Civil War to Civil Rights: Work

How did life change for formerly enslaved people after emancipation? How did it stay the same?

Dates and Eras Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Emancipation
Themes Work, Labor, Discrimination, Great Migration, Civil War to Civil Rights
Grades 5–7, 6–9
Standards USII.6


Scan of a labor contract

Historical Context

With the end of slavery, newly freed people needed jobs. A majority of freedmen and women drew up contracts with the plantation owners and became employees of their former owners. Men mainly worked as farmers, while the women worked in houses as maids and cooks. Children also entered into contracts written up between their parents and their future employer.

The amount of time that a contract was legally binding varied. A contract could be dissolved if either party broke the agreements written in the contract. Generally, minor violations resulted in the offending party paying a fine of five or ten dollars. This was a considerably higher price for the employee than the employer and could send a family into debt. Vagrancy laws and other “Black Codes” compelled African-Americans into a system known as convict leasing, where after being arrested, their services could be “bought” though the workers themselves did not receive payment for their labor.

Jobs for African American people in the South were scarce and low paying, and people of color faced discrimination and violence. Due to the discrimination faced in the rural South, many African American people moved to cities in the North and Midwest in search of better employment opportunities. This movement to large, Northern cities is historically referred to as the Great Migration. Some of the cities African Americans moved to include Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh; in these cities too, African American people also experienced discrimination and violence.

Suggested Questions

1. How does the Appomattox County Outmigration infographic relate to the Great Migration
2. Categorize the information included in the labor contracts. What similar themes do each of the labor contracts display?

Suggested Activities

1. Have the student take the information in the Appomattox County Outmigration infographic and create an alternative visual representation. These representations could include a comic strip, a picture, a map, etc.

2. Compare and contrast the two labor contracts. Who was the individual being contracted for labor? What types of jobs were they expected to perform? What were they being compensated for their labor?