Letters from the South/Letter 5
|←Letter 4||Letters from the South by
V Free Labor and Education
|Carl Schurz's fifth 1865 letter from the South to the Boston Daily Advertiser discussing the development of free-labor society there.|
Letters from the South
FREE LABOR AND EDUCATION.
[FROM A REGULAR CORRESPONDENT.]
There is but little system yet in the organization of free labor in this State. In the immediate vicinity of this city and on the Sea Islands, as well as in and around Augusta, the matter is taken in hand by the agents of the Freedmen's Bureau; while in the interior of the State the making of contracts has so far been left almost exclusively to the planters and freedmen themselves. I understand an assistant commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau is now travelling all over the State for the purpose of extending the organization, but the results of his labors have not yet been advantageously felt.
Under such circumstances there must necessarily be much confusion. A large number of the freedmen do not yet correctly understand their rights, while a great many of the planters show very little alacrity in acquiring a just conception of their duties. It is in the nature of things, however, that the former should learn more rapidly than the latter. Reports are coming in from different parts of the State, that here the negroes have remained on their plantations, working as before without any contract, that these contracts have been made, verbally and in writing, providing for compensation in an infinite variety of shapes, and, finally, that at other places the planters are making desperate efforts, by means of bowie knife and revolver, to keep the negroes in their former subjection. This is especially true of the country around Atlanta, where a considerable number of “negro-shooting” cases have happened and are still frequently occurring. The planters have organized themselves into bands, and are protecting each other in the enjoyment of the “inalienable rights” as slave-owners. Especially the young men, returned soldiers and officers on parole, seem to have adopted this method of showing their willingness to return into the Union and of accepting the results of the war. It is greatly to be desired that the military authorities should soon succeed in stopping these outrages and in bringing the perpetrators to condign punishment. I have no doubt adequate efforts are being made to that end, and I mention the matter only to show that the acceptance of the “results of the war,” as far as the emancipation of the slaves is concerned, is by no means as universal and as sincere as the clamorous advocates of the immediate restoration of civil government want to make us believe. I am aware that similar reports were circulated some time ago with regard to certain districts in South Carolina, and were, as far as those localities are concerned, subsequently found to be exaggerated. But I can vouch for the truthfulness of the statement I have just laid before your readers, for I have it from the most authentic source. I will add that in South Carolina also such things have frequently happened, not indeed in the southern, but in the northern part of the State; and did not cease until our military commanders put garrisons of sufficient strength into that part of the country.
I states in one of my former letters that I thought the success of the free-labor experiment was more endangered by the obstacles thrown in its way by the whites than those which consist in the peculiar characteristics of the black race, — not as though I underestimated the difficulties to be overcome before the ordinary plantation negro can be made an intelligent and reliable free laborer. But the principal drawback we encounter here is, that the planter does not know what free labor is, and but few of them seem inclined to learn it. Their first characteristic complaint is, that the negro is becoming “insubordinate,” meaning by subordination that absolute giving up of the individual will, to which they were accustomed on the part of the negro as long as slavery existed.
This confusion of ideas gives rise to the most ludicrous incidents. One of our military commanders was recently visited by a doctor living in one of the southeastern counties of this State. The doctor looked very much disturbed.
“General,” says he, “the negroes in my county are in a terrible state of insubordination, and we may look for an outbreak every moment. I come to implore your aid.”
The General, already accustomed to such alarming reports, takes the matter with great coolness. “Doctor,” says he, “I have heard of such things before. Is not your imagination a little excited? What reason should the negroes have to resort to violence?”
“General,” replies the doctor, “you do not appreciate the dangers of the situation we are placed in. Our lives are not safe. It is impossible to put up with the demonstrations of insubordination on the part of the negroes. If they do not cease I shall have to remove my family into the city. If we are not protected we cannot stay in the country. I would rather give up my crops to the negroes than the lives of my wife and children.”
“Now, Doctor, please go into particulars, and tell me what has happened?”
