to the plantations and countryside.

Occupation forces of the U.S. Army and lowcountry rice planters worked together to promote a new free-labor plantation economy. The postwar labor contract system was introduced primarily to meet military and political goals, without addressing the needs and expectations of freedpeople.

The former slaves defined freedom as their right not only to survive, but also to work and thrive without white intervention on the land they had worked as slaves, where generations of their ancestors had lived, worked and died (Schwalm 1997). The wartime abandonment of many plantations gave them hope that they may take possession of these lands, for freedom and survival depended on their control over the land and their labor.

These hopes were furthered by the establishment of the Sherman Reserve, which set aside territory on the sea islands and a thirty mile strip of the coastal mainland from Charleston to the St. John’s River in Florida for the settlement and cultivation of former slaves (Saville 1994). Within the year, however, President Andrew Johnson gave amnesty to former plantation owners, and the majority of land in the Sherman Reserve was restored to pardoned landowners.

As the landowners returned, they not only took back their land, they also raided freed workers’ homes and confiscated goods they claimed stolen, with little regard to actual ownership. Stripped of possessions and provisions, hungry and desperate, many freedpeople were forced to enter into the contract labor system.

A typical labor contract guaranteed subsistence to the workers until they received a portion (usually half to one-third) of the harvest in exchange for labor at whatever tasks the planter directed. Most contracts specified restrictions on behavior, calling for workers to be “obedient” and “respectful,” banned impertinence, insubordination and weapons, and prohibited the presence of non-contract persons on the property, eliminating visitors and meetings (Schwalm 1997).

In cases of abuse or failure to provide provisions or compensation, the only recourse was to appeal to the Freedman’s Bureau or the military posts. Workers felt this system was a form of paid slavery, giving them little or no control over how their labor was used. Women began to sign up as three-quarter or half hands in order to better control the use of their time. There were also penalties included in the contracts which could be invoked for the smallest infractions.

Poor crops and returns to freedpeople, along with slave-like working conditions caused workers to refuse to sign labor contracts after the first year, and the labor contract system was replaced by a two or three day work-rent system of labor on the plantations. Similar to the task labor system, in exchange for two or three days of labor, the worker received a share of the crop and use of plantation land. A person could choose how many days to work on the plantation, and how to allocate the rest of his or her labor as he or she wanted. The work-rent system grew in popularity and came to dominate lowcountry agriculture through the 1880’s (Schwalm 1997).

References Cited

Pringle, Elizabeth Allston. 1992 A Woman Rice Planter. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press.

Saville, Julie. 1994 The Work of Reconstruction: From Slave to Wage Laborer in South Carolina, 1860-1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schwalm, Leslie A. 1997 A Hard Fight for We: Women's Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Library of Congress Digital ID: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.11398

Image Citations

[1] Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Digital ID: (digital file from original item, front) ppmsca 11398, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.11398

[2] Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Digital ID: (digital file from original item, front) ppmsca 11370, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.11370