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Unit Seven - Gender and the Politics of Freedom
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Gender and the Politics of Freedom
The Civil War unleashed a revolution that left few areas of national life untouched. Liberation transformed what had been the largest portion of the nation's antebellum labor force - slaves - into wage workers, and planters entered into
contractual relations with those they had owned, promising however grudgingly to pay for labor services they had customarily taken by force. Individual citizens found themselves in new relationships with the state, the result of four years of war during which the national government inserted itself in new ways into areas that had once been the purview of individual states: assessing taxes, conscripting soldiers, and later, offering aid to veteran soldiers and to tens of thousands who had been displaced and impoverished by war. Political parties realigned and the Republicans, who in the 1850s had been mostly confined to eastern and northern states, swept into and across the former Confederacy, transforming the political landscape.
The revolution did not stop there. As is the case with most major conflicts, the Civil War and emancipation wrecked havoc on existing gender relations, propelling women and men into unaccustomed roles and in the process, forcing Americans - black and white, rich and poor, propertied and not - to reconsider what it meant to be a good woman, a good man, a good partner, a good parent. In the Confederacy, for example, the departure of white men to the front lines pushed white women into areas formerly reserved for men: tending crops, overseeing enslaved field hands, offering up
Sabbath-day sermons, and engaging in public and paid labor. Some enjoyed the opportunities opened by war. Others were horrified, wishing for nothing more than a return to antebellum conditions, especially as their enslaved servants laid down their tools, dropped their dish rags, and abandoned the wash tubs that stood in every yard - actions that compelled more than a few prideful white women to perform chores they still considered the work of slaves.
War and emancipation transformed the gendered lives and ideals of black Americans too. Enlistment in Lincoln's armies, for instance, changed fundamentally the ways black men thought about themselves in relation to their wives, their children, their states, and the nation. Introduced to Northern gender sensibilities as they marched alongside and fought alongside Yankee soldiers, black Southerners who served often returned home with new understandings about what it meant to be men. As new scholarship has revealed, the enlistment of men also changed how black women thought about themselves and about their social, civil, and political rights. Many, for example, believed that the sacrifice of a son or husband on a faraway battlefield bought them the right to intervene directly in political matters. For the enslaved left behind on Confederate plantations, the departure of men forced them to reconfigure themselves into wholly new domestic units, drawing together the female, the aged, the infirm, and the young in "families" of people who may or may not have been actual kin.
Gendered ideas, expectations, and experiences continued to evolve beyond the end of the war. As the documents assembled below suggest, the tumultuous circumstances of freedom rendered "gender" - those understandings about what it meant to be good women and good men - a particularly volatile set of ideas. The advent of wage labor proved especially treacherous for black women. Once prized by slaveholders for the babies they could bear, freedwomen found themselves shunted swiftly to the side, roughly dismissed by planters who could not afford - and with emancipation, no longer needed - women who could bear babies. As one Union official observed from his post in Alabama, such women along with any young children were soon "every where regarded and treated as an incubus." Yet that same devaluation of black women as agricultural wage workers thrust black men into new roles. For in seeking to survive a freedom that had turned suddenly bad, black women turned to those they knew the best for assistance: calling on their husbands, sons, and brothers to represent women's interests in a capricious and gendered labor market.
As gendered ideals and assumptions continued to evolve, shaped this time by the deeply contingent circumstances of emancipation and free labor, they were often caught up and deployed in political debate. Frequently considered one of the most "natural" of divisions, though always and everywhere the product of human creation, gender and the languages to which those ideas give rise, became commonplace weapons as black people and white jockeyed for power.
For example: military service, and the assumptions about manhood it gave rise to, provided black men with a compelling argument for the exercise of full citizenship rights. In their minds, and in the minds of most nineteenth-century Americans, they had earned that right on the battlefield.
At the same time, white conservatives, made anxious by the rising power of black men - at the bargaining table, at the voting booth, and eventually in elected office - regularly attempted to paint their opponents as female, a rhetorical strategy meant to call into question freedmen's capacity for independent political action. Women, such proponents would argue, were "naturally" dependent and for that reason "naturally" unfit for civic and political duty. Thus "gender" and the countless discussions about what it ought to mean, for whom, and why, took shape from and gave shape to nearly every aspect of social, civic, and productive life in the post-Civil War nation. The documents presented below are meant to provide a small taste of a dimension of human experience that was at one and the same time a product and a producer of new power relations.
The Social and Domestic Price of Free Labor
The end of 1865 brought with it the end of contracts that for the most part recast entire former slave labor forces as wage workers. In turn, the termination of that first round of labor agreements brought with it the requirement that planters pay their former slaves for services rendered. It was a revelation that compelled ex-slaveholders and Southern employers to quickly reconfigure their work forces. The most profitable workers, the workers they were most willing to pay wages to, were those they considered the best workers. It was a new expectation that put privileged former slaves who could split three hundred or more fence rails in a single day, lift 500-pound bales of cotton on and off wagons, and manipulate the heavy cast-iron ploughs that farmers routinely used for opening up new fields and preparing old ones for a season's crops. Thus as planters began to recruit workers for the 1866 season, they applied a new calculus-one born out of the new circumstances of freedom, and one, more over, that tended to favor black men.
In the report published below, a Freedmen's Bureau agent from Georgia's eastern cotton belt reflects on the unexpected price planters' new expectations levied against those who could not work like able-bodied men.
Eatonton Putnam Co. Ga. 25th Dec. 1865.
Sir Such a variety of cases amongst the freedmen arises that I must trouble you for instructions in regard to these at least. a part of such as have been presented & to ask for general instructions in relation to such cases as may yet arise for which no provision is made.
