Slavery & Reconstruction

Contracts & Forced Labor (1865-1866)

Contract Between James Mitchell and Dick and Wife, 1866. National Archives.

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A Southern chain gang c. 1900. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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We look at 1865 and 1866 labor contracts.  We then jump forward to an 1881 map of a Georgia plantation, comparing the landscape of slavery, and the landscapes freedmen envisioned as the Civil War ended (see subtopic 3), with a later landscape shaped by more than a decade of contract labor.  Students consider the pros and cons for employers and workers, and weigh the extent to which freedmen were able to exercise free choice under the contract system. We listen as a Freedmen’s Bureau superintendent recounts how black children and young adults in his district were forced into apprenticeships and indentures they did not choose, and how former masters used court orders and physical violence to compel their cooperation.


Questions and Activities

Manuscript:  “Agreement of Labor for Truss B. Hall” (1865) | DOWNLOAD PDF

Manuscript:  “Contract Between James Mitchell & Dick & Wife” (1866) | DOWNLOAD PDF

Map:  “ A Georgia Plantation As It Was in 1860” (1881) | See subtopic 3

Map:  “A Georgia Plantation As It Is in 1881” (1881) | DOWNLOAD PDF

Text:  Excerpt from Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction at the First Session Thirty-Ninth Congress (1866)

For questions we asked students as they considered these sources, click View More.

Two manuscripts:  “Agreement of Labor for Truss B. Hall” and “Contract Between James Mitchell & Dick & Wife” (1865 and 1866)

We gave the students images of the handwritten contracts, with typewritten transcriptions below them.  We read each contract aloud together.  We asked:

What do you notice?

What puzzles you?

As the discussion progressed, we sometimes paused to read the contracts, or parts of them, aloud together again, so that the students would have multiple opportunities to work through the tricky phrases.

Homework questions:

  • If you were a worker, how would you feel about these contracts?
  • What would make you feel that way?
  • If you were a boss, how would you feel about these contracts?
  • What would make you feel that way?
  • As a worker, if you could rewrite one sentence in either of the contracts, which sentence would it be, and how would you rewrite it?

Two maps:  “A Georgia Plantation As It Was in 1860” and “A Georgia Plantation As It Is in 1881” (1881)

The students had already examined the 1860 map (see subtopic 3).  We passed out copies of the 1860 and 1881 maps together on one of paper, and placed the same combination on the overhead projector.  We asked:

What do you notice about the 1881 map?


What do you notice when you look at the two maps side by side?

Text:  Excerpt from Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction at the First Session Thirty-Ninth Congress (1866)

We read the text aloud together.  We asked the students to choose and share particular sentences that stood out to them.  We asked:

What do you notice?  What strikes you?

For student responses to these questions, scroll down to Student Responses and click View More.


Student Responses

Manuscript:  “Agreement of Labor for Truss B. Hall” (1865)

LEILA:  I think if I were a worker I would feel happy and sad.  Happy that I was being paid, but sad that I was not working on my own farm and I would have to do any work that he told me to, so it is sort of being a paid slave.  And I might not really want to work for him, just I don’t have any money to buy a farm.  [If I were the boss], I would feel happy.  I have these people, they will do what I tell them to, it is almost like having slaves again.  The only down side would be I had to pay them.

For more student responses, click View More.

ELENA:  [Imagining the perspective of the boss] You might be a little annoyed that you had to pay your former slave, but if you had these slaves who you treated really badly, you’re lucky if they want to work for you now that they’re free.  …  When they freed all black slaves they were almost all functionally illiterate, and couldn’t do anything but farm.  How would it really help to free them, if they weren’t giving them opportunities, educational opportunities?

ROSE:  I would say it’s good for the boss … having uneducated workers, he can take advantage of them.

NORA:  I think I might like to work for more than a year, but I guess it’s good to have the choice to continue or not.  “… true and faithful service and obey all lawful commands as he use to when a slave.”  I wouldn’t want to be reminded of being a slave.  I wouldn’t want it to basically say, “Work as you worked when a slave,” because being a slave was probably really hard work without much mercy except that they’re now being paid.

CLARA:  If I was a boss, I wouldn’t like that I actually had to treat black people as people, not farm animals.

Manuscript:  “Contract Between James Mitchell & Dick & Wife” (1866)

LOGAN:  I was thinking that it’s an agreement of servitude of some kind, and that it was black people who were going to serve a white person, James Mitchell, because the people who are going to serve can’t sign their names, and mark an X.

