Sunday, June 28, 2015


(fromVirginia Historical Society, rural Virginians picking peanuts post Civil War) 

I've now spent most of a day online indexing Freedmen's (sic) Bureau Labor Contracts, Indentures, and Apprenticeship Records, 1865-1872, for their eventual searchability via FamilySearch, a Mormon genealogical service. Last night I very much needed to talk over with Margot the impact this is having on me.

This particular project is far more difficult, for a number of reasons, than the 1940 census indexing push I participated in last year. To begin with, the records are older, images more decayed, paleography more antiquated, though all familiar enough to me after decades of studying primary source documents back to the 1600s. However, there is no "form" being filled in here. Each contract is a handwritten, freely worded entry in a log book, the wording not exactly the same twice, in diverse handwritings. Even the simple main details to be indexed -- date, location, names of contractor and contractee -- often require much poring over and guesswork to be determined.

The non-indexed portions are where the human story lies, drawing me in to read the whole thing. Most of what I indexed was from three counties in Virginia -- Accomack, Dinwiddie, and Danville (an independent city). These regions are diverse from each other, and will be strikingly different from, say, contracts created in Mississippi or Alabama. It is too early for me to suss out these geographic/cultural differences.

Maybe half of the contracts involve a newly freed person who is female, which seems to indicate absolutely everybody in that group had to work to survive. A depressing number of them contract out the labor of children as young as 8 years. There is obviously one quantum leap from emancipation: Families are no longer divided up and sold away from each other. But black children are still not having childhoods.

The wages are impossibly low, subsistence level at best. When it is sharecropping, typically the white landowner is providing only the land (clapped out as it may be), seed, and perhaps a plow and mule or horse for agricultural use only, as well as the right to live in whatever shack was already there. For this they demand, on average, half of all crops produced. If the crop fails, the sharecropper still owes. All planting decisions are under the rigid control of the landowner, and the language spelling this out is both florid and highly authoritarian. ANY resistance to the landowner's dominance will result in the sharecropper being expelled from the land.

This is, as Margot said, serfdom, pure and simple.

But I know that an astoundingly number of these families somehow combine starvation wages and unending labor enough to buy land by a decade later. They donate precious bits of their new land to found schools and churches. They track down and bring back home all family members they can find. They marry and learn to read, they vote in the few years before Reconstruction is sold out by the so-called emancipating North, and they, on their own, keep the South alive as an agricultural player in America.

In these documents, however, a third of them are still listed only by first names. Whether they have not yet chosen surnames (seems to me they would do that even before marrying), or those surnames are deliberately being rejected by the white male record taker, is something to be proved once all these records can be sifted through by those of us whose ancestors they were: African-American history as told by African-Americans.

It hurts, to see this disrespect firsthand. I wish I could make it never have happened. But denial is the addictive comfort of whiteness, and I chose to be a race traitor long ago, to see as much of the truth as I could bear, grieve the barriers to my understanding, and go back for more witnessing. Full humanity demands no less.