Some men have abandoned their old wives by whom they have several children & taken new wives & are trying to get possession of the older children who are able to assist the mother leaving the helpless ones to the mother. in such cases it is impossible for the mother to find employment which will afford subsistence There are many women whose husbands left last N[ov]. 12. months with the army of Gen. Sherman leaving the mothers with several small children, then there are many helpless and decrepid men & women whose children cannot take care of them Now where are those to be sent[?] & by what means? there are no Hospitals or Assylums here. Believing that human sagacity can not foresee all the cases that may arise out of this new state of things is the reason that general instructions & powers is asked for. In all cases not perfectly clear. It is preferred that the Agent call to his aid two intelligent men. Respectfully
[signed] Wm B Carter
Source: Wm. B. Carter to [Gen. Davis Tillson], 25 Dec. 1865, Unregistered Letters Received, ser. 632, GA Asst. Comr., RG 105.
Document 1 Questions
- It is often very easy to conceive of human life as a series of separate compartments. But as William Carter discovers, people don't actually live their lives this way, with one part labeled work, one labeled family, one labeled politics, and perhaps another labeled church or school. Instead, those different categories overlap, collide, and otherwise exist simultaneously. In reading this letter, think about the intersections that influence freedpeople's lives, the various forces that they come up against in their daily lives. In your opinion, which are the most important ones for the people of whom Carter writes?
- Is Carter surprised by these connections? How about Southern white officials? What kind of evidence supports your answer?
- One of the central stories of slavery, and later, of freedom, were the extraordinary lengths to which black women and men went to keep their families intact. In slavery, men would risk everything - including their lives - to run away from their owners in order to reunite with their wives. In freedom, parents would publish advertisements in newspapers, seeking news about children who had been sold away during slavery. Yet the black men of whom William Carter writes were choosing to abandon wives "by whom they have several children." As historians, how do we account for this? What kind of circumstances might drive husbands and fathers to "to get possession of the older children"?
Document 1 Questions (continued)
4. How do men's choices alter women's possibilities in freedom?
5. How prepared were civil authorities to assist former slaves who could not support themselves through paid work,and how do you see the choices made by magistrates, mayors, and other local officials shaping the "gendered" dimensions of freedom?
A Black Woman Imagines a Differently Gendered Working Class
Revolutionary times often prompt revolutionary responses, and nowhere was this more visible than in the months following emancipation. Rapidly changing circumstances - of politics, work, civil participation, and even weather - inspired former slaves to astonishing levels of creativity. The advent of free labor was one such revolution. Guided by ideas and experiences they had brought with them from slavery, and by the need to simply survive, freedwomen experimented with a wide range of solutions. In doing so, they often articulated very different - and novel - sets of gendered ideas, proposing new roles and responsibilities for women as they grappled with the special challenges that confronted them and their daughters in freedom. In the two letters below, Aima Ship offers instructions to her daughters, and in so doing offers a vision of a new and female working class - one whose origins can be traced back to not to shop - floor fraternities but to pre-existing domestic and affective bonds. In other words, a working class built out of kin, and in this case, female kin.
Hopkinsville Ky May 13the 1866
Dear Dear Daughter Leathe this leave me tolerble well i am doing very well as far as a home is concern i have to work no matter where i go for i have got know one to take care of me but the good Lord if i do wright he will be my support we all have to look to him to give us strength in ever thing we do it is out of my power to come to see you for i am at work trying to make somthing to take care of myself i am getting five dollars per month for my work they allow me to raise a little cotton & brum corn and several other little things Mrs Lawson has sent for me to come and live with them till i die i am going soon that is if i dont change my mind i have ben press in spirits all the time i thought i would die any how some times they have took Dorra child and bound it out to Miss Sally Husband till she is twenty one1 i did not like that way of doing i had got her a good home but they come and took her away then had her bound to him Miss Ann Ellis wants a woman to wash iron cook or do any thing that come to hand get up soon have soon breakfast one that is smart she want one that will stay at home and attend to her business work with out thinking she is doing to much she want one that is single she will treat them good if they do wright can you find her one of that kind write to her and let her know as soon as you can look around and see if you can find one that will suit miss Ann you know she want them to stay at home and do her work wright then she will pay them dont send her one she cant trust give my love to all that inquire after me Your Mother
[signed] Aima Ship
Hopkinsville Ky May the 13t 1866
Dear Adeline I am tolerble well except pain in my limbs i suffer with my feet a good deal i have to keep in good spirits to get along if i keep my health i think i can make some money to take care of myself in old age it is out of my power to come to see you all if i make a thing i must take care of it to by me a home for that is what i want i think if we all will work and save our money what we get it will soon by us a home but if we dont save it we wont have any when we want it save all you can i dont intend to spend any more of mine if can help it i have to by a pair of shoes for Sunday tell your Daughter Fany God bless her soul i think of her ever day be a good child till Grandmar come to see her she is coming a Christmas if i have good luck what are you and Leatha getting for your work i herd they was given high wages their send me what is the most they give the hands get ten dollars per month here some four & five and six and seven i would send your children preant i can trust no one write to your Brother & wife tell Leatha to come if she dont stay but a hour the woman dont stay long at a place Know if they dont do to suit they have to leave you must all come soon God bless you give my love to all your Mother
[signed] Aima Ship
Sources: Aima Ship to Leathe, 13 May 1866, and Aima Ship to Adeline, 13 May 1866, both enclosed in Col. J. R. Lewis to Bvt. Maj. C. B. Fisk, 29 June 1866, L-84 1866, Registered Letters Received, ser. 3379, TN Asst. Comr., RG 105.
Document 2 Questions
- What kind of future does Aima Ship imagine for herself, her daughters, and their children?
- By what means does Aima expect to achieve that vision? What kind of strategies does she propose?
- What kind of role has Aima assigned to herself in this new order? If you could ask him, how do you think Charles Soule (Unit 1, Document 4) would respond to Aima’s expectations? How about the authors of South Carolina's 1865 "Black Code" (Unit 3, Document 8)?
