Monday, February 21, 2011

My family, my people, and peonage

Chopping cotton on rented land near White Plains, Greene County, Ga. (LOC), Delano, Jack, photographer, 1939

After Slavery

Slave masters had become quite brutal under the system of slavery.  It would be next to impossible to expect them to refrain from reverting to force, abuse, and murder of African Americans who turned to them for work after slavery ended.  Immediately after 1865, the Southern states sought to pass strict laws known as Black Codes that were essentially very similar to the rules slaved had to live by.

How it began

Peonage originated in Spain and spread to New Mexico. On March 2, 1867 under 13th Article of Amendment, peonage became illegal in the United States. It was defined then as exchanging money in advance of the promise for labor, not a slavery. Through manipulation, money owed would increase as people were arrested for minor things like vagrancy or not having proof of employment on their person. These people are forced to work off debts against their will. See Digest of decisions of the United States courts: Volume 8 - Page 4930.

The National Archives has thousands of documented cases of peonage up to WII.  Cases have been disclosed as late as 1963. See the videos below.  Peonage researcher and genealogist, Antoinette Harrell, has worked tirelessly to bring these genealogical resources forward. 
Union troops remained in the South for a time to ensure the freedmen's rights were not violated.  African Americans made great advancements during Reconstruction until 1876. Union troops went home,  Former Democrat slave owners banded together, elections were overturned and by violence, threat, and intimidation took over.  I am very fortunate to have the sworn testimony of great great grandfather, Beverly Vance (1832-1899) of Cokesbury, Abbeville, South Carolina.  His experience is dramatic and heart wrenching.  Read it below.

Testimony of Beverly Vance after  1876 elections:

The Great Migration

Unfortunately, newly freed African Americans lost ground that they had attained in a few short years. Equally as unfortunate is the fact that many families were separated during the Great Migration. Those who were affluent enough to get out an go North did. Some never looked back.

"Passing along the street where a Negro was employed by a white man, a sympathetic observer noticed that his employer frequently kicked and cuffed the Negro when he was not working satisfactorily. '' Why do you stand this J Why do you not have this man arrested for assault?" inquired the observer. "That is just the trouble now," responded the Negro. "I complained to the court when another white man beat me, and the judge imposed upon me a fine which I could not pay, so I have to work it out in the service of this man who paid it to have the opportunity to force me to work for him." The Supreme Court of the United States undertook to put an end to such legislation in 1911 by declaring the Alabama peonage law unconstitutional, but in the many districts where there is no healthy public opinion to the contrary or where the employer is a law unto himself, peonage has continued in spite of the feeble effort of the Federal Government to eradicate the evil."   See The Negro in our history, by Carter G. Woodson, page 271
Most of my family left. My grandparents were among them. I am the first of their descendants to return. I am in search of the truth. I hope you will travel along with me as I share experiences and documentation. I will also share the experiences and words of people like Carter G. Woodson, Booker T Washington, and W. E. DuBois who worked to rid society of this awful ill.

I invite you to share your insights and successes as well. Please be sensitive to family members who may not yet be ready or willing to disclose what they know.


  1. Glad to see that this is coming out, and thank you for assisting with bringing it out!! This was a 20th century travesty still hidden from common knowledge and still largely unknown today. Many of the perpetrators still live and breathe and no reparations have been made to the victims, some of whom are still living today. Such a sad story! Let us learn the lessons of the past and create a brighter future.

  2. We are so fortunate for the work that Antoinette has contributed. The genealogical value of the records in NARA is extensive.

    I had no idea.

  3. Robin,
    Thank you once again for assisting me with this subject. It is indeed a pleasure to share the knowledge that I have been blessed with. I am happy that the Creator chose you to be a part of unfolding the hidden truth.

  4. Thank you so much Antoinette. I am truly humbled that you have felt inspired to mentor me.


  5. Robin and Antoinette,

    Thanks so much for bringing this out. I'm always learning from my fellow genealogists and bloggers.

  6. Thank you so much, Mavis. Please stay tuned. After NGS, we will continue sharing much more!


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