“Well, General, formerly the slaves were obliged to retire to their cabins before nine o'clock in the evening. After that hour nobody was permitted outside. Now, when their work is done, they roam about just as they please, and when I tell them to go to their quarters, they do not mind me. Negroes from neighboring plantations will sometimes come to visit them, and they have a sort of meeting, and then they are cutting up sometimes until ten or eleven. You see, General, this is alarming, and you must acknowledge that we are not safe.”
“Well, Doctor, what are they doing when they have that sort of a meeting? Tell me all you know?”
“Why, General, they are talking together, sometimes in whispers and sometimes loudly. They are having their conspiracies, I suppose. And then they are going on to sing and dance and make a noise.”
“Ah, now, Doctor,” says the imperturbable General, “you see this is their year of jubilee. They must celebrate their freedom in some way. What harm is there in singing or dancing? Our Northern laborers sing and dance when they please, and nobody thinks any thing of it; we rather enjoy it with them.”
“Yes, that is all well enough, General; but these are negroes, who ought to be subordinate, and when I tell them to go to their quarters, and they don't do it, we can't put up with it.”
“By the way, Doctor, have you made a contract with the negroes on your plantation?”
“Do they work well?”
“Pretty well, so far. My crops are in pretty good condition.”
“Do they steal much?”
“They steal some, but not very much.”
“Well, then, Doctor, what have you to complain about?”
“Oh, General,” says the Doctor, dolefully, “you do not appreciate the dangers of our situation.”
“Now, Doctor, to cut the matter short, has a single act of violence been perpetrated in your neighborhood by a negro against a white man?”
“Yes, sir; and I will tell you of one that has happened right in my family. I have a negro girl, eighteen years old, whom I raised. For ten years she has been waiting upon my old mother-in-law, who lives with me. A few days ago the old lady was dissatisfied about something, and told the girl that she felt like giving her a whipping. Now, what do you think? the negro girl actually informed my old mother-in-law, that she would not submit to a whipping, but would resist. My old father-in-law then got mad and threatened her, and she told him the same thing. Now, this is an intolerable state of things.”
The General laughed and said: “My dear sir, that girl is a free girl, and you have just as little right to whip her as you have to whip your neighbor's daughter. She ought to resist when you offer her a whipping, and I hope she will. And I will tell you another thing. Among your slaves there are probably men who have seen their wives, and young men who have seen their mothers whipped by your order. I think the negroes deserve a great deal of praise for their moderation. Another race, if suddenly freed after such experiences, would probably have proceeded to cut the throats of those who were in the habit of whipping wives and mothers. Now go home, treat your people well, and pay them fair wages, and do not come to me again and clamor about danger and insurrection, when the freemen working on your plantation dance and sing, and when the girls refuse to accept a whipping.”
The Doctor left, sorely puzzled with the mysteries of free labor. And when he and the General meet, which happens not unfrequently, the General invariably asks him, “Well, Doctor, how does the insurrection in your county come on?” There are certainly exceptions to the rule, but it can be said without the least exaggeration, that a majority of the planters in this region are entirely unaware that a free laborer owes his employer no duty beyond the fulfilment of his contract and the general duties of a citizen. They cannot get rid of the idea that the man who works for them belongs to them, and is obliged to regulate his conduct in every particular according to their notions and whims. It is not difficult to conclude what they would do, if, before they have accommodated their ways of thinking to the new order of things, the government should withdraw its protection from the negro.
The Southern planter pretends, — and he will laugh at you if you contradict him, — that Northern men know nothing about the negro, and that he alone understands and knows how to manage him. In a certain sense this is undoubtedly true; the planter understands how to manage the negro as a slave. But it is more than doubtful whether he knows how to manage the negro as a free laborer. What I have seen here leads me to the conclusion that in cultivating the Southern soil by free negro labor Northern men are apt to succeed better than Southern men, at least as long as the latter do not succeed in casting off their old habits. It is not difficult to find a reason for this, and I think it is the true one: the Northern man is not governed by the customs and traditions of the slave-labor system. He knows from actual experience what free labor is, and understands the working of its machinery. He acts upon its principles, and is not disturbed by the irregularities connected with it, which seem utterly inadmissible to the Southerner. All the complaints I have heard about the negro, his unwillingness to work, his sprit of insubordination, his improvidence and inconstancy, etc., etc., come from Southern men, while all the Northern men working leased plantations on the Sea Islands, that I have seen, speak of their laborers with satisfaction.
