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The Wheel of Servitude

The Wheel of Servitude: Black Forced Labor after Slavery

Daniel A. Novak
Copyright Date: 1978
Pages: 144
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  • Book Info
    The Wheel of Servitude
    Book Description:

    Emancipation brought an end to many of the evils of slavery, but it did not do away with involuntary servitude in the South. Even during Reconstruction, state legislatures passed laws that bound laborers to the landowner with a nearly unbreakable tie -- which still chains many a rural black to what a 1914 Supreme Court ruling called an "ever-turning wheel of servitude."

    Daniel Novak shows how federal, state, and local regulations combined in an undisguised effort to keep southern agriculture supplied with black labor. A freedman who did not immediately enter into a labor contract was subject to arrest as a vagrant. Once a contract was agreed upon, it was a criminal offense for a laborer to fail to carry it out, no matter how unfair the terms might be.

    If, as was almost inevitable, the freedman fell into debt to the landowner, he could be kept in service until repayment-and exorbitant interest rates and judicious bookkeeping could often postpone that day indefinitely. Novak traces the sporadic efforts of the federal government to do away with this kind of peonage. In studying the details of the legal basis for peonage in the South, he breaks new ground. The institution has aroused surprisingly little interest in the past; this compelling account should do much to establish that peonage is one of the most severe and widespread violations of civil rights in the nation.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6412-0
    Subjects: Sociology, History, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)

    The history of American blacks between the end of slavery and the beginning of the modern civil rights movement has been sadly neglected. In contrast, the publication of Kenneth Stampp’sThe Peculiar Institutionin 1956 sparked a renaissance of scholarship in the sociology, psychology, history, and economics of slavery. The new research, challenging insights, and novel theories of Stanley Elkins, Herbert Gutman, Eugene Genovese, Robert Fogel, Stanley Engerman, and others has ignited scholarly and popular controversy. But if one result of the renewed interest in slavery has been an enriched understanding of an extraordinarily important period in the evolution of...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xv-xviii)

    Perhaps the most striking aspects of the study of peonage in the South are the dearth of widespread interest in the subject and the dogged resilience of the institution. The general indifference to the subject is all the more remarkable in light of the basic nature of the practice. It was a simple and effective substitute for the previous system of labor control—slavery. Brutal as it was, peonage was, concededly, no match for its predecessor; but the elements of violence present, combined with the rigorous control of its victims, should have been prime sources of study. Without fanfare the...

  6. 1 The Black Codes
    (pp. 1-8)

    The Civil War marked the end of the great debate on slavery in practical political terms. The abolitionist position had been victorious, not through persuasion, but by force of arms. The slave economy of the Confederacy was destroyed and a new method of dealing with a vast work force had to be devised. Since the rationale behind the old system remained intact in the minds of the now dispossessed slave owners, it is not at all surprising that the initial response to this new situation was an attempt to retain as much of slavery as possible. This tendency is made...

  7. 2 The Freedmen’s Bureau and the Army
    (pp. 9-17)

    In March 1864, President Lincoln signed a bill creating in the War Department a Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. It was to last for one year after the end of the war, and it was to supervise, manage, and control “all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen.”¹ Basically, the bureau was to be the means of easing the passage of the black from slavery to freedom. In most Reconstruction histories, however, the bureau is depicted as the principal tool in the Radicals’ conspiracy to subjugate the South. It is shown riding roughshod over civil justice, economic rights, and...

  8. 3 Reconstruction Legislation
    (pp. 18-28)

    In the “horror” history of Reconstruction, perhaps the most vilified institutions were the “Radical-Negro-carpetbagger” legislatures. From Thomas Nast’s cartoons of black buffoons and smirking, malevolent scalawags to the Dunningites’ descriptions of ignoramuses and their evil masters enacting laws without any idea of, or concern for, their consequences, we are given a picture of radicalism gone wild. Surely here, where the legislators have no understanding of the economics of agriculture or the need for “order” in employer-employee relationships, will be found the laws that, at least for a time, destroy the peonage system set up by the codes and the Freedmen’s...

  9. 4 Redemption
    (pp. 29-43)

    In most of the histories of blacks in the South, the chapter following the discussion of Reconstruction and Reunion is almost ineluctably entitled “The Negro Migration” or “The Negro Moves North.” In fact, the period between 1877 and the end of the Populist movement is perhaps the least documented in all black history. To be sure, there are always references to the Colored Farmers’ Alliance in the 1880s and 1890s, but these are wholly inadequate as a description of what was happening to the black agricultural worker in this period. For it was at this time that the variety of...

  10. 5 Peonage and the Constitution
    (pp. 44-62)

    It is striking that in a discussion of peonage covering a period of almost forty years no mention has been made of the role of the United States Courts, federal prosecutors, or even, except in passing, the Constitution of the United States. This is not an oversight, for the plain fact is that, after the federal participation in overturning the Black Codes, the United States government does not play any role at all in subsequent developments.¹ The reasons for this are, of course, beyond proof. The only conjecture I can propose is the same as that presented in the earlier...

  11. 6 After Bailey
    (pp. 63-74)

    The decision inBaileyv.Alabamahad been hailed as a marked step forward in the battle against peonage. By Ray Stannard Baker it was seen as a second Dred Scott case, a start for a great push against an obnoxious practice. It was confidently expected that similar statutes on the books of other states would now be declared invalid and that sinister operation of the peonage system would soon cease.¹

    However, several factors militated against this happy result. First among these was the fact that only one sort of peonage law had been declared unconstitutional—the sort containing the...

  12. 7 The Civil Rights Section
    (pp. 75-83)

    Shortly after his appointment as attorney general of the United States in 1939, Frank Murphy announced the establishment of a special unit in the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice. The Civil Liberties Unit was given the responsibility to “direct, supervise and conduct prosecutions of violations of the provisions of the Constitution or Acts of Congress guaranteeing civil rights to individuals.”¹ The creation of this unit was the result of a period of internecine warfare within the department—a tale too complicated for inclusion here. The new unit was placed under the direction of Henry A. Schweinhaut, who had...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 84-92)

    Perhaps the most striking aspect of the study of peonage is the boundless resilience of the institution. Created as a stopgap measure to reduce the effects of the abolition of slavery, it has survived all attempts to suppress it. Neither of the two great “civil rights revolutions”—Reconstruction and the post–Brownv.Boardperiod of the late 1950s and 1960s—seems to have succeeded in producing changes. Indeed, there seems to have been little interest in doing so, to the degree that even the academic revolution in historiography fails to pay attention to the subject.¹ Considering the nature of...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 93-114)
  15. Bibliographical Note
    (pp. 115-122)
  16. Index
    (pp. 123-126)