A Dual Emancipation: How Black Freedom Benefited Poor Whites

“Solution of the Labor Question in the South,” 1865, Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection (Schomburg Center)

Recently scholars have come to question “emancipation” as the proper terminology for describing the end of American slavery, preferring instead to discuss the “process of emancipation”a much more nuanced type of freedom. As we continue to build upon these theories, I contend that black emancipation needs to be recognized for “freeing” the South’s poor whites in several tangible ways.

When judged comparatively with other nations’ emancipatory histories, America’s experience is unique. While African Americans were the only freed slaves to be granted political rights so soon after emancipation, those rights were limited for a people without land, wealth, or job prospects. Most freed slaves left their former homes with little more than the clothes on their backs. Eventually black men were ostensibly awarded the rights of citizenship, but even that was inconsequential if they were jobless and their families were suffering from hunger and want. Newly granted civil rights sometimes rang hollow to people who were leftunprotectedto suffer the violence of vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The soon-neutralized Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments could not help almost four million Americans whose first concern was finding a way to earn a living wage and gain self-sufficiency.

During early Reconstruction, while many former slaves questioned the actual socio-economic benefits of their emancipation, poor whites experienced a time of mostly positive change. Before the Civil War, poor whites had functioned as social pariahs in the Deep South because they had no real place or stake in the slave system, and thus actually stood to threaten it. Slavery had driven the wages of southern white laborers well below those of their northern counterparts, but even more detrimentally, it decreased the demand for white farmers, tenants, day laborers, and even mechanics, creating a large underclass of white people who were unable to find consistent work or earn a living wage. As one laborer from Georgia complained, “the slaveholders could get the slave for almost nothing and the poor young men like myself, could not get a job.” Occasionally this rampant poverty led to well-known psychological and social ills, from depression, fatalism, and apathy to alcoholism, domestic violence, and criminal activity. They made particularly inviting targets for a southern legal system dominated by slaveholders, who generally incarcerated them for behavioral, non-violent “crimes” like trading, drinking, and other social interactions with slaves and free blacks. On the eve of secession, slaveholders were still jailing poor whites for small amounts of debt, publicly whipping thieves, and auctioning off debtors and criminals (for their labor) to the highest bidder. Completely removed from many of the privileges of whiteness, poor whites were essentially “masterless” men and women in an increasingly hierarchical world held together by mastery. This fact deeply troubled the region’s slaveholders.1

On the left, a woman, “the Solid South”, carrying Ulysses S. Grant in a carpet bag marked “carpet bag and bayonet rule.” On the right, Rutherford B. Hayes plowing under the carpet bag & bayonets with a plow marked “Let’em alone policy”. (Library of Congress).

In effect confirming Hinton Helper’s claim that poor whites suffered a “second degree of slavery” in the antebellum period, the post-bellum era “freed” poor whites in several critical ways. Most importantly, poor white workers were finally able to compete in a free labor economy, which at least provided them with a potential opportunity to improve their economic situation. “But another great element of productive power in the South is now to be brought into action,” one Georgia paper opined, “the labor of poor white men who have heretofore been completely idle for want of employment. They will find agricultural labor to be creditable, in the absence of negro slavery, as well as highly remunerative.” Furthermore, during Reconstruction poor whites also became beneficiaries of both the state and federal government, and for the first time in Deep South history, free public education became widely available. Finally, while newly emancipated slaves waited in vain for their fabled 40 acres and a mule, some poor whites took full advantage of the Homestead Act and the Southern Homestead Act, at last entering the ranks of landholders.2

For those poor whites who remained landless, there were still tangible improvements in their daily lives following the destruction of slavery. As poor whites secured more consistent employment, they also gained the freedom to live in two-parent, family-centered households for the majority of the year. At the same time, black emancipation signaled the end of the virtual imprisonment of thousands of poor southern whites, whose existence outside the slave system had threatened the antebellum social hierarchy. The swift change in the race of the typical southern convict—overwhelmingly white during slavery, overwhelmingly black after emancipation—meant that impoverished whites were no longer the primary targets of the criminal justice system. Although some of their newfound freedoms would be tempered or even suspended in later years, early Reconstruction served as a time of hope for many of the Deep South’s poor whites, just as it did for African Americans.