A few days ago I visited a plantation not far from this city, worked by an intelligent farmer from Iowa. He employs between twenty and thirty negroes at ten dollars a month and board; he says that they go to the field about sunrise, stop a short time for breakfast at eight o'clock, stop again for dinner from twelve till two, and then work till after sundown; that his laborers work as well as any laborers he ever employed, and that he has no trouble with them whatever. The negroes themselves told me that they were perfectly happy and contented. The crops on this plantation, cotton as well as corn, looked far better than any in this vicinity, better than those of his Southern neighbors, and better also than those cultivated on land adjoining it by a few families of freedmen under their own direction.
I have visited but few farms cultivated by self-directed negro labor; what I am going to say rests therefore upon rather limited observation. I found the corn and cotton crops in a comparatively poor condition. The cultivators generally complained of the inferior quality of the seed that had been furnished them, and that is undoubtedly one of the reasons. But further inquiry satisfied me also that their attention was, perhaps, a little too much devoted to the raising of articles which they could send to market and sell for ready cash. On the roads leading to town I saw a good many colored people driving carts loaded with watermelons and different kinds of garden vegetables, while not a few were engaged in fishing on the “creeks” which separate the Sea Islands from the mainland. These pursuits are certainly not unprofitable, but they take away from the cotton and corn fields a considerable proportion of the labor force, and the fields I walked over bore evidence of it. It must, however, be taken into consideration that these people must live until their crops are harvested and sold, and that, therefore, they have to do something to provide themselves meanwhile with the necessaries of life. At the same time I have grave reasons for believing that the laborers on the plantations directed by Northern men were doing a larger amount of work per head than those in the freedmen's settlements.
While Southern men, with but few exceptions, will insist upon it that the negro will not work unless compelled to do so by physical force, they are obliged to admit that in a great many instances he does work without compulsion, and works well. A letter was communicated to me from a contractor who employs some seventy or eighty negroes in cutting timber; he has now been at work with them for about two months; although the labor is very hard, not one of the negroes has left him, and they worked steadily to his entire satisfaction. Another contractor, who has undertaken a railroad job not far from this city, has been endeavoring for several weeks to secure negro labor, and the negroes regularly desert him after having worked a few days. The former has his laboring force at work about seventy miles from the city, while the railroad job of the latter is to be done in its immediate vicinity. It is generally noticed that the proximity of a large town has a disturbing influence upon the negro. Large numbers of them flocked to the towns immediately after their liberation, because it was there, they thought, that they would find and enjoy their real freedom, and many of those that have been put to work in the immediate vicinity of cities seem to be controlled by an irresistible desire to look in from time to time. At a certain distance from the towns the negroes work with greater steadiness and perseverance, provided sufficient inducements in the way of wages be offered them. Unless other disturbing causes interfere, the distribution of the laboring force of the different parts of the State will soon regulate itself. Although the cities will continue to exercise considerable attraction, there are two things which will soon cause a reflux of the negro population towards their old homes. The first is the cessation of the issuing of rations on the part of the government. It will oblige those who have no employment to seek it where it can best be found. And the second is their attachment to their old homes. This feeling is developed in some of them in a remarkable degree. An officer who had spent some time in Florida, told me the following significant anecdote: Shortly after the termination of the war he met a large party of negroes on the road, marching westward at a lively step. He asked them where they were going. “To Arkansas. And can you tell us how far it is to Arkansas.” It turned out that during the war they had been brought from Arkansas to Florida. As soon as they were informed they were free, they started at once to go back to the old place in Arkansas. It required some effort to convince them that it would be a tedious thing for them to walk back to Arkansas, and that the best thing they could do for themselves was to settle down in Florida. As I remarked before, agencies like these will bring about a convenient distribution of the laboring force over the country, and it is not until then that the system of free negro labor on a grand scale can be fairly tested and judged as to its efficiency. The Southerner maintains that it cannot succeed under any circumstances. Unprejudiced men will acknowledge that it has already succeeded in a good many instances under unfavorable circumstances; and every patriot will say that necessarily it must succeed under all circumstances.
