The Story of Peonage

The fascinating thing about history is that the stories always lead you to other related stories and aspects of the human condition.  In the last edition (sorry for the extended delay) I talked about the experience of black women in the convict leasing system.  Author Talitha LeFlouria, in Chained In Silence, documents the tragic history of the re-enslavement of black women after the civil war.

I seldom came across the term “peonage” in all the other literature I read.  Peonage was generally described as a form of debt servitude that was outlawed in the 1850’s.  That is until I read the book The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage In The South 1901-1969 by Pete Daniel.  Written in 1972, the book describes another form of slavery based on debt, or debt servitude.

Daniel describes peonage as the same kind of slavery but under different pretenses.  Like convict slavery victims were arrested, or kidnapped, often on contrived criminal charges and “sold” to a plantation owner or corporation as a condition of their confinement.  Peonage differed only in the formula of how the prisoners became laborers.  Peonage victims were saddled with fines and court costs, which they were too poor to pay, and they signed a contract to work off the fines for a period of time.  They were advanced a small sum of money and agreed to pay the money back over a specific period of time with portions of the money deducted from the total each month.  Once the contract was signed, the prisoner found it almost impossible to leave.  Just like convict leasing the prisoners were guarded by armed foremen, savagely beaten and poorly cared for.

Because slavery was condoned by the local community and the fact that work sites were often miles from local communities, out of sight of anyone who might be alarmed at the practice, the conditions the prisoners endured were rarely seen.  Even when family members, prisoners themselves or state and federal investigators reported the conditions and asked for remedial action, little interest was ever taken on behalf of victims.

While blacks were the largest population of the laborers, newly arrived immigrants became victims of the practice as the arrived in New York at Ellis Island.  Agents recruited immigrants with promises of work opportunities, with travel expenses and good wages once they arrived only the find out that their lives were worse than what they left their home land for.  The duration of the immigrant labor pool ended as some efforts were made to save white Europeans from this practice leaving mostly blacks and a few southern white men to this hell on earth.

Mechanized agricultural advances, the urbanization of the southern landscape, the civil rights movement and WWII helped slow and eventually end the practice of peonage, convict leasing and share cropping in the American south but not before leaving individuals and families devastated in the process.  These conditions, along with lynching and the sexual exploitation of black women was the impetus for the great migration.  The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage In The South 1901-1969 is a worthwhile read and I highly recommend it.


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