Chesnutt's Works

Reviews

Bibliography

Manuscripts

Related Links

Home

Chesnutt in the Classroom

Site Info

info on the text
Peonage, or the New Slavery

Something more than a year ago the country was startled by the announcement that numerous indictments had been made in the Federal Court for the District of Alabama, for the crime of peonage. The dictionary failed to disclose the exact nature of this novel offense, but the facts stated in the news despatches, made it clear that human slavery, with its most revolting features, was openly practiced, under color of local law, and in violation of a Federal statute, in certain remote districts of the South. By conspiracy between the officers of the law-justices and constables, mostly white men of the baser sort-and heartless employees, all white men-ignorant and friendless Negroes were arrested on trumped up charges, fined to the full limit of harsh laws, sold at hard labor, worked under armed guards, cruelly flogged, and kept in this worse form of slavery long after the fines and costs imposed upon them had been worked out.

By the efforts of the Department of Justice, at the suggestion of Federal Judge Jones of Alabama, one of President Roosevelt's appointees, and at the personal instance of the President himself, it was ascertained and made known that this iniquitous system of involuntary servitude was flourishing widely and had been practiced for years in the "black belt" of Alabama and adjoining States, and was spreading to the upland counties. Convictions followed the indictments: many of the guilty were punished, and warning was given that the Federal Government would no longer tolerate this state of things. The State press acknowledged the existence of the evil, and declared that owing to local conditions and feelings upon the race question, the Federal Government alone was competent to deal adequately with it. So general was the condemnation of this new slavery that not even the morbid and diseased politics of the Southern States could find in it a political issue. There are still some indictments pending, but the crime as far as can be seen at present, is no longer safe.

Now, why was this evil permitted to grow up? It was due, in the first place, to have happened almost anywhere under like conditions. Nothing is slower than social movements. A form of government may be radically changed and laws easily enacted without modifying for a long period thereafter the social customs, the habits of thought, the feelings, in other words the genius, of a people. The labor system of the South had grown upon a basis of slavery, under which the black laborer worked for the benefit of the white masters, receiving as his hire merely the simplest necessities of life: this not only by law but with the warrant of Scripture. Had not St. Paul written, "Servants, obey your masters?" That a people who still retained to their former slaves the relation of employers, should immediately and cheerfully pay them a fair wage for their labor, was highly improbable. That there were just men who paid the market price is true enough, but the market price was inadequate. Fifteen dollars a month for a farm laborer who has to "find" himself, is not a liberal wage. This is far more than the average negro laborer receives.

Under the renting system, the crop mortgage laws leave the laborer but little more than a slave to the soil, while at the worst the Southern labor system presents peonage, or the new slavery. The old habit of

PEONAGE, OR THE NEW SLAVERY p. 395 [Photograph omitted.] Caption: The White House, the Home of the President.

making the Negro work for the white people for their board and clothes has in large measure survived. Enough negroes have risen above this level to present a remarkable average of industrial progress, but the majority are still subject in one way or another to the old rule.

This continuity of social custom is sufficient in part to account for the survival of slavery in some modified form. When to this is added the temptation of greed and cunning to take advantage of poverty and ignorance, it is not strange that peonage should exist. Taking into account the artificial solidarity of the white South on all questions relating to the rights of the Negro and in all matters between white and black, it is easily seen why the State Courts were inadequate to cope with the evil. The individuals who bribe constables

and justices to arrest ignorant: and friendless Negroes and sentence them to servitude, are the same men who, in a more Northern latitude, would exploit imported foreign workmen in factories and sweatshops, or immature white children in the cotton mills, and bribe legislatures and city councils to betray the rights of people and grind the faces of the poor in the interest of their own selfish greed.

The only sure preventive of the recurrence of slavery in some other form is the development of the Negro. No one will seek to rob those whom he knows are abundantly able to defend themselves. But pending this slow development which is to result from greater learning and growing thrift and larger liberty, just laws impartially administered can curb the greed of evil men. If this impartial enforcement of law

p. 396 THE VOICE OF THE NEGRO

does not come from within it must be sought without. The time is not far distant when there will exist among Southern white men a body of thought which will demand justice for Southern black men. They will not all agree as to what that justice shall consist of, and their views on the subject will enlarge as the years go by, but they will demand, first and unanimously fair play in the courts and just treatment of the labor upon which the prosperity of the South depends. When this influence is strong enough, the South may safely be left to wash its own dirty linen; but in the meantime it is in the hands of unfriendly white men, and it has been left to the Federal Government, under the administration of President Roosevelt, to expose this peonage iniquity and stretch out the long arm of the Nation to punish and prevent it. There is such a thing as national citizenship, and there should be lodged in the power of the government the right to protest it. This question of peonage, involving as it does the simplest and most fundamental elements of citizenship, has an important bearing on the attitude of colored voters in the presidential campaign. The Democratic party has nominated for president an able candidate, upon a platform in some respects admirable. There is no reason to believe that Judge Parker would personally be anything but friendly to the colored men. The National Republican party has of late done little to protect the rights of the Negro, and its platforms and policies, given over to a rampant commercialism and dreams of Empire, no longer ring true to its old ideals. No colored voter owes the present Republican party anything. But he does owe to Theodore Roosevelt who stands for the open door of opportunity his unqualified support. When a Negro votes in the coming presidential election, it should be with an eye single to the future welfare of his race.

This ought to be synonymous with the welfare of the Republic; if it is not so in every particular, it is surely not the Negro's fault. He is quite willing to ignore questions of race, in politics and elsewhere, whenever the white people see fit to do so.

The Negro cannot trust the Democratic party on the vital questions of his rights. The Southern Democracy, where lies the main strength of the party, is frankly hostile to his rights and would if possible limit them still more. Thinking colored men can only view with apprehension the prospect of a cabinet dominated by the Gormans, Tillmans, Vardamans, or others of their kind. With all its shortcomings the Republican party, by virtue of its traditions, and in view of the large Northern colored vote, cannot afford to be actively unfriendly to the Negro. It might be still more indifferent and still be the lesser of two evils.

But the chief reason why colored men who vote will support the Republican ticket in the coming campaign lies in the personality of the candidates. President Roosevelt and his appointees in the Federal Courts have made a strong effort to break up the new slavery ere it became firmly established, and in many other way the President has endeavored to stem the tide of prejudice, which, sweeping up from the South, has sought to overwhelm the Negro everywhere; and he has made it clear that he regards himself as the representative of the people. The influence of the executive is greater in the nation than ever before. The opponents of President Roosevelt criticise him as impulsive; his impulses are friendly towards the colored race. He is said to be impolitic in his attitude upon the question; his impolicy in that regard has been in the line of justice and generosity. We have nothing to hope for from the national Democratic party; its success in the present campaign would be a menace to our liberty. With four more years of a

PEONAGE, OR THE NEW SLAVERY p. 397

courageous and friendly executive, the South will have time for a sober second thought on its attitude towards the Negro; the Southern party friendly to human rights will have time to grow, and the colored race will be stronger to resist oppression, and to press its claim for justice at the hands of the party it supports.

Chesnutt, Charles W. "Peonage, or the New Slavery." Voice of the Negro, 1 (Sept. 1904): 394-97.