Sunday* Photoblogging: slave cabins

by Ingrid Robeyns on May 31, 2014


In contrast to Chris and Esther, I don’t have any fancy photo equipment and no skills; I take pictures with my mobile device and the vast majority of them are crap. But here’s one I got attached to. I took it when I visited Laura Plantation in Lousiana (which was also the scene of this rather hilarious story). It’s very good that they preserved these slave cabins; if you enter them and you are told that two families lived in each of those huts, it makes it in a very accessible way possible to image/understand what their living conditions have been.

The plantation guide told us that when slavery was abolished, the owner started to pay the slaves, but at low wages, while making them pay a lot (in relative terms) for ‘board and lodging’. My understanding of this is that since the slaves had no savings or other means, they couldn’t go anywhere, and were in a certain sense forced to keep working in socio-economic circumstances that still had much in common with slavery.

Highly recommended to visit.

  • Sunday? OK, where I’m sitting right now it’s Saturday evening, but hey, it’s already Sunday in Australia, China, Indian, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Pakistan etc etc.



Watson Ladd 06.01.14 at 1:17 am

No, they did go somewhere. Millions of former slaves and the sons of former slaves moved northwards. To do so they had to avoid laws that prohibited the movement of black men, together with the violence of the KKK, and the antipathy of the white workers who they displaced by being willing to work for less. Leaving the farm to search for work locally ment running afoul of vagrancy laws.

It wasn’t economics that kept sharecroppers sharecroppers, it was naked, brutal, state-sanctioned violence that didn’t end until the FBI came down and started arresting people a century later.


Ronan(rf) 06.01.14 at 1:34 am

Watson – every sentence you have written (above) contradicts the previous. Congrats, quite the accomplishment. How could ‘millions move north’ after the CW (which they didn’t) while also:

“It wasn’t economics that kept sharecroppers sharecroppers, it was naked, brutal, state-sanctioned violence that didn’t end until the FBI came down and started arresting people a century later.”

So they both moved north unhindered in the millions, while also remaining sharecroppers due to state sanctioned violence? Do you think this stuff through ?

Also, did you miss the ‘socio’ in Ingrid’s post ? Afaict ‘socio’ includes your many caveats (about violence, legal barriers, etc). But do you not think poverty, lack of skills, social networks so on and so forth does not act as an impediment for a person migrating ? If not, how could you possibly think such a thing ?


Watson Ladd 06.01.14 at 2:17 am

Ronan: some moved north because they escaped. Others didn’t. No more difficult to understand then the Irish starving to death and moving to America during the famine. At this time man’s brute force was an asset worth considerable amounts of money in a nation still undergoing rapid industrialization.

Sharecropping pre-1878 was done under contracts written by the Federal government. When that ends, the abuses begin.

The migration starts a bit later in 1910 as Jim Crow laws are reintroduced following Plessy.


Alan White 06.01.14 at 2:19 am

There’s no doubt sharecropping had racial roots spun off emancipation in the South, but it extended to anyone deemed of a certain class. My caucasian dad sharecropped before WWII for a few years, for instance, during which (e.g.) my oldest brother (unnamed) died at birth at home without a doctor. In a way WWII service saved dad by getting a factory job afterwards as a Vet. But anyone from the subsistence-farming rural South could be a sharecropper, though no doubt African-Americans were the main targets of exploitation.


Ronan(rf) 06.01.14 at 2:25 am

Watson – millions *did not* move north post CW. (unless you’re taking a very long view of ‘post CW’ – 50 years later, at least.) Ingrid, afaict, is not talking about 20 th century black migration, but actually *post CW* migration. As in after the actual war.


Ingrid Robeyns 06.01.14 at 6:33 am

What the guide told us, is what happened immediately after the Civil War. Also, he didn’t give numbers, so I’m not going to argue with you on the facts, since I don’t know the details of what happened.

Alan White – thanks, I did not know this. A question perhaps some of you can answer: so there were both black and white people involved in sharecropping. Did the white people who became sharecroppers move into these former slave cabins? [I don’t know to what extent the ones I visited where representative, but these were extremely basic].
And does anyone know about historical research on earnings differences by race? It would be surprising, given what happened in the decades before, if the white and black sharecroppers would be living lives with similar living conditions.


