Using Primary Sources in the Classroom:
Lesson 1: Freedmen's Bureau: Labor Contract or Re-enslavement?
1. Background Information for Teachers:
On March 3, 1865, the United States Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. This federal agency helped ex-slaves with food, medical aid, education, and legal advice. General Wager Swayne was appointed assistant commissioner in Alabama and, after 1866, district military commander over the federal troops who occupied the state. Under his direction, the Freedmen's Bureau distributed rations to thousands of blacks and whites in the "starving time" of 1865-66.
Thousands of African Americans who had left the plantations for the cities when freedom came soon found themselves homeless and hungry. Early in 1866, the freedmen began to return to the land for spring planting. At first they worked for the promise of wages at rates agreed upon at the start of the year. The Freedmen's Bureau required labor contracts to be entered into by blacks and their employers, but did not set wage levels. In a near-cashless society, money wages were soon discontinued, to be replaced by sharecropping arrangements. The standard contract gave the black laborer a share of the crop according to how much of the expenses of production he paid. Only for a brief period did the Freedmen's Bureau offer some economic shelter for the ex-slaves. The sharecropping system that evolved during Reconstruction soon bound most African Americans into debt so ruinous that they were practically re-enslaved. (William Warren Rogers, Robert David Ward, Leah Rawls Atkins, Wayne Flynt, Alabama: The History of a Deep South State, 234-39.)
The first labor contract selected for this activity is especially significant because it was written before Genearl Swayne implemented his labor policy in Alabama. Later ones are included for comparison.
2. Learning Objectives:
Upon completion of this activity, students should be able to:
1. Define Freedmen's Bureau.
3. Suggested lesson:
2. Make copies of James G. Tait Labor Contract and ask students to answer the following:
a. What type of document is this?
b. Who wrote it?
c. What is the tone of the document? (businesslike? friendly? legalistic?)
d. What kind of information does it contain?
e. Who signed the document?
f. What is significant about the date of the document?
g. What is significant about the signatures of the employees?
h. How will it be enforced?
i. Are both employer and employees equally protected? Why or why not?
j. How do you think life would be different for the freedmen from their former lives as slaves?
3. Ask students to write an article for the local newspaper on the subject of labor contracts from the point of view of General Wager Swayne, James G. Tait, or one of the former slaves.
4. Other: Use the additional documents to explain problems of enforcing labor contracts. Explain how the 1868 contract between Tait and Thomas hill differs from earlier one. (This is not truly a labor contract under Freedmen's Bureau policy.)
Tait labor contract.
The Tait family occupied a prominent place in Alabama politics and agriculture in the 1817-1880 period. James Tait (1791-1855) came to Wilcox County from Georgia during the great land rush which followed the Creek War, bringing twenty slaves, ten of them field hands. During his first few seasons, his hands planted only 175 acres of cotton and 80 acres of corn a year. He was soon followed by his father, Charles Tait, (1768-1835) a former U.S. Senator from Georgia, who became the first U. S. Judge for the Alabama district, 1820-1826.
As Tait prospered, he bought more slaves and land. From his father, he inherited 100 slaves and two nearby plantations. In 1851, Tait owned 311 slaves. His six plantations produced 465 bales of cotton, and 15,000 bushels of corn, and 340 hogs for slaughter.
Tait's vast holdings lay on both sides of the Alabama River. Steamboats called regularly at his landings for cotton and corn and to take members of the Tait family to Mobile or Montgomery. Tait served as a trustee of the University of Alabama, a stockholder in Wilcox Academy, and a member of the American Colonization Society which advocated that free blacks and slaves, purchased from their owners, be resettled in Africa. James A. Tait and his wife had eight children, one of which was James G. Tait (1833-1911). James G. attended Harvard University and returned to the Wilcox County plantation and life as a planter.
Looking back with satisfaction on nearly 35 years as an Alabama planter, Tait wrote in his farm book in 1853:
"Since I came into possession of my Father's estate, my progress has been steadily onward but not rapid, for I have always worked by the rule, ‘take care and hold on'." (Hamilton, 162)
James G. Tait (1833-1911) landowner in this Labor Contract dated July 31, 1865, just three months after the Surrender (end of the Civil War), evidently adhered to this rule too as this labor contract insured that his crops would be harvested.