- Who are Aima's friends? Who does she trust? How do your answers help us understand terms such as "race" and "white supremacy"?
- Aima has clearly found ways to accommodate herself to free labor, but she is not uncritical of the system. What aspects of free labor as it's unfolding in the former slaveholding South does she find most egregious?
A Virginia Freedwoman Critiques the Gendered Nature of Freedom and Free Labor
The vast majority of freedwomen faced a very particular and daunting set of challenges with emancipation. Long valued by slaveholders as much (and often more) for the children they bore than for the labor they could perform, black women suddenly found themselves adrift in freedom, shunned by those who up until the end of slavery had seen their futures in black women's progeny. Indeed, so highly prized after the 1808 closing of the international slave trade were black women, that they were often the first purchases of new slaveholders. That value evaporated in freedom. What planters wanted under a free-labor system were first class or prime or "No. 1" hands: generally men and always capable of splitting three or four hundred fence raise between dawn and dark, plowing up new ground as well as hold, and performing such services on a dependable day-by-day basis. Women, especially those with nursing babies, "stay in too much & jeopardize the crop." This is not to say that planters got their way. To be sure, countless numbers of agricultural employers hired black women, but their preference for the able bodied and usually male meant that black women entered the labor market at a severe disadvantage, often working for little more than their room and board. If a woman had any children too small to be put to work, they could expect to pay out far more than their earned for the rations on which those children dined. The consequences of this "re-gendering" of the South's agricultural labor system had profound and immediate consequences. It was a stark and brutal truism captured in the document reproduced below, a letter written by a freedwoman from south-central Virginia.
[Franklin County, Va. October 1866]
As I am entirely without a home. & have tried in every direction to get one & have failed, I know not to whom to apply except the authorities at Rocky Mt
I have three little children & have no husband-consequently no one to support them; as they are not large enough to earn their own living, the eldest not being but five years old, the youngest a babe four months old. I can't find anybody that will take us on any terms, & have neither father nor Mother, brother nor sister to look to. By my labor I can't feed my children, let alone clothe them, & they have been very poorly fed, & scarcely clothed atall since I left my former Master, who is now getting old & is not able to keep & do justice to his own family. I never knew to want the necessaries of life untill since I left him. I never freed myself, & was doing well before freedom came about, since which time I have & had no one to look to, for assistance & have fared worse than I ever did in all my life & now starvation, seems at length to be the price I & my helpless children must pay for freedom, a bargain I had no hand in making- freedom is to us, but permission to go naked & starve & none to help, I have been staying at different places, wherever I could get something to eat- I have been indebted to the charity of those to whom I applied for subsistence for my living up to now-but have had no clothes & as cold weather approaches I know not whither to turn my head.
I had a good master, but he has now to support his own family, by his own labor, & can't afford to rear my children & keep me any longer. And now to you I apply to know what I must do.
All these statements I can prove if necessary by both black & white folks.
[signed] Gillie Arrington
Source: Statement of Gillie Arrington, [Oct. 1866], enclosed in Lt. W. F. De Knight to Bvt. Brig. Genl. O. Brown, 31 Oct. 1866, ser. 3802, Narrative Reports of Conditions of Bureau Affairs, VA Asst. Comr., RG 105.
Document 3 Questions
- What kind of problems does Gillie face? What kind of solutions has she looked for?
- What does Gillie mean when she writes about "freedom, a bargain I had no hand in making"? Was freedom an agreement? If it was, who did have a hand in making that agreement and what does your answer reveal about the gendered dimensions of the world Gillie saw herself occupying?
- What do we learn about such issues as race and racism from Gillie's offer to provide statements "from both black & white folks"?
- How does Gillie's critique of free labor help us think about the relationship we see between slavery and freedom? Is Gillie a big fan of freedom? Why or why not? What does that in turn reveal about how she conceived of slavery?
- If some of Gillie's ideas make us uncomfortable, does that mean that we as historians can disregard her words altogether? Why or why not?
A Freedwoman's Civil and Domestic Expectations
As the realities of the free-labor system shifted the terrain under black women's feet, many responded by turning to their nearest kin for support. In doing so, they called into being new understandings among former slaves about what it meant to be a good husband, a good wife, and a good child. We find evidence of these new gender ideals and expectations in the emergence of family-based labor contracts, particularly those brokered by black men (see below, Document 5). We find evidence in single mothers' heavy reliance on the earning power of older children, a dependency that sparked often violent child custody battles in the early years of freedom. We also find evidence in the charges aggrieved wives brought against philandering husbands. As Chloe Gay made clear to the Freedmen's Bureau agent at Wilmington, North Carolina, abandonment was a deadly serious business, one that threatened women and children's very survival.
Decr 13th 
Lieutenant A Freedwoman named Chloe Gay, who was sent from this City with her children, at Government expense to join her husband at Jackson Northampton County: writes me, that her husband has taken up with another woman, and refuses to support her, and that he is trying by threats to force her to leave Jackson and return to this City. If Northhampton County is included in your District, will you please see what can be done for the woman. If not in your District will you please refer to the officer in charge of said County.
[signed] Allan Rutherford
Source: Lieut. Allan Rutherford to Lieut. John M. Foote, Dec. 13, , M1909 (Records of the Field Offices for the State of North Carolina, 1865-1872), RG 105: Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands
Document 4 Questions
- What concerns Chloe Gay the most about her husband's abandonment? What is she afraid of losing?
- What does it mean that Chloe seeks assistance from an official with the Freedmen's Bureau? How does that decision help us understand Chloe's ideas about women's civil and legal rights in the post-slavery nation? Are these ideas that the editor of the Raleigh Semi-Weekly Standard would support? (See below, Document 9) Why or why not?
