Esther’s Story

Backgound information on Esther’s father:

After the Civil War, the South went through a period called Reconstruction in which the political systems, economies, and areas damaged by the war were rebuilt.Freed former slaves did not see an end to their suffering when they were granted emancipation, or even when the war finally ended.  With the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments, slaves were given their freedom, made citizens of the United States, and, for men, given the right to vote.  The Reconstruction plans pursued by different groups in power allowed for constitutional and legal rights of the former slaves, but did nothing to provide a way for those people to make a living.The freedmen no longer had to work on the plantations, but they were not given an alternative way to earn a living.  In 1865, General Sherman tried to give emancipated slaves land in the coastal areas and islands of Georgia and South Carolina by promising “forty acres and a mule” .  “As one black man in Mississippi put it: ‘Gib us our own land and we take care ourselves; but widout land, de ole massas can hire us or starve us, as dey please’”.  Unfortunately, President Johnson and Congress did not support any plan that effectively confiscated and redistributed land of former confederates.

Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau in March of 1865 in order to help alleviate the problems facing the former slaves.  Local sections provided provisions, clothing, and fuel to the freedmen and their families.  The Bureau took over abandoned and confiscated land to rent out in forty-acre plots to freemen who might be able to buy it within three years.  Freedmen and women used the Bureau to negotiate labor contracts with planters.  Providing medical care and setting up schools were other services offered by local bureaus.  Finally, the Bureau had its own court to deal with labor disputes and land titles, as well as supervise trials that involved former slaves in other courts.  Congress did not give the Freedmen’s Bureau much power and it expired in 1872 .

Four clear options emerged for the freedmen and women after the war: obtain land, move, work for former masters, or sharecrop.  Some freedmen were able to obtain their own personal land to work to support themselves and their families.  Others opted to move to the cities and the North to find work that was not agrarian based.  Directly after the war, plantation owners established a contract labor system that employed their former slaves.  The freedmen and women would commit to work on the plantation for a year in return for fixed wages, which were often paid with part of the harvest.  Sharecropping eventually extinguished the contract system.  Sharecroppers worked a piece of land and received a fixed share of the crop, which was usually one-half.  Landowners did not have to invest much at the beginning of the season and the tenant shared the risk of the crop.  At first, freedmen saw sharecropping as a step up from wage labor because they felt it was on the way to landowning.  Actually, the system turned into another form of servitude because the tenants had to live on credit from the landowner until the cotton sold.  Often sharecroppers never quite caught up to what they owed because the landowners would charge high prices and interest, which they took out of the crop earning at the end of the season leaving little or no profit and usually a debt they could try to work off the next season.


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