Transcript (LPR 35, Box 1, folder 2) Freedman's contract, 1865 Written across script : "Approved Aug 9th 1865 By Order Saml S. Gardner Asst Supt Freedmen by Fergusen Selma Ala Registered Sept 4, 1865" State of Ala } Wilcox Co } a contract entered into, this the 31st day of July, between James G. Tait as employer and the following named Freedmen, or Laborers as employees of the County & State aforesaid. The said Freedmen or Laborers, on their part, for & in consideration of the terms hereinafter state, bind themselves, to:-- faithfully & diligently labor for said Jas G. Tait, during the rema- -inder of the year 1865, (according to the (torn) regulation, conditions & penalties prescribed & contained in a (torn) rules & regulations for the State of Ala. & c.--) and said labor is to (torn) formed under the direction of the said J.G. Tait, or any agent by him appointed. The said Freedmen, or Laborers bind themselves to visit, or receive visitors on such conditions as may be agreed upon, by said J.G. Tait or his agent. The Freedmen, or Laborers further bind themselves to account to the said J.G. Tait, for the value of any property of whatever kind or description that may be wasted, lost, or destroyed by reason of the negligence, or careless conduct of said Freedmen or laborers, & the part of the crop allotted to said Freedmen or Laborers, is hereby made liable for the value of any property, so wasted, lost or destroyed. It is further agreed & stipulated, that if any of the said Freedmen or Laborers shall refuse, or fail to work faithfully & diligently, the said James G. Tait or his agent shall have power & is hereby authorised to discharge him or them. The said Jas G. Tait binds himself to pay over & deliver on the premises to said Freedmen or laborers one-eighth part of the present growing crop ^of corn, fodder, cowpeas & ground peas, and also one half of the potatoes & sorghum syrup of sickness & rice, & also to furnish food, clothing, houses, fuel, & medicines--& in bad cases a physician James G. Tait. Witness Isham his X mark A. L. Whisenhart Washington his X mark W. P. Barnes Isaac his X mark A.W. Bethea Brian his X mark Glaster his X mark John his X mark Dempsy his X mark Jeff his X mark Jack his X mark Bill Smart his X mark Widow (torn) her X mark Widow—Milly her X mark Dick his X mark Frank his X mark Malinda her X mark Jim his X mark Transcript (LPR 35, Box 1, Folder 2) State of Alabama} This contract made this the Wilcox County }day of 1868 between James A. Tait & Thomas Hill (Freedman) with respect(?) That the said Tait agrees to let Thom Hill have a certain piece of land known as the "Morriss Ridge," for the year 1868 upon which (Ridge) he ^Hill is permitted to clear land & build houses, without expense to said Tait excepting nails & flooring The said Tait agrees to let him work the lands east of his residence known as "Dry Fork," & to give said Tait for rent thereof one fourth of all produce raised on said lands. The aforesaid Tait is to be at no expense in feeding his (Hill's) family or any stock required in making said crop— Witness Transcript (Background: William Bonnell Hall was a doctor and cotton planter in Lowndes County, Alabama.) Lowndesboro, March 12th 1866 Dr. Wm Hall Sir The "Freedmen," Frank Pfeaster, Abner, Ann & Cicily have called my attention to the contract made between you & them last year and alledge that you have not completed with you part of said contract, having paid them nothing. It is my duty, as agent of the Bureau, to call your attention to the fact, & ask of you, that you attend to the matter at once; or appear before me, and show cause why you have not done so. Very Respectfully Your Obt Serv't A. W. Russell J.P. & L.A.F.B. Transcript Swamp Plantation Lowndes County, Ala Jan'y 5th 1866 I, Cooper, do agree to hire the time of my wife Angeline and my two sons, Liberty and Mack, to Wm. B. Hall & Thos Douglass for the year of 1866 Term of service commencing Jan'y 5th 1866, and ending Dec. 31st 1866. I further agree to see that they labor faith- fully, and yield obedience to their orders, for which service, I am to receive Two hundred and fifty dollars, $250.00 medical bills & rations. Deductions to be made for all time lost from labor, and for support of my children. his Witness: Cooper X Eli Cook mark