- One of the questions that has puzzled historians of family life, concerns the boundary between "public" and "private," and where it is located. If you were to ask Chloe where to draw that line, could she? Aand if so, where would it lie? What would Chloe's "response" tell us about her relationship to the state: the uses to which women might put it, and the kind of role it should play in black people's lives?
A Husband Shoulders a New, Free-Labor Duty
With planters exhibiting a strong preference for able-bodied male laborers, a population whose experiences in slavery and sometimes in war better prepared them to seek out job possibilities and to drive hard bargains, women frequently called on their husbands and fathers to broker labor agreements for them. Under slavery, it had been freedmen, for example, who had traveled the roads most often on their owners' business, a phenomenon that both they and freedwomen understood better positioned them to know what kind of wage was a good wage, and what kind of boss was a good boss. When the alternative was the same grim scenario faced by Gillie Arrington (see above, Document 3), freedwomen were rarely reluctant to avail themselves of freedmen's assistance. In the following contract, which was drawn up in the rural cotton belt of southwest Georgia, an area not dissimilar to the cotton plantation districts of upcountry South Carolina, a husband enters into a wage labor agreement on behalf of his wife, Henrietta.
[Worth County, Georgia], March 12, 1867
Articles of agreement entered into this the twelth day of March 1867. between Fannie E. Lippitt of the County of Worth and state of Georgia - on the first part and Ben Holmes (Freedman) of same county and state of the second part - Witnesseth - that for considerations - hereinafter, mentioned - she the said Fannie E. Lippitt doth promise and agree to pay the said Ben Holmes on the twenty fifth day of December - next - the sum of ten dollars per month from date - for the hire of Henrietta - Freedwoman - his wife, and to furnish - rations to the said Henrietta - for the same period, And he the said Holmes - and - his wife Henrietta - doth promise and agree - that the said Henrietta - shall Cook Wash and Iron and render such other - service - as may be - reasonably required of her. promising to be respectful and obedient; In testimony whereof - both here - hereunto affixed their names - the day and date above mentioned,
[signed with his mark] "X" Ben Holmes
[signed] Fanney E Lippitt
Source: Contract between Fanney E. Lippitt and Ben Holmes, 12 Mar. 1867, Lippitt Papers, Thronateeska Heritage Foundation, Albany, Georgia.
Document 5 Questions
- What kind of terms does Ben Holmes exact from Fanney Lippitt? In other words, what kind of work will Henrietta be performing, and how and in what amount will she be compensated for that work?
- How do the terms of this contract compare to those freedwomen were able to get when they represented themselves? (See, for example, above, Document 2, and below, Document 10.)
- Who collects the wage at year's end, and how does that complicate our understanding of these new gender relations? What sort of historical circumstance might have prompted Ben and Fanney to include that clause in the contract? In what ways do you see this clause affecting the distribution of power between husband and wife?
- Where is Henrietta in this conversation? What does your answer reveal about the relationship between Henrietta and Ben, and especially, how Henrietta seemed to understand that role?
The Problems of Family-based Labor
Ben Holmes was not alone in brokering a labor agreement for his wife, Henrietta. As the first year of freedom drew to a close, freedmen across the former Confederacy demanded that agricultural employers especially accept freedwomen and their children back onto their plantations.
On the one hand, these family-based labor agreements were a boon to those ex-slaveholders had and continued to curse as an "incubus" among them. Such agreements gave women and children homes to live in, food to eat, and in the case of able-bodied women who were not obliged to tend to small children, sometimes even a small wage. These were not insignificant advantages in the rural South, a place where the only real alternative for black women was what Gillie Arrington faced: homelessness and starvation. Yet in taking women and their small children back onto their estates, planters were not signaling a change of heart and as the report below suggests, it was a situation that could turn sour at any moment.
[Columbia, S.C.,] May 31, 1867
Destitution seems to be on the increase... There is a large class who are really in a destitute condition, but to whom I have not felt authorized under existing instructions to issue [rations to]. These are where the Father and older children are employed by planters on a contract for a share in the crop, but having a large number of children too young to labor and requiring the mother's attention thereby keeping her from working. Those of the family who labor are provided by the planters, but the scanty earnings of last year have now been consumed by the non-producers and they suffer.
[Planters] feel disposed only to feed the laborers, as in almost every instance they have pledged animals and lands to secure the factors who make them the necessary advances
to enable them to make the crop, and in many instances paying ruinous rates some as high as eighteen percent for these advances.
Source: [illegible] Greene to HW Smith, 31 May 1867, M869 (Records of the Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina), RG 105: Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands
Document 6 Questions
- What motivates the planters? What is they are trying to achieve? How do those expectations and actions impact on freedpeople's lives? To what extent, and why, might we consider these work place problems "gendered" problems?
- What is the role of the market - in animals, seed, and supplies as well as in labor - in creating the conditions that in turn, created the female and youthful population of paupers of which Greene writes? To what extent then, and why, should we consider the market a potentially "gendered" institution?
- Thinking forward, imagine how scenarios such as the one Greene describes might shape the kind of political demands black farmer workers would make under Radical Reconstruction? What can you see rural black voters wanting from their new governments? Would their demands necessarily be shared by all former slaves everywhere? Why or why not?
Enlistment in the Lincoln's army transformed black men's worlds. Horizons stretched, circles of acquaintances grew, knowledge multiplied when the formerly enslaved donned Union blue, took up arms, and eventually for many, marched into battle. Black soldiers experienced much during their terms of service, encountering everything from Northern racism (most visibly manifested in grossly unequal pay rates) to pencils and primers in the schools Northern volunteers conducted for soldiers in camp. Black soldiers' contact with those Northerners - other soldiers, teachers, officers, clergymen, and the like - also introduced many of them to new ideas about what women and men ought to be and do: as citizens, as producers, as producers, and as partners. When enlistments expired and black soldiers turned toward home, they carried those ideas and experiences with them, conveying them in turn to those who had been left behind. As the document below further suggests, some of those returning soldiers put what they had learned in war to political use in freedom.
