Nell Irvin Painter


Lecture by Nell Painter

"Emancipation in Black and White"
Millersville University
Millersville, Pennsylvania
16 February 1990

This lecture on labor in the United States South immediately after emancipation begins with some general comments and ends with some of my more recent research on the experiences of a white Georgian, Gertrude Thomas, who before the war had owned many slaves. Thomas lived in the black belt, and what I have to say today pertains to areas of the South in which blacks were an important part of the workforce but whites (men and women) also belonged to the workforce.  Thomas's experiences took place in and around Augusta, Georgia, and the workers with whom she dealt came, in part, from the town.  First, the larger meanings of emancipation.

I contend that in areas of the United States South in which a significant portion of the workforce had been enslaved and emancipated, relations changed between the employing classes and the employed in 1865, not merely between former planters and former slaves.  Emancipation, which reordered relations between black workers and white employers, also affected others in the economy, notably whites in the workforce.

Indications that the end of the war unloosened poor whites as it emancipated blacks is not easily accessible, obscured by witnesses' lack of interest in non-elite whites and enormous class prejudice embedded in elite testimony.  As employers, planters were more obviously concerned with black workers, complaining endlessly that the freedpeople would not work or would not work properly. Such accusations are familiar to students of southern history. But what about relations between employers and white workers? In order to make some sense of labor relations among whites I have collected historians' asides and, in the primary sources, done some reading against the sources, following clues that also appear in northern employers' disparagement of workers.

Although historians have hardly taken into account the immediate effect of the end of the war on non-elite whites, particularly in areas where they lived among former slaves, many contemporary witnesses dwelled on the idleness of poor white men. Reporter John Richard Dennett said that he had seen hundreds of white men in rural Virginia, but not more than ten "engaged in labor of any sort." Black and white officials of the Freedmen's Bureau also commented on the prevalence of vagrancy among whites. Observers generally reported that poor white women, on the other hand, were hard at work--at home, in the fields, or in the roads. Contemporaries frequently contrasted indolent white men with earnest, hardworking freedpeople.

Historian Joel Williamson cites planter David Golightly Harris of the Spartanburg, South Carolina, district. Harris was attempting to hire white women as live-in servants, evidently as replacements for his former slaves, an effort in which he did not succeed.  With a bitterness against workers common to his class, Harris wrote that these white women resisted the idea of becoming live-in domestic servants. He anticipated their comeuppance, when hardship would make them put aside what he saw as inappropriate notions of independence. 

The 1865-1866 correspondence of Harris and others used to having servants reveals much indignation. Women and men who had never had to give much thought to workers' considerations resented having to seek labor and to take workers' demands into account. Planters and their families had work to be done, but workers (white and black) refused it or held out for better terms, both of which raised planters' hackles. Some observers singled out whites as especially idle while others concentrated on blacks. Even though complaints of vagrancy were common on both sides of the color line, criticism was usually presented as though vagrancy were at once a unique characteristic of the freedpeople and a unique characteristic of poor whites. The whole matter of defining idleness became important ideologically and legally, as northerners and southerners argued about the efficiency of free labor and southern legislatures passed laws punishing people who did not work.

Given the contemporary habit of discussing labor relations in racial terms, it is difficult to estimate what proportion of planters and observers realized at the time that they were witnessing an upheaval in labor relations that implicated poor whites as well as poor blacks. But a preliminary review of the sources turned up at least one employer, a member of the Alabama legislature named Smith from Choctaw County, who was anxious to propose a sweeping set of labor laws (along the order of what soon became the black codes) that would subject the whole of the southern working class to tight control.

The struggle between would-be employers and reluctant employees extended to the terms of employment, to contracts between freedpeople and employers, and to wages as well (again in the eyes of elites) as though poor whites, on their side, and poor blacks, on theirs, were making extraordinary demands. Historians have devoted a great deal of attention to the tug-of-war between black employees and white employers over terms of employment (sometimes mediated by officers of the Freedmen's Bureau, often not). But historians have not realized that a similar struggle was going on between white employers and white employees demanding higher wages, even though it seems clear that whites who worked for wages and who were in the same wage pool as blacks were demanding more than they had before or, at any rate, more than employers wanted to pay.

It may be that much of the demand for increased wages was a response to the inflation that accompanied the war, although historian Armstead Robinson believes that the switch away from Confederate currency entailed deflation. Economic historians such as Ransom and Sutch, Jaynes, and Gallman advance an argument that I find persuasive: With emancipation blacks participated less fully in the workforce and thereby created a labor shortage. Freedwomen exercised a new right not to work for anyone but their families; black children entered school instead of employment; and people who remained in the workforce did not work as long or as intensively as when they had been supervised by a whip-toting driver or overseer. In short, wages rose as they would have in any other setting when the southern labor market tightened up.

