The Great South - Down the Mississippi

The Labor Question

The truth of the matter is, I suspect, that the planters, up to the present, have not been willing to become farmers. “These people,” said to me a gentleman familiar with the whole cotton planting interest of the South, will never grow their own supplies until they are compelled to.” They are willing to depend upon the West for the coarse food supplied to negro laborers, and seem totally unconscious of the fact that they can never secure white immigration, so much desired, until they raise the status of the laboring man. White labor has proved a failure in a great many sections of the South, because the laborers who come to make trial are not properly treated. They are offered strong inducements, can purchase good lands on almost unlimited credit, and are received in a friendly manner, but they find all the conditions of labor so disorganized that they become disheartened, and give up the experiment. The negro along the Mississippi works better than ever before since freedom came to him, because he is obliged to toil or starve, and because, being the main stay of the planters, they accord to him very favorable conditions. Self-interest is teaching the planters a good deal, and in the cotton growing regions of Northern Alabama and Mississippi, as well as generally throughout the older cotton States, a diversity of crops will be compelled by the necessity of self protection. It is noticed that the cotton belt is gradually moving from the Atlantic seaboard to newer and more productive lands. The states west of the Mississippi, and bordering on that stream, are receiving immense colonies of negroes fleeing from the temporarily exhausted sections of Alabama, and the lands which they have left will soon come under the influence of fertilizers, and corn and rice and wheat will be raised. In consequence of the gradual change in the location of the planting interest, buyers from the North in such markets as Memphis hear from time to time that less cotton is planted than heretofore, and are led to figure on higher prices; but they find that new lands are constantly opened up. and that the yield on them is surprising. It is the belief of many acute observers living at important points along the Mississippi river that the ultimate home of the black man is to be west of that stream, on the rich bottom lands where the white man has never been known to labor, and where it would be perilous to his health to settle. In the fall and winter of each year the migration to Arkansas and Louisiana is alarming to the white planters left behind. In Western Tennessee the exodus has not been severely felt as yet, but it will doubtless come. The two hundred thousand negroes in that rich and flourishing region are reasonably content. They do not, in the various counties, enter so much into politics as they did immediately after the war. They show there, as, indeed, almost everywhere in the Mississippi Valley, a tendency to get into communities by themselves, and seem to have no desire to force their way into the company of the white man.

There must, and will be, a radical change in the conduct of the rising generation of planters. The younger men are, I think, convinced that it is a mistake to depend on Western and Northern markets for the articles of daily consumption, and for nearly everything which goes to make life tolerable. But the elders, grounded by a lifetime of habit in the methods which served them well under a slave régime, but which are ruinous now-a-days, will never correct themselves. They will continue to bewail the unfortunate fate to which they think themselves condemned—or will rest assured that they can do very well in the present chaotic condition of things, provided Providence does not allow their crops to fail. They cannot be brought to see that their only safety lies in making cotton their surplus crop; that they must absolutely dig their sustenance, as well as their riches, out of the ground. Before the war, a planter who owned a plantation of two thousand acres, and two hundred negroes upon it, would, when he came to make his January settlement with his merchant in town, invest whatever there was to his credit in more land and more negroes. Now the more land he buys the worse he is off, because he finds it very hard to get it worked up to the old standard, and unless he does, he can ill afford to buy supplies from the outer world at the heavy prices charged for them—or if he can do that, he can accomplish little else. As most of his capital was taken from him by the series of events which liberated his slaves, he has been compelled, since the war, to undertake his planting operations on borrowed capital, or, in other words, has relied on a merchant or middle man to furnish food and clothing for his laborers, and all the means necessary to get his crop, baled and weighed, to the market. The failure of his crop would of course cover him with liabilities; but such has been his fatal persistence in this false system that he has been able to struggle through, as in Alabama, three successive crop failures. The merchant, somewhat reconciled to the anomalous condition of affairs by the large profits he can make on coarse goods brought long distances, has himself pushed endurance and courage to an extreme point, and when he dare give credit no longer, hosts of planters are often placed in the most painful and embarrassing positions. So they gather up the wrecks of their fortunes, pack their Lares and Penates in an emigrant wagon, or car, and doggedly work their way to Texas.