[Edisto Island, S.C.,] June 30, 1867
* * * * * * * * * *
For some time past there has been a disposition on part of the Freedmen in some parts of this District to form Military Organizations: regularly enlist their members and most of them for life.
All such organizations disbanded without trouble, upon my calling for the leaders and informing them of the consequences of persisting in such a course, except one company formed on Fenwick's Island on the plantation of Maj. J Jenkins and co., where one hundred laborers are employed. I visited this company, called together the reputed officers and directed them to disband, and not compel me to impose on them the severity of law. This they positively refused doing: stating they had orders from competent authority requiring them to form such organizations and they would continue to act under their instructions until compelled to disband by force of arms. They acted towards my directions in a very defiant manner; they positively refused to obey the directions of their employers (against whom they offered no complaint) but complained that any interference on part of the Government with their organizations and drilling, was a retrenchment of their rights and privileges. Their conduct had completely disorganized labor on that Island, and an utter failure of the crops was imminent.
I sent the detachment of my Guard and arrested seven of the principal actors and sent them to Charleston to the Post Commandant, with charges against them. I consider it necessary for the prosperity of this District, that prompt action be taken and an example be made of a few, in order that the contagion does not spread. I have, in every case and found that the leaders and prominent actors in these organizations, are men who have served as volunteers in the Federal Army, and their influence is doubly strong: the freedmen look on them as being instructed in the laws of the country: and also possessed of courage and valor to bear them through these undertakings should a trial at arms be necessary to preserve the life of their organizations.
* * * * * * * * * *
Source: James M. Johnston to Lieutenant H. Neide, June 30, 1867; M869 (Records of the Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina), RG 105: Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands
Document 7 Questions
- What does military service mean to the black men of Edisto Island? What kind of rights and responsibilities accrue to those who serve?
- How do men's changing understandings of themselves affect women's place and women's roles in Edisto society?
- What can we learn from Johnston's response to the marching about his own understandings about manhood? From the evidence presented here, how do you think Johnston would define a good man?
- Johnston links prosperity to the absence of drilling. What do we make of that connection? How does it help us think about the kind of tensions that existed between Northern gender assumptions and those shared among the black Edisto Islanders?
- Thinking forward, how might the tensions visible in Johnston's critique of black men drilling affect Radical Reconstruction and alliances between black and white Republicans?
Clashing Ideas about Gender and Political Rights
Given that gender - the term we use to denote the bundles of ideas we hold about what it means to be a woman and a man - takes its shape within very specific historical circumstances, it stands to reason that the Northerners who went south during or immediately after the war, were frequently surprised and sometimes dismayed by the kinds of gendered ideas held by the former slaves. In the following excerpt, Laura M. Townes, a native of Pennsylvania who spent thirty-eight years working among the freedpeople of lowcountry South Carolina, reports on a series of exchanges that took place shortly after the national congress extended the franchise to Southern black men.
[Port Royal, S.C.,] June 1, 1867
The people are just now in a state of great excitement over their right to vote, and are busy forming a Republican Party on the island. At their first meeting they had an informal time; at the second there was some business done. Our school was invited to sing at this one, and it seemed the main attraction. But two or three [Northern] white men - one of them Mr. [Gideon] Wells - got up and said women and children ought to stay home on such occasions. He afterwards sent us an apology, saying he had no idea of including us or our school, but only outsiders who were making some noise. Nevertheless, the idea took.
To-day in church Mr. [John] Hunn announced another meeting next Saturday. "The females must stay at home?" asked Demas [a black man] from the pulpit. "The females can come or not as they choose," said Mr. Hunn, "but the meeting is for men voters." Demas immediately announced that "the womens will stay at home and cut grass," that is, hoe the corn and cotton fields - clear them of grass! It is too funny to see how much more jealous the men are of one kind of liberty they have achieved than of the other. Political freedom they are rather shy of, and ignorant of; but domestic freedom - the right, just found, to have their own way in their families and rule their wives - that is an inestimable privilege! In slavery the woman was far more important, and in every way held higher than the man. It was the woman's house, the children were entirely hers, etc., etc. Several speakers have been here who have advised the people to get the women into their proper place - never to tell them anything of their concerns etc., etc.; and the notion of being bigger than woman generally, is just now inflating the conceit of the males to an amazing degree. When women get the vote, too, no people will be more indignant than these, I suppose.
Source: Rupert Sargent Holland, ed., The Letters and Diary of Laura M. Towne: Written from the Sea Islands of South Carolina, 1862-1884, pp. 184-185.
Document 8 Questions
- Who was the first person to ban women from the political meetings? What does this tell us about middle-class Northerners' ideas about gender and the appropriate roles for women and men?
- But were those ideas necessarily shared among all the Northerners who lived and labored at Port Royal? What does Laura Townes' response to the proposed ban tell us about the kind of civil and political role she admired and aspired to as a woman? Were her expectations in line with those as expressed by Gideon Welles and John Hunn?
- How did the "advise" offered by Northerners to the former slaves affect the latter group's understanding about appropriate gender roles? Why do you think the freedmen listened? What historical events might have induced them to change their minds?
- What is it that the black women appeared to want and to expect? What do we learn about their gendered understandings from this excerpt? How do you suppose they responded to the ban proposed by the men?
- People choose what to write, and for a person as busy as Laura Townes, writing was by necessity a very selective process. That said, why might she have devoted an entire journal entry to the question about women's presence at political meetings when she could have written about countless other things, or not written at all?
Playing Politics with Gender
Those who engage in political debate have always availed themselves of gendered language. As a purportedly "natural" condition, understandings about those who are dependent provide leverage to those who want to present themselves in the equally as "natural" role of spokesman and protector. At the same time, representing a political opponent in dependent terms (which in nineteenth-century American usually meant casting that opponent in feminine or childlike terms) could also buttress claims to power. The editor of the Raleigh, North Carolina, Semi-Weekly Standard attempts to do both in the clipping below.