While the Southern country is still under military rule, the government and the people should employ, without loss of time, whatever legitimate means they possess to promote the great object. Much can be done independently of the future action of the President and Congress. It is certain that, unless the charitable spirit of the Northern people steps in, very little if any thing will be done in the South to advance general education. When you speak to Southerners about the necessity of educating the negroes and poor whites, some of them will go so far as to tell you that it is a matter worthy of consideration. When you ask them what they are going to do about it, they will reply that they do not know; they reckon they cannot do any thing at present. When you suggest that the people ought to tax themselves for that purpose, they will reply in nine cases out of ten, that the people cannot afford now to spend money for such things; that the people are poor and must be economical; that, besides, the people do not trouble themselves much about the matter; poor whites do not care to be educated, and if niggers want to be educated, they must pay for it themselves. This said, the matter is dropped with indifference. It will require the experience of many years to make many Southern men belonging to the “enlightened” class understand that an efficient system of popular education is the very fountain from which free-labor society draws its strength and health. They are apt to recoil even from the difficulties with which the diffusion of useful knowledge among the poor whites is surrounded; much less are they likely to trouble themselves about the education of the blacks.
It is true the Southern people are at the present moment very poor and have to look out for a living. But bread itself is hardly more necessary to them than instruction. Bread they will have; the area planted with corn this year is so enormous in the Southern States that, although the average yield per acre may not be large, — and it will indeed hardly exceed 12 bushels, — the aggregate quantity will be more than sufficient to feed the people until the next crops come in. Thus bread they will have; they raise it themselves; but popular education they will not have unless it be imported from abroad. Education is the only thing that can bring the masses of the Southern people under the influence of the general sentiment of the country. We have been speaking of the emancipation of the poor whites of the South. The poor whites will not be emancipated until they are lifted out of their bottomless ignorance. A very intelligent gentleman from Alabama with whom I had a conversation about this subject, told me that on every plantation of fifty to sixty slaves he could pick out from fifteen to eighteen negroes that were in point of intelligence far above the average of the poor whites. As long as that ignorance and the stupid prejudices fostered by it remain unbroken, that whole class of people will hang like a clog at the feet of every progressive movement. Then there are the blacks themselves. Who is there here to teach them? No Southern white man or woman will do it, for, as I have been told a hundred times, no man that respects himself would degrade himself so far as to make it a business to teach in nigger schools.
Here is a fair field of activity for the missionary spirit of the North. Nothing that charitable benevolence can do for the South is more important than this. There is at the present moment probably not a single school in operation in the interior of this State and there will be but few next winter, unless teachers are sent and paid by the North. I admit the labor will not be of the pleasantest for the individuals engaged. In many localities they will have to combat stubborn prejudices, for some of the hard-shell Baptist poor whites are of the opinion that “larnin’” is an evil thing. At other places, where negro schools are to be started, the teachers must expect to meet frowning faces and insulting sneers on the part of the “superior race,” but as long as the military are here, there will be no danger. This matter ought to be taken in hand as soon as possible. Schools ought to be opened late in October, and be kept in operation all through the winter. The movement once started will soon take care of itself. If any of the benevolent societies of the North are found willing to make an effort in this direction worthy of the magnitude of the object to be attained, I would volunteer a piece of advice. It is proper, nay it is necessary, that the teachers sent here to instruct the negroes should be inspired with a sincere sympathy for the race. But it is also very important that they should have cool heads. Their judgment should not be too weak for their enthusiasm. They should be able to see things as they are and not act upon the presumption that the negroes, because they are entitled to our sympathy, must therefore be faultless. When explaining to them their rights, they should not forget to mention the duties which the enjoyment of those rights devolves upon them. They will serve the colored people best by giving them sober advice. They must keep in mind that the negroes will have to live together with the white people of these States, and that in the end it will be far better to harmonize their interests and feelings, than to embitter their relations by exciting addresses. While most of the gentlemen who at present are administering the affairs of the freedman seem to be sufficiently impressed with the justness of this policy, it is desirable that they should all be so.