NORA:  I think they’re working for him.  He has to give them food, they have to work.

ANNELIESE:  I think they’re slaves, but they’re paid.

?:  They’re servants.

ANNELIESE:  They’re servants who farm.

ROSE:  Mary and Richard don’t have last names.

NEIL:  You made a mark if you didn’t know how to write.  They’re doing the work they did when they were slaves, but they’re getting paid for it.

LOGAN:  They’ve agreed to do any kind of labor said James Mitchell may deem necessary.

LEILA:  Richard & Mary probably don’t have any money — that’s probably why they’re doing it.

TIM:  If I were James Mitchell I would push for something more.  We don’t get food from the school — we have to bring it or buy it.  I would say they have to bring their own food — I’m not providing any.  …  [Explaining why the freedmen might accept these terms:]  You have no education — you barely have a name.  …  I mean we are working ex-slaves here they are desperate.

CLARA:  … If they don’t know [they can bargain], they can’t do it.

BETHANY:  I would change it to James Mitchell furnishes clothes and doctors’ bills, since that’s one of the main things they have to worry about in freedom.

RACHEL:  I would change the same sentence the same way.  If they’re getting so little, how can they pay for those things?  They should get more, because if one generation doesn’t get enough support it could show in the next generation, and cause trouble for their children.

ROSE:  I would change, “We also agree to do any other labor.”  They shouldn’t have to do all that extra.

CLARA:  I took [that sentence] out.  If you let them control you, they’ll be working them harder and harder and harder.

?:  I wouldn’t be sure if I was that happy about performing tasks for James Mitchell whenever he wanted, because that would feel like slavery.  …  I would change “… and obey all lawful commands as he use to when a slave” to “… and obey all rules that I have agreed to.”

ESME:  If I am the mean type, I will cheat these recent slaves.  The contract never says how much food.  I only have to give them a little.  This is a good and fair contract.  (for me, not them)

CLARA: The Mary and Richard [contract] is the same thing — they have to do exactly the same thing [as the people who wrote the letter “In Behalf of the Freedmen Committee” of Edisto Island (see subtopic 5)] — work for the ex-slave owner and get paid.

OLIVIA:  Pay doesn’t substitute to make you happy — if you get paid it doesn’t make you happy or make up for not having your own land.

RACHEL:  If I were a worker, I am pretty sure that I would think that the position was lousy.  There of course would be different circumstances in different situations, but if I had a family to support, only getting meat and bread and a few barrels of grain would not be enough payment.  As mentioned in the contract, the worker would still have to pay expensive Doctor’s bills, have to get clothes and other necessities, and also I am not sure if a house is given or not, but if not, have to pay for the house too.  This would not be possible to do on such a measly salary and the worker would have to struggle to get everything that needs to be paid, paid.  I’m not sure I would even accept the contract until I got a better, more able to live on deal but a worker might not have that same choice.

As a boss, I would definitely think that I’d gotten a way for people to work for a very low price and I would be feeling happy.  The boss of the worker probably was making a lot of money off the crops workers tended and he most likely only gave workers 1/3 of what they should have earned.  That would mean that he had an easy life while workers toiled all day for him and when he felt that it was necessary he could just have the workers work outside of the crops too, which would save more time, and money too.  The way that bosses might treat workers might also not be that great even though nothing about that is mentioned in the contract and that would just be better for him overall because he wouldn’t have to worry about getting in trouble or anything like that.

If as a worker I had to choose any sentence to change in either of the contracts, I would choose the sentence from the first contract, “We are to furnish ourselves in clothing also we are to pay our own Doctors bills.”  I would choose this sentence because I just don’t find it fair with what little the worker is already getting from the boss, he should have to take a large portion of that money to pay for benefits that should have given to him.  I feel strongly about this because when people can barely support themselves because of a small income, then 1) They really just can’t pay for everything and they become majorly in debt and 2) lots of opportunities that their children could have had are now lost and those missed opportunities keep on reflecting on future generations and how things are going for them.  My revised sentence would be, “He will furnish us in clothing and he also will pay our Doctors bills.”  I would put the sentence like this to show what should be happening and also to show that the worker, who has enough troubles already without paying for clothing and Doctor bills, should not have the load of paying for everything.

Map:  “A Georgia Plantation As It Is in 1881” (1881)

JEFFREY:  There’s a church and a school in 1881.

TEACHER:  Do you see that in 1860?


BETHANY:  If you look at the outline of the plantation, they don’t own the corner where the church and school are [in 1881], and before [in 1860], they did.  It might be public.

