"Wringing Their Bread from the Sweat of Other Men's Faces" The Persistent Use of Forced Labor in the Postbellum South
AuthorPage, Reba Ann
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For many, “involuntary servitude” is intellectually understood as unconstitutional; it is viewed as a vague legal concept that is difficult to define. For its prey, “involuntary servitude” is a harmful and damaging reality in which they are forced to work for another and prevented from leaving. For black refugees of the great 1927 Mississippi River flood in Greenville, Mississippi, it seemed a nightmare return to slave-like conditions that were forbidden by law if not custom after the Civil War. This dissertation examines the events that took place, and key people who affected them, against the backdrop of three centuries of American law that facilitated or forbade the use of coerced labor, particularly against those of African American descent. Specific legal topics and relevant caselaw assessed include the development of slavery in colonial and post- revolutionary America; coerced labor and emerging civil rights as consequences of the Civil War and Reconstruction; the use of racially-motivated violence to subvert freedmen’s rights; and President Theodore Roosevelt’s peonage investigation, which led to landmark decisions and new views on debt enslavement and misused convict labor as surrogates for chattel slavery. The dissertation builds on this historic legal framework to explore the question of whether Greenville’s black refugees were illegally victimized or simply mistreated within harsh but acceptable social norms.1. Introduction to the FloodThe devastation wrought by the 1927 Mississippi River flood remains almost beyond imagination. While official tallies are suspect, at least 245 people drowned, and a land mass exceeding 26,000 square miles spread over seven states was inundated by waters up to 80 miles wide; a map of the affected area is provided in figure (2). This was a cataclysmic natural event with geopolitical consequences that are little acknowledged, yet are still experienced today. Repercussions spurred an increasing number of African Americans to move from the South, and undermined the power of the Republican Party. The overwhelming task of meeting the needs of those affected by this overwhelming natural catastrophe helped change official disaster policy from a primary reliance upon charitable organizations, to greater federal funding and support for relief and recovery. The human toll of the floodwaters was compounded by racialized abuses in segregated refugee camps that were established by the American Red Cross (ARC). Black victims’ pleas for help went unmet until “leaks” to the northern “Negro press” ignited public outcry. When this scandal threatened to derail U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover’s presidential aspirations and diminish desperately needed donations, the ARC convened a “Colored Advisory Commission” (CAC) comprised of representatives from Tuskegee Institute and other leading African Americans to investigate the charges. CAC member Thomas Monroe Campbell (1883-1956) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the son of slaves, handled particularly sensitive matters in Mississippi. This included controversial orders issued by local relief committee chairman William Alexander (Will) Percy (1885-1942) of Greenville, Mississippi, one of the white planter elite, to detain local African Americans in a “concentration” camp under armed guard. Similar encampments were formed along the length of the river, with similar maltreatment. The CAC was instrumental in improving conditions, but Hoover later reneged on reforms he offered in exchange for receiving more positive press. 2. The Flood as a Snapshot of Southern Society: Racial Prejudice and Forced LaborWhile not isolated instances, the wrongs at Greenville were among the flood’s most politically explosive in a “Jim Crow” South that perpetuated racial subordination. The situation there and at other river towns provides a snapshot of life in the American South of that era, and the effects of longtime discrimination against African Americans. The tragedy of the flood was compounded by the fact that the coercive tactics were common, and unremarkable measures that were (at least to the white population) accepted practice. In striving to put events in perspective, this dissertation delves into significant judicial decisions on the persistent use of forced labor in the South and the civil rights of enslaved and emancipated African Americans. It begins with involuntary and contractual forms of servitude during the colonial era, and continues through 1927, the year of the Mississippi River flood. Additionally, the work references contemporaneous ancillary writings to furnish social context. The examination brings together legal enactments and rulings, the power of the pen, and history. It draws upon original source documents of the CAC and Campbell’s personal papers. Section 1, “Setting the Stage,” provides an overview of the 1927 flood, the ARC, and the CAC. Background information is provided for Campbell and Percy and their families; the flood marked a signal event in their lives, and each went on to larger careers and wider influence. 