Skip Navigation

Make A Reservation:

4 Charles Prime Rib
Au Cheval New York
Bavette's (Chicago)
Gilt Bar
Maude's Liquor Bar
'Even in Arcadia, there am I'The Sea Islands of the Confederate Coast1900:  Black America Before the Great Migration

October 21st, 2015


BY Christian Ford

Let’s begin with an experiment.  In your mind’s eye, conjure up the image of an American farmer.  Nothing fancy, just the first thing that comes to mind.  Got it?  Good.

Now, what color is your inner farmer’s skin?

I’ll tell you mine — it’s white. A little dusty, heavily tanned, but unquestionably white.  Now if I push for more diversity, my farmer will turn female.  Then hispanic.  Then asian.  But that’s where my rainbow of farmerdom fades.  There are no black farmers waiting to take the stage on my imagined American farm.

It’s possible that I’m an aberration in this regard.  But if I’m not — and I suspect that’s the case — then this is peculiar.   After all, the black-skinned population of the United States was kidnapped and sold into slavery in order to work the fields.   What’s more, they remained there for hundreds of years, fixing the image of the black-skinned person in antebellum America as an almost exclusively agricultural worker, even if that was a simplification.

Then comes the Civil War, provoking some faltering images tagged “sharecropping” but they don’t conjure black farmers as much as field slavery by a different name.  If you want to imagine the black population of the US in anything approaching modernity, fields are almost nowhere to be seen.  This is strange, and significantly so because ninety-five years ago, at the dawn of the Jazz Age, one out of every seven American farmers was black.

Today, mired in the Digital Age, the number of American farmers who are black is one out of sixty-three.  That’s fewer than the number of American Indian/Alaska Natives who are farmers, even though blacks comprise twelve percent of the overall population and Indians/Natives less than one percent.

It’s easy to attribute this to the Great Migration, the flight of blacks from the South shortly after Jim Crow laws deprived blacks of virtually any right of self determination.  But it was more than that.  The alienation of blacks from the land they worked began even before the slaves were freed.

In 1861, the first year of the Civil War, Congress passed the Confiscation Act, which authorized the military to seize property belonging to Southerners, and by “property” they unequivocally meant slaves.  This meant that in the phase of the war before the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union army was removing blacks from the status of slaves, but not really conveying them to freedom, either.  This first came to the fore in what are known as the Sea Islands, a string of over 100 tidal and barrier islands that line the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.

These had long been plantation sites, mostly specializing in rice.  But they were also hot and malarial, and the plantation owners were often not there, preferring to decamp to more comfortable habitation on the mainland.  So, when the Union Army and Navy took control of the islands early in the war, the whites were long gone.

Rather suddenly, seventeen islands, nearly two hundred plantations and 10,000 no-longer-slaves were under the Army’s control, and the Army didn’t know what to do with them.  Partly, the Army didn’t know what to do because they didn’t need to do anything. Unlike other regions where the Union army had liberated slaves and territory, the Sea Islands were undamaged, functional, and entirely missing vengeful slaveowners hoping to regain their “property.”   What’s more, the new freedmen (and women) of the Sea Islands were accustomed to running things without much oversight.

It wasn’t all peaches and cream, however.  There was a rough start with the Union army raiding the Island’s supplies and one Union officer was even caught devising a plan to transport liberated blacks to Cuba where he could sell them.  Things improved when Edward Pierce, an abolitionist private in the Union Army who had increasingly been given responsibility for liberated slaves, arrived to examine the situation.

What he saw in the Sea Islands was an ideal test bed for demonstrating how the ex-slaves  could prepare to become citizens of the republic.  His method was to form a farming collective and before long, nearly sixty abolitionists, ministers, teachers and the like had arrived from the North to support what was becoming known as the Port Royal Experiment.

In some ways, it was a demonstration of what Reconstruction might have been. But in others, it was less of a lost opportunity, than a foreshadowing of what was to come.

The freedmen of Port Royal had no desire to continue farming cotton.   The agriculture that was close to their hearts was the way that they had kept body and soul together under slavery, namely vegetable gardening and poultry raising in the “little spots” allowed beside their shacks.  This “vegeculture” was directly related to agricultural traditions in West Africa, depending on root crops and vines as opposed to the European preference for grains. By the time of the Civil War, slaves had evolved a rather sophisticated micro-farming tradition that provided year-round food and enough surplus to sell and yet which only required the tending that could fit in after dark on work days and during the hours available on Sunday.  We should all be so clever.

The liberated field hands of the Sea Islands were quite content to continue tending their gardens and supplement that with some fishing.  But in the eyes of their Northern “improvers,” this was a terrible missed opportunity.  After all, the plantation owners had become well-to-do with a dependable income by producing cotton in massive monocultures.   Making the ex-slaves into prospective citizens meant integrating them into the wage-and-commodity structure of the North’s industry, which meant growing cotton for the North’s mills.

This tug-of-war was complicated by a bigger issue, namely, who owned the confiscated land?  The freedmen believed — how could they think otherwise? — that the land should belong to those who work it.  But again, this clashed with Northern economic notions.  The land was a commodity and — in spite of many white protestations — it was auctioned off.  Some Sea Island blacks banded into a collaborative and purchased the plantation on which they lived and worked.  But most of the land went to Northern entities, some of whom then sold the land back to the black farmers at the end of the war.