P.M.Lawrence 06.01.14 at 8:02 am

A question perhaps some of you can answer: so there were both black and white people involved in sharecropping. Did the white people who became sharecroppers move into these former slave cabins?

I recall some remarks on Jerry Pournelle’s website, relating to the paternalistic practices of his land owning forebears and their contemporaries, while he was growing up in the 1930s and 1940s. They always allowed sharecroppers to see out their time and die in the homes they had been living in, i.e. they were allowed a rent free retirement – but that implied that every new generation of sharecroppers got new housing, or at any rate housing reconditioned after someone had died in it. I think that was in Tennessee, where a lot of sharecroppers were white. But readers should check my quite possibly faulty recollections to Jerry Pournelle’s own archives.

And does anyone know about historical research on earnings differences by race? It would be surprising, given what happened in the decades before, if the white and black sharecroppers would be living lives with similar living conditions.

It depends what you are keeping constant during your comparisons. I can tell you right now that U.S. sharecroppers – black or white – had it far better than many Scots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Henry George somewhere remarks that abolitionists touring Europe used to bring out such testimony to show the ill-treatment slaves were getting, and it went down well until they reached Scotland, where they got puzzled looks instead; it turned out that the slaves had it physically better than Scottish tenement dwellers (and, yes, comparing what I see in those pictures with family traditions, I can tell you that sharecroppers living like that had it better than my father and grandfather growing up in Dundee tenements, in the 1920s and ’30s and the 1870s and ’80s respectively – no stairhead gas and no cribs in chests of drawers to save space there).


SamChevre 06.01.14 at 11:38 am

Poor whites were socially somewhat better off, but the economics of sharecropping were the same for blacks and whites. Tobacco Road is about white sharecroppers.

I looked at the cabins and thought “those are really nice for slave cabins–they have floors.”


jwl 06.01.14 at 11:41 am

Black sharecroppers did not have the protection of the law. If you saved a little money, the landlord could skimp on your pay and force you to spend it. If you had something a white person wanted, they could take it and you had no recourse. You could be raped or killed and yyour family had no legal recourse.

That was the main difference between white and black sharecroppers, and why so many left as soon as they got a chance. The American South was a police state for blacks under slavery and after Reconstruction it became something like medieval Russia, where the law did not support a sector of the population and pogroms werecommon.


jwl 06.01.14 at 11:46 am

Ta-Nehisi Coates touched on this recently in his Atlantic article on reparations.

However bad it was for white sharecroppers (and it was) you can be sure it was a lot worse for blacks.

I’ve been to that plantation. It’s important for Americansto go to those places to grapple with the history one doesn’t learn in school.


godoggo 06.01.14 at 12:28 pm

I’m sure Scotland was very poor but it seems wrong to compare physical conditions of urban tenement dwellers anywhere to those of someone living on a farm.


Belle Waring 06.01.14 at 1:59 pm

It was Sunday here! P.M. Lawrence: if it’s Jerry Pournelle the SF author/Niven collaborator we’re talking about here, I wouldn’t believe it if he told you Carolina Gold rice was white, and tender, and delicious, because he’s racist as fuck. Seriously. And Carolina Gold rice is all those things and more.


Main Street Muse 06.01.14 at 2:26 pm

Sounds like 19th century capitalists modeled some practices based on the slave owner model (see Pullman neighborhood in Chicago, where the owner built a “model neighborhood” for workers, and charged rent paid for by salaries paid by the owner – a nice circular movement of money:

Ingrid – have you been to Monticello? It’s the American experience in one location – the man who gave us the self-evident truth that all men are created equal lived in a gracious plantation home built by slave labor and and funded by massive debt. A fascinating place to visit.


Ingrid Robeyns 06.01.14 at 7:07 pm

Main Street Muse — Unfortunately, I’ve never been to Monticello. I looked it up and it looks fascinating, but unlikely that I’ll be able to visit (I incidentally will be “relatively” close late August when I attend the NOMOS meetings in Washington, but I figured out that with public transport it’s still 4 to 5 hours one way, and I won’t have time to stay longer).

jwl @ 10 — you write that contemporary American children don’t learn this at schools. Really?


