The Emancipation Proclamation, which was signed in 1863, officially freed enslaved African-Americans in the United States. However, much of the United States was not in Union control at the time, and most of the enslaved population remained in bondage until well after the conclusion of the Civil War. The institution of slavery itself was not completely abolished until the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment in December of 1865.
Unidentified African American family portrait, rc04147. Florida Memory. State Archives of Florida.
A number of freed people moved to towns and cities in the south during Reconstruction. Urban areas provided more economic opportunities for African-American workers, although they were still relegated only menial labor. Women could usually find domestic or cleaning jobs in the city. Men could find work as blacksmiths, bricklayers, or carpenters if they had learned these skills while enslaved. Work could also be found as barbers or waiters (Kelley and Lewis 2000:261). One of the best jobs available to men at the time was as a railroad porter. Although this was still a menial position, it offered better pay and an opportunity to travel the country—an opportunity otherwise unheard of for African-Americans in this time period. However, all African-American workers were expected to work longer hours for less pay, and in poorer conditions, than white workers. Even so, the move to the city had undeniable benefits. City work, for example, paid cash on a regular basis, while farm workers didn’t receive payment until their crops were grown, harvested, and sold. Cities also provided more social opportunities, and allowed children the opportunity to attend school more regularly. (Hine et al. 2006:355)
African American Laborers in Cotton Field. rc04733. Florida Memory. State Archives of Florida.
In many cases, for those who were unable or unwilling to leave the countryside, the only option was to remain in impoverished and war-torn rural areas as sharecroppers or renters on former plantation lands owned by whites. Because freed people generally had no land of their own, the practice of sharecropping became a prevalent way of life during the years of Reconstruction. A landowner would allow a family or group to live on and work a small tract of land, and provided them with the tools to do so. This work was self-directed, as opposed to being directed by a white overseer, which meant that families could make their own choices regarding resources and labor (Kelley and Lewis 2000:260). In return, the sharecropper would owe the landlord a portion of the year’s crop—often as much as one-half to three-fourths. Renting was sometimes another option. Renting was still a deal with a landowner, but renters paid a set amount of money, or a set portion of their crop, in order to rent a tract of land. Renters often owned their own tools and animals, and were slightly less dependent on landowners. (Hine et al. 2006:356)
African-American family and their log cabin, rc05798. Florida Memory. State Archives of Florida.
Even so, the life of a sharecropper was often little better than that of a slave. Because contracts between sharecroppers and landowners were almost always verbal, it was easy for landowners to take advantage of their tenants—taking more than a fair share of the year’s harvest, hardly leaving enough for a family to scrape by. Because sharecroppers were totally dependent on landowners for land and the tools with which to work it, they were not in a position to dispute the landowner’s prices or practices. (Hine et al. 2006:356)
Landowners were not the only force black farmers struggled against. They often found themselves indebted to local merchants, who would advance supplies on credit and then charge unreasonably high prices and interest rates; and if a farmer was unable to pay a merchant back, the merchant could take it out of the farmer’s crop… once the landowner had been paid, of course. This cycle of indebtedness to crooked landowners and merchants became another kind of enslavement, called peonage. Farmers were unable to make a profit, and in order to survive had to drive themselves deeper and deeper into debt; they could not leave the land until all debts were paid. (Hine et al. 2006:356)
Yet even with these odds and more stacked against them, black families began to purchase their own land, and by 1900 “more than 100,000 black families owned their own land in the eight states of the deep South… Black land ownership increased more than 500 percent between 1870 and 1900” (Hine et al. 2006:357). Most of these holdings were about 20 acres, but some freed people owned extensive estates, such as J.D. McDuffy’s 800-acre farm in the Ocala area, or Daniel Webster Wallace’s 10,000-acre cattle ranch in Texas (2006:357).
African American family at their log cabin home, rc09568. Florida Memory. State Archives of Florida.
Note the banjo held by the man seated in the front! Enslaved Africans in the United States are credited with the invention of the banjo, which was based on hide-covered, gourd-bodied stringed instruments from their homelands. This is just one example of the many ways African-American musical traditions and innovations have influenced mainstream American music.
Hine, Darlene Clark, with William C. Hine and Stanley Harrold.
2006 The African-American Odyssey. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.
Kelley, Robin D.G. and Earl Lewis
2000 A History of African Americans to 1880.New York: Oxford University Press.
-Colburn, David R., and Jane L. Landers, eds.
1995 The African American Heritage of Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
-Jones, Maxine D., and Kevin M. McCarthy
1993 African Americans in Florida: An Illustrated History. Sarasota: Pineapple Press.
-McCarthy, Kevin M.
2007 African American Sites in Florida. Sarasota: Pineapple Press.
-Smith, John David
1998 Black Voices from Reconstruction, 1865-1877. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.