The appalling failure of crops in certain sections has not, however, lessened the cotton production of the region supplied from Memphis. In the aggregate it is greater than ever before, and I was informed that its increase would be even more than it is if so many planters did not “overcrop “—that is, plant more than they can cultivate. Those who plant a little land, and care for it thoroughly, usually make some money, even although they depend upon far-off markets for their sustenance, and are completely at the mercy of the merchants. It is believed that the crop failures will induce planters, in the sections which have suffered, to make an effort to grow their own supplies, and until that effort has been successful, there can be no real prosperity among them. Even when Fortune smiles, and they make a good crop, but little is left after a settlement with the merchant. Life is somewhat barren and unattractive to the man who, after a laborious season spent in cultivating one staple, finds that, after all, he has only made a living out of it. He has done nothing to make his surroundings agreeable and comfortable; his buildings are unsightly and rickety, and there are very few stores in his cellar, if indeed he has any cellar at all.

The region which finds its market and gets its supplies in Memphis, Vicksburg and Natchez, is probably as fair a sample of the cotton-producing portion of the South as any other, and I found in it all the ills and all the advantages complained of or claimed elsewhere. Imagine a farming country which depends absolutely for its food on the West and North-west; where every barrel of flour which the farmer buys, the bacon which he seems to prefer to the beef and mutton which he might raise on his own lands, the clothes on his back, the shoes on his feet, the very vegetables which the poorest laborer in the Northern agricultural regions grows in his door yard—everything, in fact, has been brought hundreds of miles by steamer or by rail, and has passed through the hands of the shipper, the carrier, the wharf men, the re-shipper, (if the planter live in a remote section) and the local merchant! Imagine a people possessed of superior facilities, who might live, as the vulgar saying has it, on the fat of the land, who are yet so dependent that a worm crawling over a few cotton leaves, or the rise of one or two streams, may reduce them to misery and indebtedness from which it will take years to recover! Men who consider themselves poorly paid and badly treated in Northern farming and manufacturing regions live better and have more than do the overseers of huge plantations in this cotton country. If you enter into conversation with the people who fare thus poorly, they will tell you that, if they raise vegetables, the “niggers “ will steal them; that if times were not so hard, and seasons were not so disastrous, the supply system would work very well; that they cannot organize their labor so as to secure a basis on which to calculate safely; and will finally end by declaring that the South is ruined forever.

These are the opinions of the elders mainly. Younger men, who see the necessity of change and new organization, believe that they must in future cultivate other crops besides cotton; that they must do away with supply-merchants, and try at least to raise what is needed for sustenance. There are of course sections where the planter finds it cheapest to obtain his corn and flour from St. Louis; but that is only one item. There are a hundred things which he requires, and which are grown as well South as North. Until the South has got capital enough together to localize manufactures, the same thing must be said of all manufactured articles; but why should a needless dependence be encouraged by the very people whom it injures and endangers.