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© 06.01.14 at 7:31 pm

No to this extent, Ingrid Robeyns. At least, not where I went to school.


PJW 06.01.14 at 8:28 pm

Why are the structures raised off the ground?


Alan White 06.01.14 at 8:58 pm

PJW–convenience and cost reduction for the (caucasian) owners over time. By elevating the cabins, usually with large rocks, you reduce the chance of damage from floods, termites, rats, and the like. It provides some reflief for the residents during summer with a source of cooling from beneath, but of course just makes it colder in the winter as well (so the residents prayed for mild winters, at least more likely in the South).


PJW 06.01.14 at 10:33 pm

Interesting. Thank you, Alan White.


Belle Waring 06.02.14 at 2:56 am

To be fair, white people in the South put their houses up like that all the time. My house in the South Carolina Low Country is elevated on brick pillars about a meter high. Same reasons.


Alan White 06.02.14 at 5:43 am

That’s true Belle. I can remember my grandparents’ shack on stones on Harrikin Creek (Hurricane Creek as I later found out) near Rascal Town, TN. But it generally was only poor people that built houses that way where I came from–the rural parts of south mid-Tennessee and northern Alabama. Plantation mansions never were so constructed, because owners could afford sturdy foundations. But the shacks for tenants were made to be as cheap and durable as possible. Same motivation for poor people like my grandparents I assume, who were tenant farmers. Where I was born and raised early on was strongly segregated and no African Americans were allowed to live in the whole county, so all tenant farmers were Caucasian. And yes still vilely racist, despite sharing the same economic status as exploited blacks.


jwl 06.02.14 at 11:00 am

Ingrid, no they don’t, particularly in the South, where slavery is greatly downplayed and Confederate heroism extolled.

To be fair, I very much doubt that Dutch children get a balanced view of Indonesian colonialism in school. And I know they don’t get a historical view of Black Pete.

In south Louisiana, almost all the older houses are raised off the ground. In my oldneighborhood, the areas provided shelter ffor roving gangs of feral housecats.


Ingrid Robeyns 06.02.14 at 5:13 pm

jwl – you are absolutely right, yet you don’t need to convince me of the absence of decent information on colonial history in European schools… (in fact, I once wrote about that here for the Belgian case, some years ago). But what seems a relevant difference is that the ancestors of the slaves are part of the current school population. So they must know about slavery simply from family historical narratives. I probably wrongly assumed that more Americans would have slavery more consciously in their minds and narratives than most Europeans have colonialism (which also includes Western Europe’s share in the slave economy!). But anyway, in all these cases it is sad that we don’t teach this to our kids (and that we didn’t get it taught ourselves).


Ed Herdman 06.02.14 at 5:42 pm

I don’t think that family narratives about slavery, when they are preserved at all, compete well with mass media. Hopefully, mass media’s way of portraying slavery isn’t wholly off the mark.

It has been fairly hard for my own (middle-class-ish, through most of its history I think) family to discover information about what we were doing back in the 1850s (when they appear to have been more comparatively wealthy). My own ancestors living at the time may have been much different than we assume. 150 years is a long time.


ingrid robeyns 06.02.14 at 7:20 pm

Ed Herdman – yes, you’re probably right, thanks for pointing that out.


Main Street Muse 06.02.14 at 8:07 pm

My children have attended schools in two states; slavery has been discussed in elementary classes in both states where we attended schools. We started school in the Land of Lincoln (Illinois) – slavery was indeed a topic in history/social studies. We are now in a Southern school system – my two youngest (twins) went on a field trip this year that included a stop on the Underground Railroad – with some discussion of the life of slaves and Harriet Tubman, etc. But my state government seems intent on abolishing public education of any kind, so who knows how/what children will be taught in the future in this state.

