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South Carolina African Americans – The Rise of Wage Labor

Also see: African-Americans - Reconstruction - 1865-1900 Main Page

Written by Michael Trinkley of the Chicora Foundation

Wage labor became the dominant economic system in South Carolina immediately following the Civil War. This system – also called the labor contract system – was established under the influence of the Freedmen's Bureau, and it gave blacks the right to "have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor." It also gave blacks the right to break their contracts and move to new plantations, beginning new contracts as desired.

African-Americans in South Carolina had never enjoyed such freedom before, and it caused a great deal of agitation among white plantation owners. Their agitation was fueled by the South's scarcity of labor and the initially high price of cotton. In response, many of them formed "Democratic Clubs." These clubs were designed to counter the "radical" influence, and their members resolved not to hire radicals, or blacks associated with radical politics.

In time, the wage labor system gave way to tenancy. This was a tremendous setback as it made land ownership difficult, if not impossible, for the vast majority of blacks.

The following labor agreement was typical of the wage labor system. Executed in 1868 between freedmen on Kiawah Island in Charleston County and the plantation's owner, it stipulates not only payment, but also that deductions may be made and laborers dismissed. The agreement also stipulates that the freedmen most do "any kind of labour" the owner directs.

Kiawah Island

Articles of Agreement between A. Van der Horst – and the Freedmen whose names are hereto attached and the said Freedmen & women agree to hire ourselves as Laborers to Mr. Van der Horst from Jan 10th 1867 to Jan 10th 1868.

We link ourselves to perform any kind of labour he or his agent may direct for which we agree to receive $100 for the twelve months 4 of which to be paid at the end of each month. To be provisioned with 3 lbs. of Bacon 1 peck of corn or meal & 1/2 pint of Salt. Also six yards of woolens to make a suit of clothes.

Fraction hands to receive [ ] & rations.

Women to receive $60 for the twelve months. $2.50 to be paid at the end of each month.

Any hand which does not suit may be on being paid in full for the time he has laboured be dismissed from this place.

Deductions to be made for absences [ ] the sale the hand receives.


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