The Yankees in Elizabeth City.
We publish below, as we promised to do in our last, some extracts from a letter written by a lady of Elizabeth city to her husband, who is absent from that place on duty outside the Yankee lines. Comment on these extracts is unnecessary. They will excite the liveliest sympathy for that devoted town, and the deepest indignation against our enemies, who have even gone so far as to arm our slaves to aid them in their work of spoliation, insult, and devastation:-
I have been thinking for sometime whether or not I should let you know the true condition of affairs in this part of the world, and after mature deliberation have concluded that I had better do so, although I know it will cause you great uneasiness. But I think, after all, you had better hear it from me than from any one else.
In the first place, we have suffered more or less ever since the 'Buffaloes' have been quartered here. I have mentioned some of the acts of their Captain (Saunders) in letters heretofore written you, but from some cause, I know not what, it means you have not received them. Well, matters have gradually been growing worse all the while, until at length the people resolved they would stand it no longer. On Monday night last, as Capt. Saunders and Joe McCabe (you know the miscreant,) were on their way to a negro party, some seven or eight persons assembled behind the bricks, near Nichols Hotel, or rather the place where it once stood, fired at them and killed both. One of the assailants ran in the direction of our house, jumped over our yard fence and ran under the house. A shot was fired after him, which struck the house and frightened us very much. Utter confusion and terror prevailed. The whole town in a few minutes was filled with excitement, and alarm. The house was almost immediately surrounded by armed negroes, but they made no attempt to enter it. The next day it was reported that you were here, and last night one of the men accompanied by seven negroes came to search the house for you. It was about 8 o'clock. We had to get up and dress, and when I opened the door, the first object I saw, was a negro armed with a musket. You may be sure I was angry. The white man, whose name is Fowler, and I am told a deserter from your company, apologized for his intrusion, but she he was compelled to obey orders.
I told him I could not imagine how so ridiculous a report got in circulation; but said I, you may rest assured that if Mr. ------ were here you would require a much better guard than you have to arrest him. He said he did not know about that, you might find your match. I cannot describe my feelings; but I endeavored to restrain them, knowing we were in their power; but oh my dear, it is hard to bear.
This morning they pronounced all the negroes free and called for three hundred volunteers. They have armed about two hundred, and we know not where it will end.- The brother of Saunders, who commanded the Buffaloes in Camden, has come here to take charge, and vows to be revenged. While I am writing, heavy cannonading is going on below. I do know whether they intend shelling the town or not. But my trust is in God. To Him alone do I look for help and succor in these perilous times. Oh, that He may protect us against the cruel, and malignant purposes of our enemies.
I do not think any place has suffered more than Elizabeth City bids fair to suffer. A number of our citizens have been arrested, Messrs. Whedbee, Dawson, Kellenger and A. I. Butt among the number. Several gentlemen from the county are also in arrest, but I have not learned their names. Mr. Whedbee was released this morning, but the others I am told are in irons, and some say they are to be hung. Oh! that Gov. Vance would send some troops here to our assistance. I believe he will do so if it is in his power. I can get along with every thing but the negroes, but must confess that I am afraid of them. Mine thus far are at home and act as usual, but I understand the Yankees say that those who do not go to them voluntarily, they intend to take.
Friday, January 9th.
I commenced several days ago writing this letter, as you will perceive by the date, but the bomb-shells flew so fast, and there was so much confusion in the town, I was compelled to stop. Our enemies are determined to give us all the trouble in their power. Never, never, has such trouble been seen here before. Our citizens had a meeting to-day to try and prove to Capt. Saunders, the brother of the one that was killed, that they knew nothing about the matter; but he said he would not believe every man, woman and child in the place, though they might swear to it. The next morning a notice was stuck up requiring every male inhabitant over sixteen years of age to take the oath of allegiance, to the Lincoln government, or leave the place. Hence the trouble. A great many have not the means of taking their families with them, and are afraid to leave them behind.- I went out to-day for the first time in three weeks, and I assure you the appearance of the men of our town startled me. They look as though they have been sick for weeks upon weeks. Not a smile was to be seen upon a single face. If those who are so ready to call this a 'Union hole' could be here now, they would be compelled to change their opinions. No people are more loyal to their government than the people of Elizabeth City. Nothing but the sternest necessity will ever induce them to take the hateful oath, and all who can, will leave the place. But oh! it is heart rending for them to think for a moment of leaving their wives and daughters at the mercy of armed negroes. No one can blame them for refusing to do so. They say if there was a regiment of Yankees here they would know precisely what to do, but they can't consent to leave them with negroes. The Lord help us, for vain is the help of man.
* * * * * * * * * *
Sunday Night, January 11th.
I promised you the other the other [night?] that if any thing worth mentioning occurred before I met with an opportunity of sending this letter to you, I would let you know it. I think, if possible, our troubles increase. I am at my wit's end to know what to do for the best. A great many of our people are going to leave, and the probability is, that the place will again be deserted. Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Whedbee, Mr. Overcase, and many others talk of going to Norfolk.- They are compelled to leave between this time and next Friday, or take the oath. The people are nearly crazy.- The Buffaloes are constantly expecting guerillas, and say if they come the town will be shelled. A great many ladies went to see Capt. Saunders this morning, but got no satisfactory assurances from him. I would not go, for I intend to ask no favors of him. I know it would be useless, for I could place no reliance in any promises they might make.
