Using Primary Sources in the Classroom:
Reconstruction Unit

Lesson 1: Freedmen's Bureau: Labor Contract or Re-enslavement?

1. Background Information for Teachers:


On March 3, 1865, the United States Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. This federal agency helped ex-slaves with food, medical aid, education, and legal advice. General Wager Swayne was appointed assistant commissioner in Alabama and, after 1866, district military commander over the federal troops who occupied the state. Under his direction, the Freedmen's Bureau distributed rations to thousands of blacks and whites in the "starving time" of 1865-66.


Thousands of African Americans who had left the plantations for the cities when freedom came soon found themselves homeless and hungry. Early in 1866, the freedmen began to return to the land for spring planting. At first they worked for the promise of wages at rates agreed upon at the start of the year. The Freedmen's Bureau required labor contracts to be entered into by blacks and their employers, but did not set wage levels. In a near-cashless society, money wages were soon discontinued, to be replaced by sharecropping arrangements. The standard contract gave the black laborer a share of the crop according to how much of the expenses of production he paid. Only for a brief period did the Freedmen's Bureau offer some economic shelter for the ex-slaves. The sharecropping system that evolved during Reconstruction soon bound most African Americans into debt so ruinous that they were practically re-enslaved. (William Warren Rogers, Robert David Ward, Leah Rawls Atkins, Wayne Flynt, Alabama: The History of a Deep South State, 234-39.)


The first labor contract selected for this activity is especially significant because it was written before Genearl Swayne implemented his labor policy in Alabama. Later ones are included for comparison.


2. Learning Objectives:

Upon completion of this activity, students should be able to:

1. Define Freedmen's Bureau.
2. Define labor contract.
3. Explain sharecropping.
4. Analyze economic conditions in Alabama after the Civil War.
5. Draw conclusions about the problems inherent in sharecropping.


3. Suggested lesson:

1. Review with your students economic/social conditions in Alabama (and the south) after the Civil War.


2. Make copies of James G. Tait Labor Contract and ask students to answer the following:


a. What type of document is this?
b. Who wrote it?
c. What is the tone of the document? (businesslike? friendly? legalistic?)
d. What kind of information does it contain?
e. Who signed the document?
f. What is significant about the date of the document?
g. What is significant about the signatures of the employees?
h. How will it be enforced?
i. Are both employer and employees equally protected? Why or why not?
j. How do you think life would be different for the freedmen from their former lives as slaves?


3. Ask students to write an article for the local newspaper on the subject of labor contracts from the point of view of General Wager Swayne, James G. Tait, or one of the former slaves.


4. Other: Use the additional documents to explain problems of enforcing labor contracts. Explain how the 1868 contract between Tait and Thomas hill differs from earlier one. (This is not truly a labor contract under Freedmen's Bureau policy.)


Tait labor contract.

The Tait family occupied a prominent place in Alabama politics and agriculture in the 1817-1880 period. James Tait (1791-1855) came to Wilcox County from Georgia during the great land rush which followed the Creek War, bringing twenty slaves, ten of them field hands. During his first few seasons, his hands planted only 175 acres of cotton and 80 acres of corn a year. He was soon followed by his father, Charles Tait, (1768-1835) a former U.S. Senator from Georgia, who became the first U. S. Judge for the Alabama district, 1820-1826.


As Tait prospered, he bought more slaves and land. From his father, he inherited 100 slaves and two nearby plantations. In 1851, Tait owned 311 slaves. His six plantations produced 465 bales of cotton, and 15,000 bushels of corn, and 340 hogs for slaughter.


Tait's vast holdings lay on both sides of the Alabama River. Steamboats called regularly at his landings for cotton and corn and to take members of the Tait family to Mobile or Montgomery. Tait served as a trustee of the University of Alabama, a stockholder in Wilcox Academy, and a member of the American Colonization Society which advocated that free blacks and slaves, purchased from their owners, be resettled in Africa. James A. Tait and his wife had eight children, one of which was James G. Tait (1833-1911). James G. attended Harvard University and returned to the Wilcox County plantation and life as a planter.


Looking back with satisfaction on nearly 35 years as an Alabama planter, Tait wrote in his farm book in 1853:


"Since I came into possession of my Father's estate, my progress has been steadily onward but not rapid, for I have always worked by the rule, ‘take care and hold on'." (Hamilton, 162)


James G. Tait (1833-1911) landowner in this Labor Contract dated July 31, 1865, just three months after the Surrender (end of the Civil War), evidently adhered to this rule too as this labor contract insured that his crops would be harvested.