I will say that in my three years of teaching at college, very little history of any kind seems to be retained by my students.


jwl 06.03.14 at 2:55 pm

Slavery is discussed in public schools in the South, but in a very antiseptic way. No attempt is made to connect the past to the present, and certainly one doesn’t want to discuss Reconstruction in detail. The whole period from 1865-1910 is glossed over as much as possible, and when unavoidably there, it focuses on the Progressive Movement in the Midwest. (A realistic portrayal of the history of the period would not reflect well on the current power structure, so isn’t portrayed.)

Black people aren’t actors in the drama, and any family narratives about slavery are not accommodated in the curriculum. In general, the Southern states don’t value education because it might disrupt the power of the planters, which historically has wanted a disorganized working class divided into warring black and white groups that won’t organize to threaten their power.

In general, things like the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement just happen. People who supported slavery or Jim Crow just tend to vanish, and their descendants are not mentioned.

Of course, similar things must happen in the Netherlands. There are quite a lot of Dutch citizens of Indonesian descent going through Dutch schools (Giovanni van Bronckhorst for example), but I’m sure there family histories are not integrated into the curriculum, and any association of colonialism with current prominent Dutch families is almost certainly downplayed.


Trader Joe 06.03.14 at 4:01 pm

“In general, the Southern states don’t value education because it might disrupt the power of the planters, which historically has wanted a disorganized working class divided into warring black and white groups that won’t organize to threaten their power.”

I don’t know where you live in the South and don’t doubt your characterization could be applicable in some places, but in major cities like Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville (these I at least have some near knowledge about) neither the war itself nor the reconstruction is taught anything like you describe nor with the motives you attribute.

There are deficiencies in the teaching to be sure which tends to overrely on rote and fact reciting rather than causalities and motivations but the conditions of slavery are absolutely taught as is the subequent jim crow laws, segregation, separate but equal etc. This isn’t by any means an false mythology to foster poor race relations and its absolutely not ignored.


Meredith 06.04.14 at 10:05 pm

Let me recommend Sweet Briar College as a place to visit in this regard. (The magnolia by the library is enough reason to visit in itself, even in the dead of winter.) I mention Sweet Briar because this fine women’s college (once dismissed as a “finishing school” for those who ride horses) does a great deal to remember the slave-past. Not just slave-owning but slave. (Focalization matters here.)


jwl 06.05.14 at 1:05 am

Trader Joe,

Really? How much do the Atlanta schools discuss the mass expulsion of black delegates from the state legislature in 1868 by a coalition of white Democrats and Republicans? Or the mass attacks against freedmen in Georgia that year? Or the fact that the Georgia state legislature defeated ratification of the 15th amendment in 1869? Do they cover that racist ex-Confederate opposition was so strong that Georgia had to put under military government again in 1870 so that the full citizenry could vote?

How about that Georgia sent the first former Confederate back to the US senate, and he is believed to have been the head of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia? That Georgia averaged more than one mob lynching per month in the last decade of the 19th century?

Maybe they do teach this stuff in Atlanta schools now, but I highly doubt it.

Education is also systematically underfunded in Southern schools in general, as it has been historically. In many states, whites typically go to private academies that were set up to preserve whites-only schools when the public schools were desegregated. In many areas, the public school population is overwhelmingly black and immigrant. A lot of the drive for school vouchers in the South is driven by a need to secure funds from the state to preserve white-dominated private schools. Gifted programs and magnet schools serve a similar purpose by carving out white-dominated spaces in the public schools.


jwl 06.05.14 at 1:14 am

Reference link

Southern states starve public education because the dominant white community doesn’t want to spend resources on education for black students. That’s the dominant narrative. It’s Us and Them.


Trader Joe 06.05.14 at 11:56 am

jwl @29
They aren’t teaching any of that in New York, Chicago or San Fran or anywhere else for that matter – so if that’s what you want to see covered don’t act like this is a Southern only problem. Nobody black or white wants any unexpurgated version of events taught to the kiddies – your word in the initial post was the correct one – antiseptic. Painting it as only a “South” issue when its broader than that should be the real point.

Do you think maybe the author of the Atlantic article was parsing their facts to make a story or do you think they gave a well rounded account of the way things really are? Volumes have been written about this topic and I’m not in the slightest going to bat for any notion that things are as the should be – that said there’s this constant interest in kicking Southern cities for the way they’ve historically operated and no interest at all in noticing the improvements being made.

