Tag Archives: reconstruction

Chinese Plantation Workers

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.

(Chang 93-99)

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From Reconstruction to Jim Crow

In the years immediately following the Civil War, most former slaves did not leave the South. Instead, they placed their faith in the federal government’s plan for Reconstruction. As the defeated Confederate states were rejoined to the Union, the freedmen hoped they would be able to enjoy the rights of American citizenship in a redeemed, Reconstructed South.

Initially, Reconstruction was amazingly successful. Three Constitutional amendments were ratified in quick order: The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) outlawed slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) gave full citizenship to former slaves, and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) extended the franchise to all male citizens, regardless of race or color. Southern Reconstruction governments also quickly established systems of public education for former slaves and their children.

These gains were not to last. As the party of Lincoln began to morph into the party of Big Business, Northern Republicans lost interest in southern racial conflicts; the last federal troops were withdrawn from the South in 1877. This officially ended the Reconstruction process, and things went bad very quickly.

Outraged by the loss of slavery, the former Confederates, now the Democratic Party, committed themselves to creating a strict racial caste system instead. They began by systematically destroying the Republican Party in the South. Republican leaders were run out of town, or murdered outright. Republican voters were threatened, beaten, and killed. Democrats destroyed Republican votes or stuffed ballot boxes with fake Democratic votes. As the North declined to interfere, Southern Democrats pushed black voters, and white Republican voters, out of the political system.

The Democrats used several methods to disfranchise black voters. One way was to require an annual tax of anyone wishing to maintain their voters’ registration; most blacks and poor whites did not have the necessary cash to pay for a vote that probably wouldn’t be counted anyway. Another method was to require registrants to read and successfully interpret the Constitution – to the satisfaction of the Democratic registrar – in order to be allowed to vote.

During the 1890s, thousands of black men and women were lynched by white mobs. No white southerner was ever convicted of any crime related to the lynchings, and few were even charged. Often, law enforcement officials themselves were involved in the murders. This was the ultimate form of disfranchisement: the unchecked, wholesale murder of black citizens, with no consequences for the murderers.

With disfranchisement complete, segregation laws were quickly passed throughout the South. By the end of the century, the white supremacist system known as Jim Crow was firmly established. African Americans in the South had no legal or political rights at all, and the dream of Reconstruction was over.

(Flamming 94-98)

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Exodusters

In the years immediately following the Civil War, black southerners did not suddenly leave the South for greater opportunities in the North or out West. Most freedmen placed their hope in Reconstruction, as their Republican allies sought to redeem the South and protect their newly-acquired political rights.

But Reconstruction did not go far enough. The freedmen were never given the allotments of land they’d been promised. The Southern state governments were all recaptured by former Confederates, and all federal troops left the South in 1877, leaving the former slaves to fend for themselves. With no protection, they faced unrestrained violence, especially in the areas along the lower Mississippi River, in northeastern Louisiana and western Mississippi.

In 1879, rumors started to circulate that the federal government was making plans to send boats up the Mississippi to transport black families to St. Louis and on to freedom out West. The promised land, where they  hoped to build their new lives, was the state of Kansas.

Kansas had a strong abolitionist history. It was there that John Brown and other white abolitionists first took up arms against the slave South. During the war, Kansas had been a refuge for blacks fleeing slavery, and it was there that blacks were first armed to fight for the Union. After the war, the Republican government of Kansas was strongly in favor of black civil rights.

Believing that boats would arrive any time to take them away to freedom in Kansas, thousands of black families began to congregate on the banks of the Mississippi. The large numbers of people camped on the riverbank, the fact that they appeared to have no leader, and their faith that boats would come for them and that they would be welcomed in Kansas made them national news. Their story seemed like something out of the Old Testament, and they soon became known as “Exodusters.”

Riverboats did eventually begin picking up the crowds, and some 6,000 Exodusters made their way to Kansas.

Although there was neither enough land nor adequate public resources to meet the needs of these new emigrants, Kansas authorities did not turn them away. At both state and local levels, the authorities worked to blend the new arrivals into the state’s growing urban economy. Although many Exodusters had to give up their dreams of land ownership for service jobs in Topeka and other railroad towns, for many it was good enough to be safely out of the South.

(Flamming 74-77)

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