I have used Adams as a case study, recently, in one of my papers about the process of American democracy. I find myself compelled to write another short piece about this man. Henry Adams was a slave in 1865 Mississippi. He found himself to be freed by the Emancipation Proclamation after a life of slavery under his master. However, like most African Americans, he could not really be free as he was forced into a contract of share-cropping.
Why was he forced into this terrible half-free labor? Well, African Americans after the Americna Civil War were granted their freedom politically, yet this was not the reality in society. Blacks were still being killed, and subjugated to racism. I mean sharecropping itself is an example of this. Share-cropping was fairly simple. African Americans who became freedmen had no place to go during the Reconstruction because of the incessant racism that prevailed throughout the newly united Union. So they were forced to go back to work for their former masters in a new system of slavery.
The reason I am calling it slavery is because share-cropping was basically a system in which individuals/families would work an allotted patch of land that belonged to the tenant. When harvest time came around they had to give away more than half of their crop to the tenant as rent, while they the,selves lived on the scraps of thee fruits of their labors. In essence, a new form of slavery. Not much changed. Did it?
About 20 years later in the 1880’s, Adams testified to the Supreme Court on how brutal his new ‘boss’ was to him although he was in entirety constitutionally a free person under the new amendments as well. His testimony is evidence of an instance the way African Americans still continued to suffer in the Jim Crow South.
Adams begins by saying that once he found out he was granted his freedom, his master quickly went up to him and the other ex-slaves to tell them that it would be better for them to work for him under a contract, as if they left they would be killed by other white men who were seeking revenge for the loss of the civil war.
So, although Adams was reluctant at first, he soon conceded under the impression that after a few years he would be granted a larger share of his crop. Yet, this never happened.
When he was working for his master, all he would get for food is the few scraps left over form the crops- barely enough to survive on.
Adams kept calling his former master “boss” as he was his employer. Yet, this did not go well with his mistress as she threatened they would kick Adams out if he did not call them by their ‘proper’ title: master and mistress.
Interestingly, when although under the contract that Adams signed, violence against the new ’employees’ was simply not allowed, his mistress still beat his younger sister for disobedience.
Is it me, or there was no real difference between this new system of share-cropping and slavery? It gets crazier.
One day Adams asked permission from his master to visit the town near his farm. When he was given permission on his way there he was assaulted and robbed by some white men, where they took all of his money.
What did Adams’ freedom mean? It seems that not much changed from the time he was a slave to the period in which he was supposedly ‘free’. He might have been politically free, but he was certainly not really free, not in the same way that other men were.
It is obvious that it is not like the moment that the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished the lives of African American turned rosy and beautiful. The strife of people like Henry Adams seems to prove otherwise.
Make sure you read Henry Adam’s testimony:
Published in The Art of Polemics, Issue 1, on June 18th, 2014.