Archival evidence shows that at least two changes occurred in labor relations between whites. First, overseers expected to be paid more to manage free workers, as in the case of the Greene County, Alabama, overseer of North Carolina planter Paul Cameron, who straightforwardly demanded a raise to accommodate the new labor arrangements. Second, emancipation gave white workers more leverage in the labor market because many planter families now preferred white to black help. In a tight labor market, employers realized that reliable workers could demand and should be paid unusually high wages.

Although I have not yet found sources that present the employees' side of the story, the correspondence of elites is full of complaints about white labor. For example, in the Mississippi delta, Samuel Agnew's father failed to engage black household help on his terms. Approaching a white woman, Agnew's father found that she disdained as servile the work he offered. From eastern Tennessee, one woman employer wrote to another that after the black workers left she had attempted to hire white women whose interests turned out not to coincide with hers. Her complaint echoed an ages-old exasperation with (low wage) workers: that they would quit as soon as they made enough money to "buy them a little finery." An employer in North Carolina, expressed similar aggravation with white women workers, said to have "got a wrong kink in their heads some way, and I dont believe it will come out soon." Employers evidently were not offering wages that were high enough to attract and retain workers.

There can be no doubt that in 1865 relations between the various of classes of whites changed in ways that were advantageous to those with less money and prestige. The term emancipation is too strong in this context, for even the poorest whites had not been enslaved, and the white animus against blacks seems to have been stronger than class feeling. Poorer whites, not having been slaves, were not emancipated, but their positions improved so as to unloosen them. But there is no question that the end of the Civil War brought about an upheaval in the relations between the class of whites who worked for wages and those used to employing hired help. The unsettling of the old hierarchy discomfited those used to being on top, whose correspondence betrays anger, confusion, and depression.

Contemplating a new set of class relationships, W. W. Lenoir, a wealthy North Carolinian, was in a troubled state of mind. While his peers were predicting the extermination of poor blacks, Lenoir envisioned a radical reordering of white society in the South, including the creation of two new white upper classes and the disappearance of those whom he knew and of whom he approved, including his own.

First, Lenoir predicted that the distance separating whites of different classes would widen dramatically. His own class of white elites, who, presumably, were cultured but not haughty, would disappear. In its place would arise two new white upper classes that are difficult to distinguish from each other. Their very similarity underscores the intensity of Lenoir's distaste for the new rich, whom he calls a "shoddy aristocracy," on the one hand, and the "very wealthy and extravagant devotees of fashion," on the other. The former, previously poor, now suddenly rich, would have gained their wealth too quickly to have become refined. Anxious to establish a distance from their white servants, this "shoddy aristocracy" would grind down their servants through mistreatment and miserable wages. The "devotees of fashion" would seek mainly to dazzle those below by aping the manners of European aristocrats and employing liveried European servants.

At the bottom of the society would be the ill-paid white poor, who would fall deeper and deeper into poverty and misery. Ultimately they would become so malnourished that they would "perish from want when unable to work." This former Confederate general despised what he saw as the new rich who profited from the war and its aftermath, but he reserved his death wish for the poor.

Faced with the what must have seemed to them to be a topsy-turvy world--former slaves emancipated and angry, poor whites refusing to work or demanding more pay--the former ruling class rued the future. W. W. Lenoir said he was "gloomy, gloomy, gloomy," as others toted up the casualties of the new order. The strain of standing firm broke many who seemed to be the best of men, while accommodating to the new order appeared dishonorable. In Florida, E. Phillips saw the new commercial order, in which planters became merchants and lowered themselves by trading with blacks, as a "vile and ominous portent." Defining such behavior as "low and contemptible," he concluded that "our race has already past [sic] its prime and is entering on its age of decline."

Gertrude Thomas belonged to the class I have just quoted in their despair. But where they left letters she left an enormous, candid journal that she kept from 1848 to 1889. Her comments on the years after 1865 provide a fascinating glimpse into the meaning of emancipation for black and white women. The Thomas journal is particularly valuable because emancipation is still so often discussed as though only men--who either routinely worked in the fields producing crops for the market or supervised such workers--experienced emancipation and, in the United States, Reconstruction.

In her prewar journal entries, Gertrude Thomas described work as being accomplished by invisible hands, so that she has a fire made or her husband, Jefferson, has piles of brush burned. Thomas was the focal point in her household, and as a slaveholder, she never had to give much thought to the needs of her slaves, which were automatically subordinated. Only one set of interests counted in her household, her own. Emancipation abolished what had seemed to her to have been frictionless labor relations. For the first time Thomas had to contend with employees who pursued interests of their own.