As 1864 came to a close, General William T. Sherman entered the fray when his March to the Sea reached Savannah, just down the coast from Port Royal.  Sherman’s March had liberated huge numbers of slaves, and many of them followed in the wake of his army.  It was a mobile refugee crisis and in January of 1865, Sherman met with 20  blacks, most of who had been slaves until the month before.  Their spokesman, a 67-year-old pastor who’d bought freedom for himself and his wife, articulated the freedmen’s position:  “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor.”

Sherman responded by issuing Special Field Order Number 15, a command for his officers to settle the refugees on the Sea Islands and adjacent land in 40 acre parcels.  Not everyone got 40 acres, and not everyone got a mule (though many army mules found less hazardous employment as draft animals) but the meme of “Forty Acres and a Mule” immediately lodged in the minds of newly freed blacks.  Thomas Jefferson, champion of the notion of America as a land of propertied small farmers, would have been proud, if conflicted.

But 1865 wasn’t Jeffersonian America.  Looking back from our position now, it’s easy to see that the rising industrial economy of the North was inherently hostile to the notion of small farmers, independent from the industrializing supply chain.  Add to that Southern hostility to any form of black independence, and it’s obvious that Forty Acres and a Mule was mostly dream from the get go.

The whites had their own meme for freedmen’s land — “blackacres.”    It was an old English term of law, first appearing in the 17th Century where it was a placeholder name, the kind of thing barristers would use when arguing theoretical points of property ownership and rights.  So, “Wat Tyler has title to Blackacre, but his property is completely surrounded by John Dowling’s inheritance Whiteacre…”  If you’re still awake, you’ll know what I mean.

But the legal abstraction of blackacres changed when it collided with the reality of post-Civil War America.  First, the placeholder name for property morphed into a name for places  held by newly freed slaves and then, as time went by, blackacres acquired another connotation —  that the property in question was a site of uncertainty or contention.   For one thing, white plantation owners wanted their land back.  What’s more, Sherman’s Field Order Number 15 was revoked by Andrew Johnson, who had become president when Lincoln was assassinated.  The confusion verged on chaos because many emissaries of government had conflicting agendas and frequently simply ignored one another and took action.

For instance, the Freedmen’s Bureau (created by Congress) supervised a system whereby ex-slaves could inexpensively rent abandoned/confiscated land with, after three years, the option to purchase the land.  Johnson, on the other hand, promised amnesty including return of confiscated lands to Southerners who would swear a loyalty oath.  Various forces of the goat rodeo vied for supremacy, but in the end the result was that most land had reverted to control of men who had once been slave owners and even the Freedmen’s Bureau was reduced to telling the freedmen that land ownership was an unachievable dream and that they should just find jobs.

In spite of all this, southern blacks simply worked and saved and bought land until, by 1900, one quarter of black families in the south owned their own land.  But the turn of that century was also the era of Jim Crow Laws and intolerable racial terrorism.  After a half century of struggle to gain true economic independence by working the land, many blacks just upped stakes and headed north.

It should be noted that the USDA, created in 1862, was complicit in all of this.  A 1997 report by the USDA itself chastised the agency (nicknamed “the Last Plantation”) for operating in full Jim Crow mode in the south, right down to the level of not allowing black famers who’d won USDA loans, to sign their own checks.

For a century and half, everything conspired against the notion of an American farmer with a black skin.  And that feels doubly tragic because farming was singularly suited to healing people who had been born into slavery.

Civil War or not, American society had created a role for blacks, and it placed them at the farthest point possible from the constellation of opportunity and freedom that America liked to define as its core tenets.  Even those dedicated to improving the condition of American blacks were, almost inevitably, hopelessly condescending.  For the blacks, everything they were as free members of society was defined, for better and worse, by having been unfree.  The impulse of the freedmen at Port Royal seems to have been the only sane choice — when embedded in a fundamentally toxic social milieu, go full Candide and tend your own garden.  But that was not to be.

Looked at in a certain light, the lost promise of the blackacres that glimmered briefly at Port Royal and under the steely pragmatism of Sherman looks like a more universal tragedy.   That’s because the industrializing North didn’t want small, independent farmers, no matter what their color.  It wanted commodity producers to feed the Northern mills, and the bigger, the better.  This was true before the war but after — because war is always good for business  — it was hugely true.  In much the same way as WWII, the needs of the war stoked industrial America’s engines to white hot and when the fighting was done, the Captains of Industry were the real winners.

The Freedmen’s Bureau failed, the USDA stumbled along, the Klan rose and fell, but the tide of Industrialism didn’t falter.  Progressivism, conservatism, Jazz Age, Depression, Post-War Boom, the Civil Rights Era and the Summer of Love — no matter the theme du jour of American society, Industrialism remained a constant, growing stronger and more emphatic in its need to subordinate the labor of one and all to its imperatives.

Still, it looked like a good trade for a while; the grandchildren of slaves found work on the assembly lines of the North, working shoulder to shoulder with whites in factories that had gotten their start building the weapons of war which had lead to the freeing of the slaves.  For a time, the blacks of the Great Migration lived lives with the material comforts of the American Dream and the hope of getting the rest of it.

But those assembly lines are stilled now, save for the muted footsteps of those who savor modern ruins, the material comforts are shipped in from China and the hope of the rest of it only gets farther away by the day.  And in that, at least, there is a modicum of equality.


Et in Arcadia ego by Bill Gracey
The Sea Islands by Lori Bee
190o Census by the Census Bureau