Bruce E. Baker, Brian Kelly, eds. After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013. 279 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8130-6097-2; $74.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-4477-4.
Reviewed by Amy French (Delta College)
Published on H-SHGAPE (August, 2014)
Commissioned by K. Stephen Prince (University of South Florida)
Freed Laborers in the Reconstruction South
In Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (1935), W. E. B. Du Bois emphasized the importance of studying the era through the lens of labor. Influenced by Du Bois's assertion that the working-class deserves a prominent role in the telling of the history of Reconstruction, the scholars contributing essays to After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South show the crucial role that laborers played in shaping an economic system to replace slavery, defining post-emancipation freedom, and securing political and economic rights. The Reconstruction era was a turbulent time for all Americans, but southerners faced the unique challenges of replacing their labor system, and reconstructing their social, political, and physical infrastructure. Explaining the disparity between promises made and experiences lived, the authors show the difficulties that freed laborers faced as they tried to negotiate labor contracts, hold relationships with employers as paid employees, claim rights of citizenship, and act upon new freedoms. Moving beyond a generalized study of the entire region to intensive localized studies, the ten essays span the South geographically, giving the reader snapshots into the various facets of freedpeople's lives.
Freedpeople's agency in shaping their lives and determining the restructuring of the South has long interested historians. Erik Mathisen and Gregory Downs both explore that autonomy. Looking at Mississippi, Mathisen shows how demands for property became the basis for freedmen's relationship with the federal government. Asserting that loyalty to the Union was political currency for both whites and blacks, Mathisen argues that freedmen leveraged loyalty for federal protection, rights, and claims to property. Thus, freed Mississippians were tied to the federal government in their bid for citizenship and property. Downs explores the relationship between former slaves in North Carolina and the Freedmen's Bureau. Lacking power, freedpeople looked to allies in the federal government to provide support and keep order. However, Freedmen's Bureau agents lacked power, staffing, and the military presence to provide meaningful assistance. Downs, therefore, provides a picture of why federal power failed and "the central role of state institutions in shaping the experience of Reconstruction and the extent and limits of emancipation" (p .99).
Building on scholarship regarding Republican Party inadequacies, Bruce Baker looks at a generally neglected cast of characters—poor, upcountry whites in South Carolina. There was a potential constituency for a white Republican Party in the mountain area of Greenville County, but Baker argues that economic initiatives by local Republicans and national party policies undermined their potential constituents and drove the area to a dramatic political realignment. Brian Kelly also looks at missed opportunities by the Republican Party. Studying the collapse of Reconstruction in South Carolina, Kelly shows that race did not unite all freedpeople in their vision of the new South. Working-class blacks had supported Radical Republicans, but fragmented Republican leadership failed to serve their laboring constituents. When Republican officials opposed labor tactics like striking, they turned their backs on their supporters and hastened the end of their rule. Tracing the rise of more conservative African American politics, Kelly's study also reveals social stratification in South Carolina between laborers and a small contingency of middle-class Democrats.
James Illingworth's study of black urban workers in New Orleans provides a picture of grassroots activism with labor at its core. Illingworth argues that from 1865 to 1868, "the interplay between federal state intervention and urban working people's activism became the determining factor in the progress of change at the local level" (p. 37). New Orleans laborers successfully used labor protest as economic and political capital to advance a vision for their city that embraced Radical Reconstruction. Although Illingworth demonstrates that strong local support could encourage more immediate change, Jonathan Bryant reveals the fragility of freedmen's power. Studying the Ogeechee Insurrection, Bryant asserts that the media and elite officials manipulated the event to make it seem as if it were a lawless rebellion when, in fact, it was a labor dispute by Georgian workers who were trying to use their newly gained political and economic rights to assert control over labor relations.