Atlanta, Charlotte and Richmond (among others) all have or have recently had black mayors and significant representation on their respective councils and school boards etc. if you think these politicians are not implementing improvements the blame cannot rest on “whites” alone. There is money and power behind change and it is happening.


jwl 06.05.14 at 7:32 pm

Trader Joe,

Please stop making excuses about the South. It is a major issue in the South specifically because it happened there. You didn’t have armed mobs taking over legislatures in coups to prevent a large minority (or majority) of citizens from voting in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. All of those places have and had their racial problems, but they didn’t secede in defense of slavery and cause a war that lead to the deaths of 600,000 Americans. They didn’t create roving death squads and openly kill people to terrorize entire populations (the Ku Klux Klan). They didn’t create and systematize and enforce Jim Crow until prevented by armed federal troops.

We are not talking about the rest of the country here. We are talking about evil and death and destruction carried out in the name of white supremacy for hundreds of years up to living memory, and in some ways up to today. It is a Southern problem. Don’t try to weasel out of it.

Are things better than they were? Sure. Are they good enough? No. Is part of the reason that schools, infrastructure, and the economy in Southern states are not up to general American standards from an ideology of white supremacy? Absolutely. This ties directly into the teaching about Reconstruction. Life was better for a period under Reconstruction, but the white elites would not tolerate true equality or a diversified, more equal economy, and they succeeded in reversing the clock and consigning the South to penury and hate for almost another century.

Why the focus on cities, anyway? Many aspects of education, infrastructure, and the economy in the South are controlled by the same power structures that have controlled them since the days of Jim Crow. And at the state level, Southern states are consistently near the bottom on any socio-economic measure one cares to measure.

In Louisiana, people always say, thank god for Mississippi so that they aren’t last in everything. (True Southern humor is pretty dark.) You drive from Lousiana to Arkansas and people say, “Oh, you’re from Lousy-ana”, because at least Arkansas is 48th instead of 49th. It would be nice for once for someone from the South to actually want to be better than average, as opposed to just saying, “Oh they are all as bad as we are.” or “At least we aren’t as bad as the worst place we can think of.”

One more thing: you put “whites” in quotes. You don’t think there is a white elite power structure in the South? You don’t think they still have political, economic, and social control? You don’t think they write the textbooks, fly the flags, and decide what voting rights acts they want to gut? Really?


Trader Joe 06.05.14 at 8:45 pm

Glad to see you can hold a rational discussion on a topic which you’ve clearly convinced yourself you understand. I’m sure you wouldn’t be impressed by actual data so I’ll leave you to your narrow minded world-view that’s plainly ripped straight from 1956.

You’re clearly well versed in the events of the 1870s but strangely haven’t been able to move past them. Its little wonder conservative southerners cling to their power beliefs, so called open minded liberals insist on refighting the war perpetually and never believe any progress is enough.


jwl 06.05.14 at 9:26 pm

Trader Joe,

Exactly how much progress is enough then? Is the current state of race relations and civil rights in Mississippi the right mix? Are we right now, but were wrong before, or is the South constantly perfectly optimizing its amount of progress to always be at the right place? You seem mad at “so-called open-minded liberals”, so why don’t you explain to me precisely what they get wrong?

Also, why are conservatives allowed to have “power beliefs” because of these liberals? Are beliefs right or wrong, or are they situational? If some “liberal” annoys you, is that license to be a white supremacist?


Trader Joe 06.06.14 at 11:42 am

Those are fair questions. I don’t know how much progress is enough and as I commented initially at 31, I think rather few states northern or southern are really where they should be. Agreed – southern states as a group have a further way to go. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama may have the greatest ground to cover. Virginia, Tennesssee and North Carolina a good bit less depending on what you’d like to try to measure.

I guess my point, is that consistently dwelling on the 1870s or 1950s or whatever time frame you find to be most hateful doesn’t really advance the ball. Does teaching the 1868 expulsion do anything other than give a black kid yet one more example of white bigotry? Does teaching the 1870 vote make a white kid more respectful of black struggles? I tend to think not. I’m not saying this history should be forgotten, but I question whether teaching to the broad population of school age kids accomplishes much. There’s not a kid in school today that even has a great grandparent that was involved with those times.

