Before the 1870s, there were only a tiny handful of Chinese people living in the American South. But with the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of black slaves, Southern planters began to eye the Chinese as possible substitutes for their former human property.
It should have been an ideal match. After all, according to reports from California, Chinese laborers were docile and hardworking. Why should they be less so as field hands than as gold miners and railroad workers? If the Chinese would be willing to work according to the terms that had prevailed under slavery, perhaps the emancipated blacks could be persuaded to return to their former condition as well.
So in 1869, Southern elites organized a conference to discuss Chinese labor. Hundreds of delegates assembled in Memphis, Tennessee. A notable Chinese labor contractor assured the crowd that the Chinese were obedient, industrious, and naive; a famous importer of Chinese labor promised that workers could be brought from China on five-year contracts for as little as ten dollars a month.
Giddy with the prospect of building a new South on the backs of coolies, the delegates raised a million dollars for the cause, then set about aggressively recruiting Chinese labor.
American clipper companies distributed handbills in Chinese ports, making extravagant promises. For example, some of them claimed that Chinese workers could become “richer than mandarins” in the American South. This campaign succeeded in bringing about two thousand Chinese workers to the South in 1869 and 1870.
Both the Southern planters and the Chinese laborers quickly became disillusioned. The plantation owners were accustomed to exerting absolute control over their workers; they believed that the way to increase productivity was to have overseers whip grown men into tractability. But the Chinese considered their relationship to the planters to be a normal business arrangement; they expected their employers to adhere to the terms of their contracts, and had no intentions of laboring under oppressive conditions.
On one plantation, the Chinese responded to the whipping of a Chinese servant by staging a strike. Elsewhere, a Chinese labor gang attempted to lynch a Chinese agent for giving them false information about the terms of their employment. Unlike the former slaves, the Chinese laborers worked under contract, and they proved to be shrewd negotiators, hiring bilingual interpreters and lawyers to protect their interests. When employers violated contracts, the Chinese filed lawsuits. In this they were supported by a postwar government that was alert to any signs of racial exploitation in the South.
The Southern oligarchy’s dream of holding Chinese workers in bondage turned out to be a nightmare. Within a few years, most of the Chinese had walked away from their contracts and moved to cities, where they accepted real jobs or opened their own businesses. By 1915 there were almost no Chinese workers on Southern plantations.