Tag Archives: vagrancy laws

Entrapment in Hopeless Terror Breeds Isolation and Violence


Some people move to far off countries for the adventure. Most of us live in familiar surroundings near family and friends until circumstances make familiarity untenable. Either life would have to be miserable or the opportunity great to uproot our families. Thankfully, our opportunities are made less severe by highways, moving companies, airlines, telecommunications, computes and vacations, that can in some ways lessen the risks and stresses of leaving our connections.

But what if we were told that if we moved away we might live a third less years, that our children would have a 40% chance of not surviving childhood, and that we would have a 15% chance we might not even make it to our destination alive? What if we were told we would face hostile people that wanted to kill us when we arrived and aggressive new diseases that would sweep through our community yearly for which there was no defense, killing many new arrivals? How great would the opportunity have to be?

These were just a few of the risks the colonists faced when making the decision to come to America. Yet, in the years before the American Revolution, a quarter-million Europeans voluntarily boarded ships bound for the colonies, in addition to the 210,000 slaves and 50,000 convicts that were forced to make the journey.

Of course, the untenable conditions that some colonists faced if they remained in their homelands were enough to incite anyone to immigrate if they could afford it. Some colonists faced such terrors as hanging, disembowelment or being burned alive for their religious beliefs. Convicts faced hanging for sometimes even minor offenses. For those that faced such extremes, fleeing to America seemed a reasonable alternative, even if half of those fleeing had to sign away seven years of their lives as virtual slaves just to escape.

Those in servitude in the colonies, and even more so those in slavery, found themselves in similar untenable conditions as those that escaped to the colonies. Yet, the end of the Civil War brought very few options for freedpeople to improve their lives.

Southern plantation owners were determined to bind ex slaves to their old life through terror. Through vagrancy laws, ex slaves either had to become quickly employed or they would face imprisonment. Most therefore signed annual contracts that forced their servitude, for plantation owners only accepted annual contracts to enforce the old life. Ex slave misery continued, for if a contract employees raised any issues, employers could cancel their contracts and have them imprisoned.

A few freedmen found menial work in towns. Still, most yearned for their own plot of land to start a new life apart from psychological and physical torture. Earlier in 1862, the Federal government had passed the Homestead Act, enabling people to immigrate West to claim 160 acre plots, yet few African Americans took advantage of the opportunity. Why not?…Was their plight not so untenable after all?
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Clif Carothers • The answer why so few immigrated is similar to why so few Europeans chose to immigrate to the colonies. The perceived rewards of westward relocation had to overcome the grave risks. To survive, a freedman would have to leave family and friends and find their way to a gateway city. They then would need to buy supplies to travel to and to survive in homesteading lands. They would then have to find a plot that could produce, that had adequate planting soil, water, and sun exposure. After finding a claim, they would stake it, build a home from the land, clear the land, plant a crop and then survive while attending it until it produced. While working the land, they would face the risks of periodic droughts, Indian attacks, and sweeping disease.

Still, all of this incredible risk seemed worthwhile to many. Yet, just to start westward, a potential immigrant would need enough funds for the travel, supplies, a year’s food, crop seeds, farming equipment and the like. At a minimum, they needed $1,000, which the vast majority of ex slaves did not have. In the absence of government assistance, some assistance societies cropped up to help 20,000 freedpeople get the funds to immigrate to Kansas and Colorado in the 1880s and ‘90s.

Yet, even the few that did immigrate had to escape the organized gangs that dragged immigrants attempting to leave off the trains. Then, lynch mobs terrorized those that tried to leave as signals to others that were contemplating immigration. During the first few decades, a dozen lynchings occurred each month throughout the South, spreading terror and misery to freedpeople, trapped in their circumstances.

The first few decades after the war did succeed in planting the seeds of migration as a possible solution to terror. These seeds would grow into the Great Migration and the Second Great Migration that would eventually populate the northern industrial cities with descendants of ex slaves. Yet, in the intervening years, the entrapment in a hopeless culture of terror became the breeding ground for intergenerational isolation and violence as a response. Could this developing subculture have been one of the root causes of the demise of our inner cities?

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America’s First Warriors Against Terror Cry Out For Justice

gravesThroughout history, societies that have optimized order through organization of men, equipment, energy, resources, and technologies, have dominated commerce. Control of men, of the land they tilled, of armies, or slaves was the dominating motive force of wealth creation prior to the industrial era, when energy began to supplant man as the motive force of progress.

Prior to the Civil War, Slaves were the economic engine for America, and the driver of its economy. While the North had much of the industry of America, the South had cotton and four million slaves. Cotton made the Southern United States one of the four most prosperous economies in the world and northern industry, which was internationally uncompetitive, depended on trade with southern states.

To enforce trade, Northern Congressmen pushed tariffs through a Congress dominated by the North, since the North had two thirds of the population. Tariffs allowed the North to skim slave-derived cotton profits through interstate trade. The North depended on southern purchases and attempted to prevent war that would hurt both economies severely. Yet when the South seceded for reasons of tariffs and slavery, destruction of the South’s economy was inevitable.

The minimal physical infrastructure that existed in the South was devastated by the war. And human capital…40 percent of white males of war age were wounded or killed. The bonds held by wealthy southern landowners that had funded the war were now worthless. Congress increased tariffs even more punitively after the war, imposing reparation costs on the South. And the vast wealth of the South, its slaves, was emancipated without compensation to owners.

The Southern Elite had pinned their economic future on the plantation system. Southern farmland was poor soil for growing staple crops that thrived in the North and Midwest, and cotton was highly labor dependent. The success of the plantation strategy therefore relied on a grotesque caste system, which instilled in slaves that they were incapable of anything but their deprived existence. Now that the North had torn apart this caste paradigm, the Southern elites believed their very survival depended on once again entrapping their labor. They chose terror as their weapon.

The ensuing black codes were an oppressive start. Plantation Owners passed vagrancy laws to imprison former slaves who did not sign annual share cropping contracts. And freedmen that tried to leave the South could be pulled off the train and imprisoned for similar reasons. Anyone caught coming to the South to recruit Freedmen could be imprisoned unless, as an example, they purchased $25,000 recruitment licenses. More monstrously oppressive were the 4,500 lynchings that took place all over the South to send freedmen the signal that they were no longer free.

What had been 4,000 of the wealthiest men in the United States now dragged four million souls through constant terror and degradation to save what was left of their fortunes. And while the northern administrators initially fought back, Northern Congressmen ultimately decided that continued bondage was in the best interests of their constituents, ending Reconstruction.

Was the victor of the Civil War actually going to accept the outcome of Reconstruction as simply a means to reunite the states and to recommence commerce? Was this going to be the final resolution to the loss of 620,000 American lives? This political compromise of the wealthy powers meant that those soldiers who spilled blood to give an oppressed people the hope of a free American life, would as a ghostly choir now transfix on a distant future silently aggrieved.

Some say that Supreme Court decisions reflect more the slowly changing mores of America than an objective rendering of the Constitution. In 1883, when it ruled protection of ex slaves’ civil rights as unconstitutional, it supported pre-civil war racist views of both the South and North that allowed southern states to re-install oppressive control of ex-slaves.

For the next thirty years, the South and North would suspend racial justice while allowing real terror of lynch mobs to roam free. How would generations of injustice and poverty affect a subculture of righteous anger within the African American community? How would it ultimately impact our inner cities?

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Filed under American Politics, Class warfare, Racism, Uncategorized, War