Indeed, the idea of “freedom for poor whites” had become so commonplace in the New South that, up until the revisionist work of Frank Owsley, historians unhesitatingly used the term “emancipation” to describe poor whites’ postbellum situation. The “dual nature of emancipation” has been discussed by more recent scholars like Stephen Ash and Jeff Forret, who accurately concluded that “poor white gains often came at the freedpeople’s expense.” Because the lower classes were finally able to begin enjoying some of the privileges of whiteness, Forret contended, once surprisingly fluid “racial lines hardened.” Ash similarly found that “The conquest of the South by northern armies during the Civil War began the liberation of the region’s poor whites as well as its enslaved blacks. In pursuing the extraordinary opportunities thus presented, slaves and poor whites followed remarkably parallel—but not congruent—paths, celebrated kindred victories, and stumbled over like obstacles.” Therefore, he wrote, “both encountered revolutionary possibilities beyond mere liberation, only to see those possibilities eventually thwarted by powerful countervailing forces.”  Unfortunately, after a few brief years of expanded opportunities and inclusion in the privileges of whiteness, most poor whites became re-ensnared in poverty. Their economic ascension may have ultimately failed, but they still gained certain permanent benefits from black emancipation.

Convicts in North Carolina. (Courtesy of Millions for Reparations)

With emancipation, therefore, poor whites were finally granted at least enough of the benefits of whiteness to get them off of the bottom rung of “free” society, which would now be occupied by blacks. Following the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, former slaveholders began employing various means to make even the poorest whites feel superior to blacks. Despite the tendency of many poor whites to support the Republican Party in the years following the war, a bi-racial alliance had almost no chance of long-term survival in the lawless Deep South. Largely due to intense vigilante violence from groups like the Ku Klux Klan, poor whites quickly learned to toe the line of racial segregation.

As poor whites became gradually included in the spoils of white privilege, though, black Americans realized that they had emerged from one kind of slavery only to suffer the “second degree of slavery” that poor whites had long endured. Freed people became the former slaveholders’ new targets for victimless “crimes” like vagrancy. Indeed, while wealthy white slaveholders had used several different methods to monitor and mitigate the behaviors of poor whites in the antebellum period, during the earliest years of Reconstruction, former slaveholders adapted these methods to gain control over post-bellum freedmen and women, politically, socially, and economically. There was a critical distinction, however, concerning sentencing and punishments for white and black criminals. The consequences for blacks were much more extreme, vicious, and violent than they had been for poor whites.

The post-bellum South became an extremely chaotic, violent, racist society for African Americans because they now stood as the principal threats to the prevailing order. Waters McIntosh, who spent his childhood enslaved in South Carolina, clarified who, precisely, benefited from emancipation. As a young boy McIntosh sang a song called “Rather be a nigger than a poor white man.” After gaining legal “freedom,” however, he changed his tune. “It was the poor white man who was freed by the war,” concluded McIntosh, “not the Negroes.”3

  1. Colleen M. Elliot and Louise A. Moxley, eds. The Tennessee Civil War Veterans Questionnaires, Vols. 1-5. (Easley, SC: Southern Historical Press, Inc., 1985), Vol. 3, 1057.
  2. Hinton Helper, The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It (1857; reprint, New York: A.B. Burdick, 1860), 32-3; Helper clearly realized that non-slaveholding whites were free, but argued that they suffered socio-economic consequences as a result of living in slave states. “The South,” Daily Intelligencer (GA), Nov. 28, 1865, 1.
  3. Waters McIntosh, in George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport, CT.: Greenwood, 1972-79), Vol. 2 (AR), Part 5, 20.
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Keri Leigh Merritt

Keri Leigh Merritt is a historian of the 19th-century American South who works as an independent scholar in Atlanta. She is the author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (Cambridge University Press, 2017) and the co-editor of the forthcoming Reviving Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power . Follow her on Twitter @KeriLeighMerrit.

Comments on “A Dual Emancipation: How Black Freedom Benefited Poor Whites

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    Interesting article. I’m surprised that you failed to mention that ALL whites received free land from the government which enabled them an economic base for their families. They also received farm tools, mules, and horses when they arrived on America’s shores.

    If they gambled or drank away their original wealth, why are we asking history to pity the poor whites of the South? No one in America has ever hindered a white man from progress … except himself. I also correlate this article to the current decline in the white birth rate. If you listen to the experts, it can be blamed on everything from black-on-black crime to Mexican immigrants.

    I believe the time has come for whites to take some responsibility for the America they have made, because I truly believe that it will soon have to answer for 398 years of slavery, disenfranchisement, and murder of The People of The Book, the true Israelites, and God’s Chosen People – Black Americans.

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