* * * * * * * * * *
You say in your last letter that we may yet lose all we have of this world's goods. Very true. I think we are in a fair way to lose it all very soon. The negroes are all declared free, and I expect ours to leave me every day.- ------ has changed very much, and spends most of his time at the water with the Buffaloes. I asked him yesterday if he was going to leave, and he said he had'nt 'strictly made up his mind. I told him he must make it up and that quickly, for I did not intend feeding him unless he did my work.------ told me to-day that he thought his labor was worth more than his victuals and clothes. I told him then to go elsewhere and work. I have no doubt but that they will all leave sooner or later, but it gives me no trouble. Since I have seen them armed I almost despise the whole race. I had rather cook and wash all my days than bear with their consequential airs and intolerable insolence.
Mr. Griffin's negroes made a plot to kill him the other night, and he had to fly for his life. He took his family and went to Hertford, but had to leave everything behind him.
* * * * * * * * * *
This is a poor return to make for your cheerful, hopeful letter, but I have tried to give you a true statement of affairs, knowing that the news will reach you through other channels, and will probably be made ten times worse than it really is."
Source: Raleigh, N.C., Semi-Weekly Standard, Jan. 1, 1868
Document 9 Questions
- This is obviously a letter written shortly after Union forces arrived in Elizabeth City, N. C. in February 1862. Why do you think the editor of the Semi-Weekly Standard chose to print it nearly six years later, on January 1, 1868?
- Who are the "good people" in this letter? Who are the "bad people"? What kind of language does the author use to distinguish between those two groups?
- Are all the bad guys equally as bad? Why or why not?
- According to the author, what are the town's white male residents most afraid of? Why? How does your answer help you understand the author's gender sensibilities? (In other words, how does your answer help you understand what to the author constituted a good woman and a good man?)
- How does the author depict black people? What kind of civil, political, and economic role does she imagine for them? Why do you think she only refers to black men?
- The author of the letter was clearly addressing her remarks to her husband. Who do you think the newspaper editor was hoping would read the piece when he published it on New Year's Day 1868? What kind of lessons about gender, race, and civic order do you think the editor was hoping his readers would draw from this letter?
- Is the author, and by extension, the editor of the Semi-Weekly Standard making a political argument? Why or why not?
- If the editor published this letter in an effort to create a particular kind of world - one governed by very specific understandings about the relations between men and women, black and white, capital and labor - what does that suggest about the realities of 1868?
A Black Minister Proposes a Collective Solution to Freedom's Gendered Problems
Black women with close male kin - husbands, fathers, brothers, and working-aged sons - looked to them for assistance as they struggled to come to terms with free-labor's unevenly gendered terrain. Though they frequently met with the kind of challenges described above (see above, Document 6), they were fortunate compared to women and children who had no one but themselves to depend on. In communities across the former Confederacy, black Southerners stepped up to assist those who could not help themselves, and who ex-slaveholders so emphatically no longer wanted. Sometimes that help took the form of donations of cash or supplies of food from churches and various charitable institutions. But with many former slaves - male as well as female - teetering on the edge of their own destitution, assistance took more diminutive and short-term form: perhaps a bed to sleep, a few cast-off clothes, or perhaps a meal or two. Such contributions were enormous relative to the wealth of those who made them, but they rarely lifted the indigent for more than a few moments. In the letter below, a committee of black men suggests a more substantive kind of assistance when they offer their services to those among who found it difficult to find employment on their own. Like so much else that emerged out of freedom's dynamic context, it was a plan shot through with gendered ideas and assumptions.
Beatties pond, Lincolnton county north carolina, January 4th 1869
Dear Sir I take my pen in hand this morning to drop you a few lines, hoping you will agree with me in my Undertaking by the Benevolence of the people and by assisttance of the omnipotent God we elected You for our Governer for the State of N.C. we form our Selfs in Sosieties and Ligues &C and elected you, and Genrl grant, and Colfax and all of the Radicals officials and our Ligue has made a Cunclusion to write you this precep, the is a grate many Womens and Childrens and boys going a Bout working for people and dont know how to make a Bargain and they is not giting theyr Rights by a grate dail. this is going on in this Section of the Country to a full extence, and we want to know If Some of the Best men of our Ligue Could Stand as garddians for all Such people in our Reach not let them make a bargain them Selfs but Some of us go and make it for them and see that they git the money &C governer it is desspert the way Some of our Coler is treated and we hav a feeling for our Race and Coler, and we want to Stop Some of this intreatment, and If you please Sir gave us Some information a bout this all important matter, as we is a ignarent and down troden and yet opresed Race of Coler, 12 of us made this agreement in the neighborhood of Beattes Pond hopeing you will assist us in Standing gardains for Some of this Colord Race.
please dont think Strange my Writeing I am a poor Color man dont know much, but please try and make out this Stamering hand, and write to me by next mail. when you write please direc to Beatties Pond in Care of Samuel Lewis.
please write to me Soon and let us know
I Shill close by Saying I reman yours truly in hart
[signed] Rev. Samuel Lewis
Source: Rev. Samuel Lewis M.E. to W. W. Holden, 4 Jan. 1869, box 3, Correspondence, Governor Holden Papers, North Carolina Department of Archives, Raleigh, N.C.
Document 10 Questions
- When Samuel Lewis writes that "we form our Selfs in Sosieties and Ligues &C," of whom is he speaking? Who is the "we" in this context? How and why is it that they came together? What do your answers tell us Lewis' gendered understandings and their origins?
- In Lewis's mind, what kind of relationship should prevail between women and men? How do you think Aima Ship might respond to this? (See above, Document 2) How about Louisa Durant? (See Unit 1, Document 9.)
- How might employers and prospective employers respond to Samuel Lewis's proposal? Would it complicate or confirm their own gendered thinking - about black men as well as black women?
- For analytical reasons, scholars often create categories, thinking and writing in terms of "economy," "politics," "family," "race," and "gender," and so forth as if they were independent entities. Is this how Samuel Lewis and the people of Beatties Ford experience their day-to-day lives? Why or why not?