3. Linking the Flood to the DissertationThe title of this dissertation is taken from the second inaugural address of President Abraham Lincoln on March 4, 1865. He invoked Biblical imagery in speaking against those who strove to benefit from the labor of a subjugated people. The former were those who, as Lincoln paraphrased Genesis 3:19, were guilty of “wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” The title is apropos, as it was the “Great Emancipator” who is credited by many as a central political figure in helping African Americans achieve freedom. The road proved enduringly difficult. The continued use of forced labor remained so serious a problem that Theodore Roosevelt made eradicating peonage an important focus of his presidency. The research question examined herein is this: “Measured against contemporaneous law and precedent, did the constraints imposed upon black victims of the 1927 flood in Greenville, Mississippi, impinge upon the Constitution’s guarantee of due process and prohibition on involuntary servitude?” Central to investigating this question is an assessment of salient federal laws and judicial decisions that affected the protracted use of forced labor into the 20th century. After providing this legal analysis, the dissertation returns to the people and events of Greenville during the flood to evaluate whether black refugees were entrapped in involuntary servitude.4. The Colonial Era to the Making of the Constitution The analysis begins with England’s 17th century settlement in Virginia and the effects of the “peculiar institution” upon the framers of the Constitution. As shown in §§ 1-3, the actions taken against freedmen and their descendants had deep roots, as the use of forced labor fueled by racial prejudice dated to earliest colonial days. The racial and master/servant divide deepened as the nation developed, and resulted in a devil’s bargain for the framers of the Constitution. After politicians and jurists were unable to resolve controversies over the reach and duration of slavery, civil war erupted after the extension of national boundaries became a referendum on the expansion of enslavement and sectional dominance (see § 3). 5. The Time of War/Reconstruction & RedemptionSections 5-11 show that, during the time of the Civil War and in the decade or so thereafter, the country pursued a political agenda marked by emancipation, abolition, civil rights, and universal male suffrage. But the center of this progressive effort did not hold and the wounds of war did not cleanly heal. As discussed in §§ 7-10, the nation tired of rebuilding. Southerners reasserted the denial of civil rights to nonwhites, the use of forced labor was a potent social and economic factor, and the South’s return to antebellum values was reinforced by racially motivated violence. The North may have won the war, but ensuing debates over the “Reconstruction” then “Redemption” of the South left many matters unsettled. Constitutional amendments and new federal laws resulted in formal abolition, but were unevenly applied. Ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments and passage of protective legislation such as the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875, the Peonage Act of 1867, and the “Enforcement Acts” (“Force Acts”) of 1870 and 1871 did not yield full civil rights for African Americans, never mind social equality. 6. Postbellum Civil Rights Decisions The courts played an important role in shaping the nation’s postbellum racial identity and labor force. Whites adhering to an outmoded plantation economy relied heavily on cotton as the dominant crop, and looked to recapture the advantages of chattel slavery by exploiting freedmen. Judicial rulings, especially those dealing with peonage, are used in evaluating whether the treatment of Greenville’s blacks was tantamount to legal violation or the lesser evidence of social dominance. Key decisions demonstrate that blacks, who remained the mainstay of low-paying agricultural work, were kept largely powerless by whites. Among significant civil rights-related cases are those in which African Americans were subjected to extreme physical and legal coercion (United States v. Cruikshank, Moore v. Dempsey, and Hodges v. United States ); denied equal access to the ballot box (United States v. Reese ); and accommodations (Plessy v. Ferguson ). These show how blacks were kept from equality despite Reconstruction-era and later civil rights laws. 7. The President and the Federal Courts Address PeonageFlood-related events indicate that racial domination through intimidation and violence remained a serious problem long after Reconstruction-era enactments, and physical control of laborers was still regarded as a property right. Sections 9-15 focus upon the use of forced labor in the postbellum South. This included peonage and misused convict labor, and associated racially-motived violence. These sections discuss seminal legal decisions in these areas and note contemporaneous ancillary writings that place the period in historic context. The United States Department of Justice’s (USDOJ’s) peonage investigation and prosecutions, as well as relevant opinions of the United States Supreme Court and inferior courts, are of great importance. Among significant decisions relevant to this analysis were the relatively early Peonage Cases of Alabama, Jamison v. Wimbish, and United States v. Morris, which were decided by Southern jurists who stood against commonly accepted practices. Peonage was common in the Southern pines and its use in the turpentining industry became a volatile political matter. In Clyatt v. United States, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Peonage Act of 1867. In W.S. Harlan v. McGourin, the Court upheld the peonage conviction of the prominent executive and nephew of Justice John Marshall Harlan, Sr. (Justice Harlan ) for ordering reprehensible acts against lumber camp workers. The rise of peonage intersected with that of “black codes,” which are racially disparate laws (as written or applied) that were adopted after the Civil War. In Bailey v. Alabama, the Court struck down one-sided state laws that presumed “false pretenses” on the part of workers who quit their labor contracts early. The final section returns to the events of the flood, and concludes with an evaluation using its central research question. It addresses: “Measured against contemporaneous law and precedent, did the constraints imposed upon black victims of the 1927 flood in Greenville, Mississippi, impinge upon the Constitution’s guarantee of due process and prohibition on involuntary servitude?” This dissertation incorporates epigraphs to provide interest and context with respect to the matter to be discussed. Some are excerpts from writings or correspondence from principals such as Will Percy, Thomas Monroe Campbell, and others who were associated with the perpetuation of or fight against forced labor. Other documents are also referenced, as its victims’ plight has been related in many ways, including through the law, the press, literature, and music.