This proximity means the 1870 census is a critical document for those researching former slaves. I can’t say that enough. Proximity, along with surname, is one of the best clues in the quest to discover the identity of a former slaveholder. Over and over again, we see this pattern in the 1870 census.
Why would they stay? The need to earn a living doing explains much of this. Largely illiterate and with farming as their main occupation, the former slaves quickly realized how few choices they actually had and how narrow freedom actually was. Their former owners still owned land that needed laborers.
What is less appreciated is the long, multi-generational hold of slavery and the effects of its lovechild, Jim Crow segregation.
Some were still working for descendants of the slaveholding family. In 1910, the African-American Prathers are still in Montgomery County, Maryland living in close proximity to their former owners. The African-American Benomens are still in 1940 in Kemper County, Mississippi, where their ancestors were enslaved. This was true all over the South.
Why did so many African-Americans remain locked into the place of their ancestor’s enslavement, even decades later?
After only a brief glimpse at the possibility of a truly multi-racial society during Reconstruction, white supremacy and those in its sway quickly retook the state and local governments of the southern states and eventually removed the ability of African-Americans to vote through violence and intimidation.
The 13th amendment, which abolished slavery, contained a valuable exception: “except as punishment for crime.” With this key phrase, southern states enacted convict leasing statutes in a fever pitch, dooming thousands of southern blacks to literal enslavement and even death well through the turn of the century.
Moreover, the lynching that began in earnest in the 1880s would go one to kill over four thousand blacks through the 1930s, and this extralegal killing was not confined to the southern states. Almost none of the perpetrators were caught and punished, even though their identities were mostly known.
This is not an abstract occurrence; even my own ancestor George W. Holt was lynched in Hardin County, Tennessee in 1887. The local newspaper called it ‘suicide’:
Part of the failure of Reconstruction was indeed the inability of the federal government to give freedpeople their own land, the “forty acres and a mule” that became lore. Lincoln’s assassination and the rise of Andrew Johnson to the Presidency portended their fate.
An avowed white supremacist, Johnson favored a quick amnesty for the former Confederates who had committed treason. The Freedmens Bureau backed down from advocating for landownership for former slaves and instead encouraged and pushed freedpeople into year-long labor contracts.
This failure—to give land to the people who had worked it– would lock many of the descendants of enslaved people into sharecropping and tenant farming and poverty generation after generation. Former slave Bayley Wyatt spoke passionately in 1866:
“I may state to all our friends, and to all our enemies, that we has a right to the land where we are located. For why? I tell you. Our wives, our children, our husbands, has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon; for that reason we have a divine right to the land…”
Freedom was an elusive thing in reality.
Freedmen and their families were still, as they were in slavery, economically dependent upon white planters.
Yes, they couldn’t be sold away from loved ones.
Yes, they were not supposed to be whipped anymore.
Yes, they were supposed to be paid now for their service.
They were now citizens and were supposed to be able to vote.
In reality, former owners tried to keep their children in slavery after emancipation.
In reality, slaveholders scoffed at the idea of paying people they used to own and cheated them or simply ran them off their property in droves after the crop came in.
Any African-American who dared achieve highly–by becoming landowners, by registering to vote, by complaining of being cheated, by leading the building of churches and schools, and especially former Union soldiers–ran an even higher risk of being lynched.
All of this, and remember that in most states, black people could not testify in court against anyone white. Freedmens Bureau documents attest to these and other atrocities.
And through it all, violence was the glue that held it all together. Unpunished violence, murder upon beating upon raping without justice. Daniel Price wrote to the Alabama governor in 1868:
“I am afraid to leave town and in constant dread of being murdered….This state of things cannot long continue. Either we must have protection or leave….We have fallen upon evil times when an American citizen can not express his honest opinions without being in great danger of being murdered.”
Thomas Jones wrote to South Carolina’s governor in 1871:
“On Friday night, there came a crowd of men to my house…calling, knocking, climbing and shoving at the door….It is a plot to drive me out of the country because I am a school teacher. They say that I shall not teach school any longer in this country. Please your honor, send some protection up here.”
Starting in the 1910s, the Great Migration began from the Deep South and by 1970 over 6 million had left the South for opportunities in the North and West. Some African-Americans broke free and were able to escape the cycle of violent oppression and poverty.
But everyone did not leave. Everyone did not break free.
And through the turn of the century and two World Wars, the cumulative effects of the lack of social, political and economic power achieved in many ways, its desired outcome.
The awful reality was that many, many African-American descendants of slaves were still living right there in the community with the descendants of their former owners, even half a century later. Even 80 years later, in 1940.
Slavery had a long, long hold indeed.