African American History Greenback America

Greenbacks for some, but not all.


By Kelley Libby
Greenback America Graduate Research Assistant

Every Friday, we feature a post from the Greenback America Team. You can see all their posts and follow the progress of the exhibit on their Tumblr

In the years after the Civil War, cash made its way to some people and not to others.

Recently our team spent the day doing research at the @libraryofva. We were looking for instances where people in the former Confederacy—particularly freedpeople—encountered greenbacks for the first time shortly after the Civil War. We were also on the hunt for evidence of how freedpeople felt about having cash at hand. I delved into labor contracts reprinted in a very thick volume (1,073 pages) called Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867; Series 3, volume 1, Land and Labor, 1865.

What I learned is that during this period southern landowners dictated labor contracts to freedmen—people who in many instances had just been enslaved by those very landowners. These contracts represented the transition from slavery to free labor—a result of Union victory. Our hunch was that we’d find evidence in the documents that freedpeople in the south—most of whom were starting from nothing—would be happy that greenbacks would now be available to them. After all, cash means a certain kind of freedom, one closely tied to the government that had smashed slavery and one that offered the ability to, for example, spend and save as desired. In Land and Labor, I did find that free people in the south preferred to be paid in cash—when it was an option—but as I read the contracts, I also came to realize a sadder truth for the whole region: cash just wasn’t that available.

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The labor contracts, which were overseen by the newly formed Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau), spelled out the terms of labor and of compensation. Most of the contracts were based on sharecropping arrangements, wherein freedmen would be paid a fraction of a crop such as peas or corn. Shares as small as one-tenth were common in some areas. Often, the payments were deferred, meaning compensation would come in one lump sum at the end of a crop cycle. In letters to Freedmen’s Bureau agents, some freedmen reported not being paid at all. Others report physical abuse by their employers. Some employers wrote grievances too—claiming that they didn’t have enough crops or cash to take care of their own families, or that the freedmen’s complaint is untrue.

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Below is a letter from an Alabama freedman to the Freedmen’s Bureau Subassistant Commissioner at Huntsville, Alabama, in which he reports a broken contract in a share arrangement.

Florence Ala.  Dec. 6th 1866,

Dear Sir:  At the commencement of the year I made a contract with a man by the name of W. Beckwith of this County to work his farm–  we were to get one half of what we would have made–  we were to feed ourselves and also the teames–  we (I mean myself and family who is composed twenty eight, in all about 12 hands the balance small children) have made a small crop consisting of 15 bales of cotton and 200 hundred barrels of corn–  we never received any help from Mr Beckwith, exceding 2 bushels of wheat and 2 bushels of rye and he furnished us with three plows–  still at the day of settlement–Mr Beckwith has had all of our part of the crop attached claiming that we were owing him a very large amount–  I dont’ know what we can owe him for we never have received any thing from him except what I have named above–  we are left without anything after our hard years labor–  he took away from us 200 Blls. of corn, about 20 head of hogs and our wagon and harness–  we called on Judge Tinge but he could not do anything for us as he said he would not interfere with civil Law–  the fact of the thing is that Mr. Tinge is afraid to do anything that would be against any of those big Southern men–  I was induced by a Northern gentleman who is farming here to write you and get. your advice in the matter–  no lawyer here can be had to take up a case for a negroes–  My contract was registered with the Freedmens Bureau Agent and can be investigated if you would only give it your attention.  My family is without any resource whatever–  Please answer me what is to be done, by an investigation in this Country you will soon find that my case is only but one of the many who have been treated like me,  Yours very respectfully

Richmond Body

(You can find more letters like the above one here and here.)

The letters and contracts contained in Land and Labor are only a selection of the documents that exist from this time. As I turned page after page, scanning the documents for mentions of compensation on my hunt for greenbacks, I kept getting caught up in the stories of real people whose voices contained all the frustration and weariness you’d imagine of people who are deprived what’s owed to them, meager as the payment so often is. It made me sad and angry for them. Their letters also made me wonder about the greater economic forces at work here. At a time when greenbacks were making their way into the hands and wallets and banks of people throughout the nation, via chartered National Banks, why not so much in the south? Why were farmers and freedmen having disputes over bushels of peas and bales of cotton? Meanwhile, what was happening in the places where greenbacks were more prolific? Our exhibit is about a system that transformed our country, and continues to do so. But this trip to the library allowed me to encounter people, black and white, who, for a time, were on the very edges of that system, almost locked out completely. How did that happen? And what can we learn from their story about money, power, and inequality today?