Mentha Morrison wanted her husband back. The problem was not domestic, it was legal. Jackson Morrison owed the state of Georgia $100—likely the consequence of some petty or imagined infraction of the Jim Crow South’s endless litany of legal restrictions on the poor. A large sum for anyone in 1901, the debt would have seemed insurmountable for an impoverished African American farm worker in the Black Belt.
Because Jackson could not cover his obligation, Moses Jordan, Jackson’s occasional employer, paid the debt, thus transferring Jackson’s obligation to himself. These laws demanded no consent from the debtor, they simply transformed enpeoned African Americans’ civic obligation to the state into a labor contract with a private party. Like the colonial planters who commanded indentured servants, laborer owners could even transfer their peons’ obligations to others, as when Jordan ultimately “sold” Jackson to “Colonel” James Smith.1 Jackson worked for twenty months on Smith’s labor camp in Oglethorpe County, the heart of Georgia’s piedmont, but Smith refused to acknowledge his debt paid and obligation satisfied.
Desperate for her husband’s return, Mentha, a nursing mother, went directly to Smith’s camp and offered her labor to accelerate the repayment of her husband’s debt. On Smith’s plantation, Mentha “worked like a man, in all kinds of weather, rain, cold and all, and was not allowed to nurse her six months old babe except at dinner and night, the consequence of which was that it came near to starving.” Eventually, her baby “became so emaciated that it was little more than a skeleton;” Mentha “had to send it to her mother to save its life” (1:0645).
After eighteen more months of hard labor failed to fulfill the debt, Mentha returned to her home and Jackson fled the labor camp. The Jacksons knew better than to appeal to local authorities. For them, the law was no instrument of justice; instead, corrupt local authorities aided and abetted the system of debt peonage that allowed men like Smith to succeed. Postal workers let the Colonel intercept Mentha’s possessions and claim them as forfeit in repayment of Jackson’s debt. County sheriffs apprehended Jackson and returned him to Smith. Local whites—among them Colonel Smith’s own bookkeeper—testified that Jackson had an inveterate gambling problem, illegally sold liquor, and carried a concealed weapon. He deserved to be bound; indeed, he needed to be.
Mentha had one card left to play. Around the turn of the twentieth century, spurred on by conspicuous cases of abuse, the United States Department of Justice renewed its commitment to investigating instances of debt peonage in the South. This offered a rare possibility for African Americans to bring complaints about unfair and abusive labor practices to the federal government.
Still, justice was hardly guaranteed. In some instances, local white informants swayed officials away from prosecutions; in others, the law proved to be too narrow to provide solace. Planters hampered investigations by preventing peons from communicating with their families. One African American woman testified that upon threatening to leave her employer, he “took her into a back room and whipped her with a leather strap and told her that if she did leave he would find her and bring her back for the balance of her life.” It is unsurprising that sometimes African Americans in the system “requested that they be sent to the penitentiary instead of back to the plantation” as their employers had “more than once threatened to kill them” (11:0716).
Mentha confronted all of these dilemmas, especially when Jackson himself proved to be a reluctant witness. Justice officials acknowledged that Mentha’s case contained “certain irregularities” demanding attention (1:0677). But when questioned directly, Jackson—almost certainly concluding that the federal government’s ability to protect his family was far weaker than the power of Colonel Smith and his connections in the Sherriff’s office to assault it—denied that Colonel Smith had held him against his will or abused him at all. The case was closed, leaving the Morrisons’ fate unknown.
The Peonage files thus illustrate the porous membrane between debt peonage and mass incarceration. In 1903, a U.S. Attorney in Georgia noted how easily planters could, “by some strange process, convert free labor into convict labor.” Others were more direct, noting of one planter and his peons that “if they were too sullen after being whipped he put them in the chain gang until they ‘cooled off.’” Department of Justice investigators regularly discovered that planters obtained “cheap, servile labor” by raising a “real or pretended charge” against a peon just “before the expiration of the unhappy victim’s sentence” (1:0677, 8:0681,1:0581).
In a purportedly colorblind legal system, debt peonage criminalized both blackness and poverty—all under the guise of contracts assumed to have been entered into freely by all parties involved. The law’s transformation from an instrument of justice into a means of exploiting labor and maintaining caste hierarchy demonstrates how an ostensibly race-neutral state permitted and condoned a race-specific outcome. The commitments of a national state distanced from local conditions offered a small possibility of relief, but that gulf proved distressingly difficult to negotiate. Jackson’s choice makes sense when the feeble efforts of an overworked federal bureaucracy hundreds of miles away are weighed against a powerful planter class openly colluding with local authorities to abuse the law.
Mentha’s case raises other questions as well. Scholars such as Douglas Blackmon have mined the peonage sources fruitfully, but there is a need for more systematic analyses of the role of women and children in the peonage system. The legal systems of the era, acknowledging African Americans’ nominal citizenship and equality before the law, posed Black men as heads of their households, legal representatives of their dependents. Yet while peons’ debt was a matter covered by the civil law of contracts, which presupposed the voluntary participation of two legal equals, the actual practice of southern law regularly reduced Black heads of household to dependency themselves.
In contrast, African American women and their children were legal dependents of the husbands and fathers targeted by the peonage system. As had been the case since emancipation, law and custom assumed that because they legally represented the family, Black heads of household owned and controlled the labor of their dependents.
This dependency made women and children particularly vulnerable to exploitation. As one Department of Justice official put it in 1903, “these poor unfortunates, usually ignorant women and boys were kept long over their contract times and in some instances for several years” (1:0600-1.0603). The Peonage Files are replete with such instances, as when a “young girl” accused of stealing a watermelon chose to labor without pay on a Georgia farm for eight months rather than face a chain gang, or when a sheriff tricked a young woman falsely accused of adultery into serving eighteen months as a peon (1:0697). Planter William Eberhart, prosecuted in 1898 for practicing debt peonage in the Morrison’s own Oglethorpe County, used “criminal warrants on manufactured charges to intimidate these helpless colored people into binding themselves and their wives and children into ‘peonage or involuntary service” (1:0021).
What happened, though, when the head of the household became a dependent himself, incapable of providing for his family because of his debt obligations to others? While women such as Mentha possessed minimal social and legal capital, they were not entirely without recourse. As historian Aziz Huq asserts, Jim Crow-era courts were more likely to take the cases of Black and women plaintiffs because they viewed them as particularly “vulnerable to coercion” and hence particularly needful of legal protection.
Though the law might define them as less than full persons, perhaps African American women might still parlay their roles as wives and mothers into arguments for justice. As Hendrik Hartog argues of this period, “the sanctity of contract competed, perhaps on equal terms, with the notion of the sanctity of marriage.” The state’s refusal to care for the wives and children of subjugated husbands and fathers may have invoked the paternalistic interests of the state in providing them with providers. Mentha and others confronted the courts with a critical question: did planters’ demands for exploitable labor outweigh the state’s interest in maintaining the social order standard family structures provided? Which was more binding—a marriage contract or a labor contract?
We may never learn the ultimate fate of Mentha and Jackson Morrison, but innumerable similar cases in the Peonage Files document the experience of African American agricultural proletarians otherwise largely absent from the historical record. We can no longer free them, but we can free their stories.
- 1:0643. All original sources reference the reel and frame numbers in The Peonage Files of the U.S. Department of Justice, 1901-1945, Black Studies Research Series, microfilm collection (Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1989) and appear as in-text citations in the remainder of the post. ↩