NORA:  For the school and the church, it might have started out on the property and then they made it public.  There are names of families, some of them related.

OLIVIA:  Some lived on the plantation when slaves.  It says at the bottom.

FRANCESCA:  The gin house and the biggest house of the “HOUSE” and “QUARTERS” are still on the [1881] map.  …  Every place where there’s an asterisk is a place where someone lives that used to be a slave.

RACHEL:  The houses are so much more spread out [in 1881] than they were [in 1860].  The quarters [that were there in 1860] don’t seem to be there [in 1881].

MARTYN:  The gin house moved a little bit and got bigger.

JULIA:  That [the 1881 map] was more crowded.

TEACHER:  Which was more crowded?

MARTYN:  More developed.

JEFFREY:  In 1881 it says “woods,” like, four times….

RACHEL:  In a way you could say 1881 is more crowded, but [in 1860] there’s one area that’s closely packed.  [In 1881] at least it’s spread out.

ROSE:  There are 21 houses [in 1860], 27 [in 1881].

OLIVIA:  The [1881 map] almost seems like a town.  There’s so many houses, not too close, relevant to each other — it looks happy.  The other one is very secluded.

TEACHER:  Which one would you want to live in and why?

NEIL:  I’d live in Lem Douglass’s house, at the bottom, near the woods and river.

NORA:  Ruben Barrows, surrounded by other houses, close to the school, river, and woods.

LOGAN:  It says “woods” [in 1881] maybe because slaves used to — I don’t know what kind of plantation it was — whatever it yielded — maybe now it’s overgrown.

Text:  Excerpt from Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction at the First Session Thirty-Ninth Congress, 1866

DANIEL:  They want to make black people dependent.

CAMERON:  I thought about it, and if they were little kids they wouldn’t be working.

ALEX:  They were apprenticed.


ALEX:  Former masters.

RAVENNA:  Apprentice [usually means you’re] learning.

LOGAN:  Apprenticing is a word they used to make what they were doing sound legal.

RACHEL:  How was that even legal though?  Because you can’t force people into another job.  They’re crazy.

MARTYN:  It’s unconstitutional.

ELENA:  The constitution contradicts America until the Civil Rights movement.

TIM:  The president says it can be done or allows it to happen.  He doesn’t want anything crazy to happen on his watch so, okay, the white people are in power, what do you want?

ROSE:  Or if the state government, or even the county government — there are those two, so they might have said it was okay.  [After a pause] Did Johnson, like — did he have the same ideas as Lincoln?

JACK:  If this is happening [before the troops left and while the Freedmen’s Bureau was active], they’re obviously not doing a good job.

LEILA:  [As if explaining] The [ex-]slaves get paid a little.

TEACHER:  They get paid a little, so it’s not seen as being bad?

LEILA:  Yeah.

LOGAN:  The contracts say they will answer every command as when a slave.  [So they get paid a little to make it seem okay that they are doing the work of slaves.]

Elena:  It’s kind of a circle — if you don’t know enough not to take a bad job, then you won’t know enough not to take one, [because the bad job will keep you from learning].  It’s like slavery — [the owners say] slaves are stupid, but they’re the ones making it so that they’re stupid by not giving them learning opportunities.

Martyn:  [Makes sounds of agreement]

DANIEL:  Right after they weren’t slaves, could they have made a contract that no one could take the land unless they sell it?

JACK:  I don’t think it would matter.

TEACHER:  Why don’t you think it would matter?

JACK:  Because the white men defied the Freedmen’s Bureau.  They don’t care about laws — they just have force and power.

DANIEL:  If you get hurt when you talk back, you don’t talk back no more.

LOGAN:  The way he talked about whipping him, then having less trouble getting him to cooperate — he thought of whipping as a form of persuasion.


Teacher Narrative

Coming soon….


Additional Resources

Images and text:  Isabel C. Barrows, “Life in Southern Prisons.”  Supplement to Harper’s Weekly (August 2, 1890).

For more additional resources, click View More.

Photograph:  “Chain gang of convicts engaged in road work. Pitt County, North Carolina. Autumn 1910. The inmates were quartered in the wagons shown in the picture. Wagons were equipped with bunks and move from place to place as labor is utilized. The central figure in the picture is J.Z. McLawhon, who was at that time county superintendent of chain gangs. The dogs are bloodhounds used for running down any attempted escapes.” Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.  To view the photograph, click here.

Book:  Douglas A. Blackmon.  Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.  New York:  Doubleday, 2008.