Undermining progress for freedpeople was the use of violence to suppress their voices and actions. Michael Fitzgerald explores myriad motivations for racial terrorism in Alabama by studying men indicted under the federal anti-Klan legislation of 1871. Fitzgerald's work identifies a larger body of participants than have previously been detected and provides new light on their circumstances. He finds that these men were "downwardly mobile on a vast, even catastrophic scale" (p. 149). Fitzgerald's study gives a more complete picture than previous studies of the perpetrators and the reasons for their violent actions. As most of the authors note, racial terror was an effective method to thwart Reconstruction. But all of the South did not experience the return of elite white rule by 1877. Susan O'Donovan shows how family connections and community networks staved off Redemption in Wilmington, North Carolina, until 1898, when racial terror swept through the town forcing "an exodus that dramatically remade the city's public and political face" (p. 177). Why did Democrats have such a difficult time taking control of Wilmington? Through a detailed examination of the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company records, O'Donovan explains that Wilmington ex-slaves had certain advantages that other freedmen did not, including strong family ties; jobs in powerful seaport industries where a host of information exchange occurred; homes in multicultural, urban areas; and involvement in community organizations. Because of the array of social and institutional resources available to them, O'Donovan holds that freedpeople were able to hold off a return to elite, white control for a relatively long time.
J. Michael Rhyne reminds us how frequently issues of gender are inherent in acts of violence. In his study of Kentucky, Rhyne notes how violent tactics emasculated freedmen while restoring manhood to white perpetrators. Freedwomen were also abused and assaulted—their gender did not afford them the same protections as white women. Besides the fact that Kentucky government officials often turned a blind eye to the violent treatment of emancipated laborers, the apprenticeship system and vagrancy laws underscored that freed Kentuckians did not enjoy a truly free labor system. Such issues are not unique to the South, though. In his comparison of late eighteenth-century Guadeloupe to late twentieth-century American sweatshops, Thomas Holt notes that a principal area of contest after the abolition of slavery has been the control of women's labor.
Through a broad scope of sources and clear organization, the collection shows the varied roles that laborers played in defining freedom, securing rights, and remaking the post-emancipation South. The essays show a rich use of censuses, newspapers, military accounts, congressional documents, Freedman's Savings and Trust Company and Freedmen's Bureau records, and archival sources. The sources are only as good as the questions posed, however, and here the authors shine. By framing some of the old debates in light of labor history, as well as asking new and provocative questions, the collection provides an interesting look into the Reconstruction South. Through localized studies, the reader journeys into aspects of history that may not have been universal, but should not be marginalized. Adding to the broad scope of the work, O'Donovan and Kelly expand the chronological period of Reconstruction to 1898 and 1900, respectively. This "long Reconstruction era" gives a more complete picture of the issues in light of the broader course of national history and assists in understanding the racial divisions in the southern labor movement.
As a history of labor and citizenship in the Reconstruction South, After Slavery would have benefited from further discussion of the legal frameworks structuring mid- to late nineteenth-century labor relations. An underlying premise of the collection is that freedpeople understood that to truly be free they needed property. By the turn of the century, classical legal thought emphasized individual rights based on property (tangible or otherwise) and largely disregarded how the nation treated laborers, especially former slaves and women. As historian Eric Foner notes in the afterword: "Liberty of contract, not equality before the law for blacks, came to be defined as the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment" (p. 228). Considering the powerful role of judicial discourse in defining citizenship and freedom of contract, legal aspects of freedmen's work are important to the labor narrative of Reconstruction.
Coeditors Baker and Kelly, along with the contributors, provide an informative study of labor history in the Reconstruction South. The essays show that the working-class narrative is key to a complete understanding of the remaking of the South. Raising provocative questions about black/white relations in the labor movement, workers' responses to labor legislation, and the role of gender (especially conceptions of manhood), the work encourages additional analysis of laborers' experiences. In sum, After Slavery is enlightening scholarship on the history of labor and citizenship in the post-emancipation era.
. Melvin Urofsky and Paul Finkelman, A March of Liberty: A Constitutional History of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 2:518.
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Amy French. Review of Baker, Bruce E.; Kelly, Brian, eds., After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South.
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