As to the later points I guess I’d turn the question around – we’ve progressed from segregation to integration. We’ve enforced 40 to 50 years of affirmative action, disparate impact and half a doze other phraseologies to improve access to everything from housing to education to voting.

I don’t for one minute think any of that shouldn’t have happened and I likewise think that much of it is still necessary to at least some extent and in some places – but the broad discriminatory practices that prevailed when the related court decisions were issued or laws enacted have been significantly reduced yet some, and the tone and tenor of your comments struck this chord with me, seem to imply that asbolutely nothing has been done and nothing has changed. I think that’s untrue and its what I react against.

Again, I’m not saying “mission accomplished” but I look at state legislatures, mayorships, the amount of access to higher education and the level of aid being provided to facilitate that – absolutely none of which existed in the 60’s, 70’s or even the 80’s and have a really hard time with comments suggesting everything remains business as usual and the south (or anywhere else) has made no progress.

Your last set of questions are simply rude and not at all implied by the discussion at hand.


Ed Herdman 06.07.14 at 4:01 am

By the way, I don’t think that a Midwestern US education on the eve of 9/11 would have included many of the touchstones of jwl’s post at #29. The “antiseptic” way of talking about the 1850-1910 period sounds pretty familiar. I hope that students don’t get the idea that there weren’t problems in Reconstruction – none of post #29 should surprise any student who learns that Reconstruction basically failed and that black emancipation was essentially unfinished for a century after Lincoln decreed it.

I think what’s most important is that we’re currently backsliding, in many places including the North – unfortunately a political issue for some but still might be broached in a student setting. For students, things that happened over fifty years ago, now, might make them think “wow, it took a long time for the Civil Rights movement to appear, but then it did, so I’m glad to be alive today.” For teenagers, how their own lives are still be affected by the failure of reconstruction probably appears to be an abstract issue.


Meredith 06.07.14 at 5:46 am

Ed Herdman @36: “For students, things that happened over fifty years ago, now, might make them think “wow, it took a long time for the Civil Rights movement to appear, but then it did, so I’m glad to be alive today.” For teenagers, how their own lives are still be affected by the failure of reconstruction probably appears to be an abstract issue.”

A few weeks ago, I asked students (all but one juniors and seniors) in a small seminar about their summer plans, and one thing led to another, and one of them asked me if I had done an internship when in college — or maybe, what internship I had done — certainly, the tone of the question assumed internships had existed forever, and all eyes were turned to me as if, yes, internships forever! I was momentarily stunned but answered quickly that internships did not exist when I was in college. (I did not launch into how, as a woman, I couldn’t even apply for most fellowships, like, say, Rhodes…. Nor did I continue on to how, as a woman, I couldn’t get a credit card when I was an assistant professor…. Nor how there were no maternity leaves when I had my babies…. Nor how both my grandmothers had several children before they could vote.) I remained completely in the moment with this internship thing. I managed to turn my answer into an appeal to a student who’d just completed (with highest honors) a thesis on a question about colonial American history — hey, this internship business, sort of like indentured servitude, no? He had some good stuff to contribute there. (Eventually, we got around to discussing the Iliad — not that questions of distribution are foreign to that poem, may I say.)

Anyway, yeah. The young are young. So even when smart and well educated, they don’t know the whole history of the world. Or maybe they know more about its history 400 or 4000 years ago than they know about 40 years ago. We have to share with them. One of my pet peeves: when I was young, we listened to our elders! But we did — we heard stories about WWII, the Great Depression, even WWI and the Civil War — and we learned (even if that learning meant protesting Vietnam in ways our elders hadn’t expected).

An unexpected pleasure in the hair turning completely grey and the wrinkles getting deep: the young are curious about the world I knew when I was young. So let’s tell them!


Ed Herdman 06.07.14 at 8:09 pm

Good answer. You’ve reminded me that it’s wrong to assume we know what other people are interested in – telling people something unexpected can show them new things to be interested, and make even the abstract into something concrete.

Comments on this entry are closed.