The spring of 1865 introduced Thomas to new, bilateral labor relations that were doubly complicated. Of itself, emancipation would have plunged black families into turmoil, throwing issues of power and residence into question. But emancipation also occurred in the wake of a war that had further complicated gender relations between black men and women as it had among whites. Just as southern white women had seized the opportunity to write, speak, and work for wages, so black women in and around Augusta also moved into openings that had never existed before. They could withdraw from the paid workforce to stay home to care for their husbands and children, or they could sell food in the streets and railroad stations as well as keep other women's houses and babies for money. At the same time, black men and women were not only adjusting to individual and familial autonomy but also were establishing and reestablishing relationships within their families that affected domicile and authority. The resulting upheaval tested Thomas's limits as an employer and housekeeper.

Freedwomen's increased opportunities inside and outside the workforce caused a shortage in household labor that Thomas found disadvantageous. White workers seemed a natural resort, and in 1865 Thomas predicted that black labor would soon be displaced by white. Experience proved otherwise, and after experimenting with white workers, at least some of whom were Irish Catholics, she concluded that whites were no improvement. In the house and in the fields, workers pursued their own interests, and whites were no more selfless or reliable than blacks. To make matters worse from the point of view of an employer used to a permanent workforce, household workers now engaged to work only one month at a time.

Free labor presented Thomas with a number of frustrations, the greatest of which was workers' mobility: into and out of the workforce and between employers. Considering that emancipation coincided with financial loss, Thomas found the second kind of mobility most trying. Chronically short of cash, she complained for years that she could afford to employ only young, inexperienced, or careless workers, who were particularly annoying within the household. Jefferson Thomas, who was acutely aware of the difficulty of keeping efficient workers, worked less intimately with his employees and disagreed with his wife on the extent to which employers should make concessions. Whereas he saw the necessity for conciliating first-rate workers, she insisted that workers meet her standards of employee-employer etiquette.

Gertrude Thomas describes the degree to which deference was touchy on both sides. Former slaves sought to reinforce the distinction between slavery and freedom by dropping extreme forms of submission, as between an older servant and a younger member of the employer household. On the other side, Thomas tried as much as possible to preserve older forms of etiquette and to widen the social distance between employers/whites and employees/blacks. Deference counted for more in her scheme of labor relations than efficiency. She wrote that "hands are scarce but respect is a quality I demand from servants even more than obedience. I can overlook neglected work but cannot tolerate disrespect."

In the long run, Thomas seems to have won the battle for deference. In the five years following emancipation, however, the only period in which she reports the wages she is paying, a labor shortage (of farm as well as household workers) drove wages steadily upward. In 1865 Thomas paid a mere twenty-five cents per week to a full-time worker in her house, who seems, not surprisingly, to have departed quickly, for Thomas not only offered minuscule wages, she put little importance on prompt payment. Wages quickly increased from thirty cents per day to wash to fifty cents per day to iron and $5 per month for a cook. By late 1868 wages have increased to $7 per month plus board.  In 1870 she paid two young girls $9 per month for the work that in 1865 she offered one $1 per month.

Thomas may have paid better wages, but her management style never became very steady. She jawboned her employees and hinted that they should leave, then was surprised when they actually quit. Others she told to leave without actually meaning for them to do so. She expected that workers would discern her wishes through intimation or overhearing. Lacking the wherewithal to pay wages that first-rate workers could demand and insisting on an etiquette that workers found demeaning, Thomas shouldered more and more of the burden of household work. Keeping the house in perfect order wore her out, and eventually her standards declined. She began to wonder whether she was making the best use of her own energy, for she found housework "utterly uncongenial." Her decision to take up teaching related not only to a need for money but also to a realization that she was already performing a great deal of unpaid labor. Considering her level of education, she concluded that she could make more efficient use of her time in another line of work.

The conjunction of emancipation and impoverishment made Thomas a working woman; Reconstruction, in her experience, meant a hitherto unimaginable burden of work, whether paid or unpaid, whether she supervised it or carried it out herself. Because women could neither vote nor hold office, the politics of Reconstruction was not the stuff of Thomas's day-to-day life. Nonetheless she resented the economic ramifications of Reconstruction: unintimidated free labor that pursued better wages and working conditions. This meant that while her husband's adjustment to emancipation and Reconstruction took place largely in the more public worlds of politics and farm employment, hers was far more intimate, in the private world of house and yard, and unmediated by the power of the state. No laws regulated household employment, in which there were no contracts, liens, or prosecutions for debt.

For Gertrude Thomas as for her female peers, Reconstruction represented not so much a political revolution as an upheaval in labor relations. For the first time, she was not assured the help of reliable and experienced workers. For women like Thomas, emancipation not only meant downward economic mobility, it also changed their relation to work, in this case, to household work. Having been securely at the top, where they never had to be conscious of workers' concerns, much less adjust to them, women like Gertrude Thomas fell into a less privileged rank in which their needs competed with those of their workers, who were former slaves and poor white women.

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