There are many plans of working large plantations now in vogue, and sometimes the various systems are all in operation on the same tract. The plan of “shares” prevails extensively, the planter taking out the expenses of the crop, and when it is sold dividing the net proceeds with the negroes who have produced it. In some cases in the vicinity of Natchez, land is leased to the freedmen on condition that they shall pay so many bales of cotton for the use of so many acres, furnishing their own supplies. Other planters lease the land in the same way, and agree to furnish the supplies also. Still others depend entirely upon the wages system, but of course have to furnish supplies at the outset, deducting the cost from wages paid hands after the crop is raised. Sometimes the plantation is leased to “squads,” as they are called, and the “squad leader” negotiates the advances, giving “liens”  on the squad’s share of the crop and on the mules and horses they may own. This plan has worked very well and is looked upon favorably. Under the slave régime, the negroes working a large plantation were all quartered at night in a kind of central group of huts, known as the “quarters;” but it has been found an excellent idea to divide up the hundred or five hundred laborers among a number of these little villages, each located on the section of the plantation which they have leased. By this process, commonly known as “segregation of quarters,” many desirable things have been accomplished; the negro has been encouraged to devote some attention to his home, and been hindered from the vices engendered by excessive crowding. On some plantations one may find a dozen squads, each working on a different plan, the planters, or land owners, hoping in this way to find out which system will be most advantageous to themselves and most binding on the negro. Clairmont, a plantation of three thousand acres, of which one thousand are now cultivated, on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi river, opposite to Natchez, is cut up into lots of one hundred acres each, and on each division are ten laborers who have leased the land in various ways. It was amusing, by the way, to note the calculation that one negro made, when negotiating for one of these tracts. He was to be allowed one-half, but was vociferous for one-tenth. As ten is more than two, he supposed a tenth to be more than a half. On this Clairmont in 1860, the owner raised one thousand bales of cotton and eight thousand bushels of corn; now he raises about five hundred bales, and hardly any corn. Still, the conduct of the laborers is encouraging. The little villages springing up here and there on the broad acres, have a tendency to localize the negroes, who have heretofore been very much inclined to rove about, and each man is allowed to have half an acre of ground for his garden. The supplies spoken of as furnished the negroes are of the rudest description, pork, meal and molasses—all brought hundreds, nay, thousands of miles, when every one of the laborers could, with a little care, grow enough to feed himself and his family. But the negro throughout the cotton belt, takes little thought for the morrow. He works lazily although, in some places, pretty steadily. In others he takes a day here and there out of the week in such a manner as to render him almost useless. The planter always feels that the negro is irresponsible and must be taken care of. If he settles on a small tract of land of his own, as so many thousands do now-a-days, he becomes almost a cumberer of the ground, caring for nothing save to get a living, and raising only a bale of cotton or so wherewith to get “supplies.” For the rest he can fish and hunt. He doesn’t care to become a scientific farmer. Thrift has no charms for him. He has never been educated to care for himself; how should he suddenly leap forth, a new man, into the changed order of things? Nevertheless, some of the planters along the river near Natchez said, “Give the negro his due. The merchant will ordinarily stand a better chance of collecting all his advance from fifty small black planters than from fifty whites of the same class, when the crop is successful. But if the negro’s crop fails, he feels very loth to pay up, although he may have the means, He seems to think the debt has become out-lawed. In success he is generally certain to pay his store account,” which is varied, and comprehends a history of his progress during the year. The shrewd Hebrew, who has entered into the commerce of the South in such a manner as almost to preclude Gentile competition, understands the freedman very well, and manages him in trade. The negro likes to be treated with consideration when he visits the “store,” and he finds something refreshing and friendly in the profuse European manner and enthusiastic lingo of Messrs. Moses and Abraham. The Hebrew merchants have large establishments in all the planting districts. In Mississippi and in some other sections they have made more than one hundred per cent retail profit, and excuse themselves for it by saying that as they do not always get their money, they must make good bad debts. They are obliged to watch both white and black planters who procure advances from them, to make sure that they produce a crop. If the merchant sees that there is likely to he but half a crop, he sometimes notifies the planters that they must thereafter draw only half the amount agreed upon at the outset. In short, in some sections the Hebrew is taskmaster, arbiter, and guardian of the planters’ destinies.

Many of the elder planters are liberal in their ideas, and would welcome a complete change in the labor system, but they do not believe it possible. One of the best known and most influential in the Valley told me that he and his neighbors in the magnificent Yazoo country, where the superb fertility of the soil gives encouragement to even the rudest labors, had tried every expedient to bring new labor into their section, but could not succeed. His laborers were now practically his tenants; but he had to supply them and to watch over them, very much as he did before the war. He was willing to admit that the negro was better adapted to the work than any white man who might come there but thought the younger generation of negroes was growing up idle and shiftless, fond of whisky and carousing, and that the race was diminishing in fiber and strength. Those who bad been slaves were industrious, and conducted themselves as well as they knew how; but the others, both men and women, seemed to think that liberty meant license, and acted accordingly. They were wasteful, and there was but little chance of making them a frugal and foresighted farming people. Whenever they could secure a little money the ground in front of their cabins would be strewed with sardine boxes and whisky bottles.