A Southern White Woman Reflects on New Circumstances, a New Identity
Black women and men were not the only Southerner whose understandings about women and men - what they should be, what they should do - changed in dramatic ways during the early years of freedom. The political, social, and economic earthquake that rattled freedpeople's lives and ideas, rattled the lives and ideas of those who had once owned them. Reconstruction, as the anonymous author of the letter below admits, extended beyond the South's fields and into the recesses of white people's homes. Published in the Rural Carolinian in 1869, the letter reveals the kind of changes emancipation wrought in an urban home, and how, as a result of those changes, women came to embrace new roles, and new senses of self.
LETTERS FROM A HOUSEKEEPER--I
MY DEAR CARRIE: You ask me to tell you all about my house and my housekeeping; how I have furnished my rooms, how I cook, and what we eat; How I manage my servants, and so on. Well, that is more than I can do in one letter, but I will here make a beginning, and in future letters try to give you and idea of Southern life as it is "since the war," or at least of our "reconstructed" housekeeping.
* * * * * * * * * *
Well, this house which looks so big and grand, with its broad verandas, has only four square room, two on each floor, with a pantry off on the first floor and a dressing room on the second. When I first moved into it, it seemed sombre and gloomy, but a little scrubbing, a little whitewash, and a little paint has put a new face upon it, and I am now quite in love with the place. It looks home-like and cheerful, and I feel some pride in the part I have played in the work of transformation. You imagine me surrounded by servants, Dinah, Milly, Topsy, and the rest, with Sam for a gardener and Bill for an errand boy. My dear Carrie, you are thinking of things as they were before the war. Nous avons changé tout à la, or rather the Yankees and the niggers have changed all that. You think us a poor, dependent, helpless set of people. So we were, perhaps, but we are no longer so. For the proof come and see us and judge for yourself.
In the first place we, like thousands of others, have abandoned the out-door kitchen once universal among us. We turned ours into a wood shed, coal house and workshop. So the first thing was the put up a nice cooking range in the dining-room, which for the present must serve as kitchen and dining-room in one. I might tell you of an amusing story of the awkward negro fellow who undertook to put up the range, and after cutting two ugly holes in the chimney, failed to get the stove pipe in the flue, and the smoking we got when we attempted to build a fire - but no matter, we got it all right at last, and it draws finely.
Well, we "accept the situation," as the politicians say; and, as you will readily believe when I tell you, that I do my own cooking in this "reconstructed" dining-room, superseding Milly, who has been exiled to one of the cabins in the yard, and is retained merely as laundress, while Katy does the scrubbing and house-cleaning and other rough work.
In the dining-room I have put up dark-green paper shades to the four windows, furnished it with a pine table, a side-table, which I covered with oil-cloth, which comes a yard square, some nice, substantial chairs, a lounge, a rocking chair, a good hemp carpet, and, on the mantle, a handsome little clock. The dining-table I have covered with a home-made cloth, a piece of my own handiwork. It is made of black broadcloth, to fall over the edge of the table some eight or ten inches, and is braided with woollen braid, a lighter shade than the cloth, in a neat pattern. The woollen braid looks very well. Flannel may be used instead of broadcloth. This is the way you do it:
Transfer the intended design to French tissue paper; paste the edges of the paper on the cloth; sow on the orange braid (if you have two colors, say orange and green) with fine silk of the same color; tear off all the paper, and sew the remaining color of braid on close to the orange. This will make a pretty cover for a table, piano, melodeon, or on a cheaper scale, a pine table.
Shall I tell you how I circumvented a sly old rat whom no trap could catch and no cat pounce upon, and a countless and every where present host of little red ants at the same time, and by means of one simple contrivance? Well, I got a strong tin box made, with a suitable fastening to the cover, and a grated shelf inside, on which to keep my eatables.
Mr. Rat was left out in the cold. For a defence against the ants, I had it made with four legs, each of which is set in a saucer of water. This is the only sure remedy for the ant pest that I have found--and ants are a terrible nuisance here.
About my qualifications as a practical cook, I suspect you are skeptical. Somebody else, who ought to know, thinks I am a famous housewife.
Do you not know that I have lived in Florida, "roughed it" in a log cabin, and learned how to make much out of little? My dinners might not suit a pampered epicure; but I can truly say that due justice is generally done them when on the table. Wouldn't you like to know what we had for dinner today? I am not going to tell you, but one dish I am sure must be new to you, so I will give you my recipe:
POTATO PAN-PIE.--I take four or five large sweet potatoes, pare and cut in small pieces, and boil till cooked through. Pour off the water and put them in a baking dish, then put in three heaping table spoonful's of sugar, a tablespoonful of butter, a little salt, an little nutmeg, and last, a cup of cold water; then make a crust like piecrust, but much thicker, and just large enough to cover the dish; cut a slit in the crust, and put it on top of the potatoes, and bake till a light brown. This dish is not a fancy one for a light dessert, but a good substantial part of a meal, and is pronounced excellent. I could fill a letter, (and perhaps I may one of these days,) with the different ways of preparing our best of all vegetables--the sweet potato, but for the present I must close.
Yours, as ever,
Source: Rural Carolinian 1:3 (Dec. 1869): 190-191.
Document 11 Questions
- Marie writes of her "reconstructed" household. What does she mean by that? What has been "reconstructed" and in what ways?
- In this process of Reconstruction, Marie has changed, but in what ways?
- How has Marie's personal transformation changed the way she thinks about herself and her place in social and family life?
- Why do you think Marie closed her letter with a recipe for sweet potato pie? What kind of message do you think she's trying to convey about not just gender, but race and labor and politics too?
- Why do you think the editor of the Rural Carolinian chose to publish this letter? Who do you think his target audience was, and what do you think he wanted that audience to learn from Marie's letter?
This ends Unit Seven.
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Unit Eight: Planters, Poor Whites and White Supremacy