Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Right to Land

What did freedom mean to former slaves in the Reconstruction South? A number of things come to mind. Freedom meant the stability of family, a marriage recognized by the state, and children that could not be sold. Freedom also meant the ownership of one's labor and the means though which to make way in the world.

A common misconception among southern whites, according to historian Eric Foner in his book Nothing But Freedom, was that freedom for blacks meant the escape from all labor. Black people understood slavery not as toil, but as unrequited toil, and freedom meant having a place whereby they could reap the fruits of their labor.

Freedmen then, based their claim to land on the notion of unrequited labor. Planters had accumulated their land illegitimately. As former slaves understood their contribution to the development of the American economy, they also claimed their right to ownership of the land they had worked to improve.

Freedman Bayley Wyat summed up his experiences and his justifications in 1868. The speech is written in dialect (transcribed from the original...dialect always makes me cringe a little) and protests the eviction of blacks from a Virginia contraband camp two years earlier

We has a right to the land where we are locates. For why? I tell you. Our wives, our children, our husbands, has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon, for that reason we have a divine right to the land...and den didn't we clear the land, and de crops ob corn, ob rice, ob sugar, ob everything. And den didn't dem large cities in de North grow up on de cotton and de sugars and de rice dat we made? I say dey has grown rich, and my people is poor.

For Wyat, southern planters and northern industrialists are equally complicit in former slaves' precarious situation, and thus owe them payment for generations of uncompensated servitude. Of course we all know that most turned a deaf ear to these demands for restitution, and thus historians have noted a glaring failure of Reconstruction. One could then define emancipation as little more than the creation of a landless proletariat, free to do nothing but labor.

My question to you: is this too hard a judgment?

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