The planters on the lowlands of Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana have been particularly troubled to get and keep serviceable plantation labor; and are now importing large numbers from Alabama. In truth, the hundreds who flock in from the older cotton states were starving at home. On a plantation in Concordia Parish, in Louisiana, opposite Natchez, there are many of these Alabama negroes. One planter went into the interior of that State, and engaged a hundred and twenty-five to follow him. They did not succeed in leaving the State without meeting with remonstrances from the colored politicians, but were glad to flee from an empty cupboard. Densely ignorant as these negroes are, they are yet capable of fine development. They have sound sense and some idea of manners, seem well inclined toward their employers, and appear to recognize their own defects. On many of these plantations on the lowlands the negroes do not vote; on some they are even hired with the distinct understanding that they shall not, unless they wish to be discharged. But sooner or later the politicians reach them, and they become political victims. I took a ride one morning in this same Concordia parish for the purpose of conversing with the planters, and getting testimony as to the actual condition of the laborers. Concordia was once the garden spot of Louisiana; its aspect was European; the fine roads were bordered with delicious hedges of Cherokee rose; grand trees, moss-hung and fantastic in foliage, grew along the green banks of a lovely lake; every few miles a picturesque grouping of coarsely thatched roofs marked negro quarters, and near by gleamed the roof of some planters mansion. In this parish there was no law and but little order—save such as the inhabitants chose forcibly to maintain. The negroes whom I met on the road were nearly all armed, most of them carrying a rifle over their shoulders, or balanced on the backs of the mules they were riding. Affrays among the negroes are very common throughout that region; but, unless the provocation has been very great, they rarely kill a white man. In a trip of perhaps ten miles I passed through several once prosperous plantations, and made special inquiries as to their present condition. Upon one where six hundred bales of cotton were annually produced under slave culture, the average annual yield is now but two hundred and fifty; on another the yearly average had fallen from one thousand to three hundred bales; and on two others which together gave the market 1500 bales every year, now barely six hundred are raised. The planters in this section thought that cotton production there had fallen off fully two-thirds. The number of negroes at work on each of these plantations was generally much less than before the war. Then a bale to the acre was realized; now about one bale to three acres is the average. Much of this land is “leased “ to the negro at the rate of a bale of cotton, weighing 430 pounds, for each six acres. The planters there raise a little corn, but are mainly supplied from the West. The inundation was upon them at the time of my visit, and they were in momentary expectation of seeing all their year’s hopes destroyed. The infamous robberies, also, to which they had been subjected by the legislature, and the overwhelming taxation had left them bitterly discouraged. One plantation which I visited, having sixteen hundred acres of cleared land in it, and standing in one of the most fertile sections of the State, was originally valued at $100 per acre; now it could not be sold for $10. In Madison Parish, recently, a plantation of six hundred improved acres, which originally cost $30,000, was offered to a neighboring planter for seven hundred dollars.

The “wages” accorded the negro, when he works on the wages system, amount to $15 or $166 monthly. But few ever save any money, and this remark will, I think, apply to the majority of the negroes engaged in agriculture throughout the cot~ ton region of the Mississippi Valley. Still there are praiseworthy exceptions to this general rule. Enormous prices are placed upon everything, because of the cost of transportation. The grangers have accomplished some good in the cotton states by buying for cash and selling for cash, the object being to keep supplies as near the wholesale price as possible, and have already become a formidable organization there, having scores of societies, small and large, in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi.

While there is no doubt that an active, moneyed and earnest immigration would a do much toward building up the southern portion of the Mississippi Valley, it is evident that so long as the negro remains in his present ignorance, and both he and the planter rely on other states for their sustenance, and on Providence never to send them rainy days, inundations, or caterpillars, the development of the section will be subject to too serious drawbacks to allow of any considerable progress. All the expedients, the tenant systems and years of accidental success will not take the place of thorough and diversified culture, and intelligent, contented labor resulting from fair wages for fair work. Nothing but the education of the negro up to the point of ambition, foresight, and a desire to acquire a competence lawfully and laboriously, will ever thoroughly develop the Lower Mississippi Valley. As the negro is certain to inhabit it for many years at least, if not for ever, how shall he learn the much-needed lesson? On the other hand, the whites need to be converted to a sense of the dignity of labor, to learn to treat the laboring man with proper consideration, to create in him an intelligent ambition by giving him education. Something besides an introduction to political liberties and responsibilities is needed to make the negro a moral and worthy citizen. He is struggling slowly and not very surely out of a lax and barbarously immoral condition. The weight of nearly two centuries of slavery is upon his back. He needs more help and counsel. An old master will tell you that be can discover who of his employés has been a slave, “for the slave,” he says, “cannot look you in the eye without flinching.” Neither can the ex-slave be very moral, if indeed moral at all. It is hard for him to bear the yoke of the family relation. Although conscious that he is a freeman, and can leave his employer in the lurch if he desires, he is, here and there, almost content to slip back into the old devil-may-care dependence of slavery. The responsibilities of freedom are almost too much for him. He has entered upon a battle-field armed with poor and cumbersome weapons, weighed down with ignorance and “previous condition ;“ and I venture to say that no one feels the difficulty and bitterness of his position more keenly than he does himself.

Unable as he is to aid in his own upbuilding, it is to be considered whether there is not really more room now for educational enterprises, and for a general diffusion of intelligence among his race, by Northern and Western men and women, than there was immediately after the war. Might it not be wise to appoint commissioners to investigate thoroughly the labor question in the South, and to make a final effort to remedy its evils by every proper means. Events have proven that the National government must undertake the improvement and the control of the Mississippi river; why ought it not to devote some little attention to the removal of the obstacles to immigration into the most fertile sections of the Mississippi Valley?

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