Transcript  (LPR 35, Box 1, folder 2) 
Freedman's contract, 1865
Written across script : 
"Approved Aug 9th 1865
	By Order
	Saml S. Gardner
Asst Supt Freedmen
Registered Sept 4, 1865"
State of Ala  }
Wilcox Co    }	a contract entered into, this the 31st day
of July, between James G. Tait as employer and the following
named Freedmen, or Laborers as employees of the County & State
aforesaid.  The said Freedmen or Laborers, on their part, for
& in consideration of the terms hereinafter state, bind themselves, to:--
faithfully & diligently labor for said Jas G. Tait, during the rema-
-inder of the year 1865, (according to the (torn) regulation, conditions
& penalties prescribed & contained in a (torn) rules & regulations
for the State of Ala. & c.--) and said labor is to  (torn) formed under the
direction of the said J.G. Tait, or any agent by him appointed.
The said Freedmen, or Laborers bind themselves to visit, or receive 
visitors on such conditions as may be agreed upon, by said J.G. Tait
or his agent.  The Freedmen, or Laborers further bind themselves to 
account to the said J.G. Tait, for the value of any property of whatever 
kind or description that may be wasted, lost, or destroyed by reason 
of the negligence, or careless conduct of said Freedmen or laborers, 
& the part of the crop allotted to said Freedmen or Laborers, is 
hereby made liable for the value of any property, so wasted, lost or 
destroyed.  It is further agreed & stipulated, that if any of the said 
Freedmen or Laborers shall refuse, or fail to work faithfully & diligently, 
the said James G. Tait or his agent shall have power & is hereby 
authorised to discharge him or them.  The said Jas G. Tait binds himself 
to pay over & deliver on the premises to said Freedmen or laborers
one-eighth part of the present growing crop ^of corn, fodder, cowpeas
& ground peas, and also one half of the potatoes & sorghum syrup 
of sickness & rice, & also to furnish food, clothing, houses, fuel, 
& medicines--& in bad cases a physician
				James G. Tait.
Witness				Isham  his X mark
A. L. Whisenhart			Washington  his X mark
W. P. Barnes				Isaac	his X mark
A.W. Bethea				Brian   his X mark
					Glaster his X mark
					John   his X mark
					Dempsy his X mark
					Jeff    his X mark
 					Jack   his X mark
					Bill Smart his X mark
			            	Widow (torn)  her X mark
			            	Widow—Milly  her X mark
					Dick  his X mark
					Frank  his X mark
					Malinda  her X mark
					Jim   his X mark
Transcript (LPR 35, Box 1, Folder 2)
State of Alabama}	This contract made this the
Wilcox County   }day of 		1868 between James
A. Tait & Thomas Hill (Freedman) with respect(?)
That the said Tait agrees to let Thom Hill have a certain
piece of land known as the "Morriss Ridge," for the year 1868
upon which (Ridge) he ^Hill is permitted to clear land & build
houses, without expense to said Tait excepting nails & flooring
The said Tait agrees to let him work the lands east
of his residence known as "Dry Fork," & to give said Tait for
rent thereof one fourth of all produce raised on said lands.
The aforesaid Tait is to be at no expense in feeding his (Hill's) 
family or any stock required in making said crop—
Transcript (Background:   William Bonnell Hall was a doctor and 
cotton planter in Lowndes County, Alabama.)
	Lowndesboro, March 12th 1866
Dr. Wm Hall
	The "Freedmen," Frank
Pfeaster, Abner, Ann & Cicily have 
called my attention to the contract
made between you & them last year and
alledge that you have not completed
with you part of said contract, having
paid them nothing.
	It is my duty, as agent
of the Bureau, to call your attention
to the fact, & ask of you, that you
attend to the matter at once; or
appear before me, and show cause
why you have not done so.
		Very Respectfully
		Your Obt Serv't
                    A.	W. Russell
                 J.P. & L.A.F.B.
		Swamp Plantation
		Lowndes County, Ala
			Jan'y 5th 1866
	I, Cooper, do agree to hire the time of my
wife Angeline and my two sons, Liberty and Mack, 
to Wm. B. Hall & Thos Douglass for the year of 1866
Term of service commencing Jan'y 5th 1866, and ending
Dec. 31st 1866.
	I further agree to see that they labor faith-
fully, and yield obedience to their orders, for which
service, I am to receive Two hundred and fifty dollars,
$250.00 medical bills & rations.
	Deductions to be made for all time lost from
labor, and for support of my children.
Witness: Cooper                          X
	 Eli Cook			mark