Explaining the broken promises of ‘freedom dues’

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“Land was the basis of wealth in colonial America,” explains historian Clyde Ford, and why many landowners broke promises of freedom dues to formerly indentured servants. Photo by Humanities Washington.

To understand the current climate of race relations in America is to understand a period of history between 1619, when the first Africans arrived in Virginia, and 1640. Slavery was not yet a given in the colonies, but decisions were made in those 20 years that would change the course of American history forever. It was the beginning of a long line of broken promises relating to labor and the land. Author and historian Clyde W. Ford joined Good Food’s Evan Kleiman to explain this pivotal time, beginning with something called “freedom dues.”

KCRW: What were freedom dues? 

Clyde Ford: “This is a very important promise that was made to indentured servants, Black and white. And the notion was that you were owed something beyond simply paying back to your master. The masters often paid the fees for the transport from Europe to America, and you were owed something more than that. And that something you were owed often included, basically, a way for an indentured servant to make a living, to not be a burden to the society. And that was [in the form of] land, grain, and clothes. 

Land was the basis of wealth in colonial America. In colonial Virginia, in particular, the landed gentry were not very disposed to want to give up that land to somebody who used to work for them. So you often found that landowners would fight in court, and they would do everything they could not to give that land to their former indentured servants, particularly to former African indentured servants. There are a few court cases in the records where we can see former servants that actually sued in court and won their freedom dues. That is, they got land, they got grain. They got the implements to farm that land, and they got clothes. 

That basic promise — that you would give a person who worked for you and helped you, as a master, create wealth, that you would return some aspect of that wealth to that former servant — is a basic promise about freedom dues that I thin, and we've seen, reneged on for African Americans throughout history. But the basic idea of freedom dues is really fundamental to the founding of this country.

How did industry and technology, in the form of the cotton gin, with the potential that it had to reduce a reliance on slave labor, end up having the opposite effect?

“Here, you actually see the beginnings of, or at least one moment in, this bizarre relationship where technology proceeds at a very rapid pace. And the relationship between races in the United States almost seems to proceed in the opposite direction. 

A lot of people want to say that Eli Whitney had in his mind that the cotton gin would bring an end to slavery. He did not. And that needs to be really clear. There's nothing in the records, in his letters to his father, or any of the other historical documents, to suggest that Whitney himself thought that the cotton gin would be a death knell to slavery. But some abolitionist did. And the thinking was this: Around the turn of the 18th century, the problem was that for many Southern slave owners and plantation owners, the cost of maintaining their human chattel, the enslaved people that worked for them, was more than the profits they were getting from their labor. And so slave owners started to think, ‘Oh, my God, the economics of slavery aren't working out.’ 

Now, the idea with cotton was that, ‘Well, this is going to even push that further.’ The cotton gin ... means you don't need to even use the same level of labor to produce cotton, because now the machines can do it. But what slave owners discovered is, ‘Wait a minute, we've got this great technology that can just push out delinted cotton, which can be shipped to Northern textiles mills to make clothes that are then sent around the world to be sold … If we can push more cotton into the gins, we can make more money…’ 

How do you push more cotton through the gins? You get more people working in the cotton fields. And so with the introduction of the cotton gin, slavery actually exploded, because now Southern plantation owners saw a way to make money from the labor of the enslaved people who they controlled.”

There was a tremendous census from 700,000 people around 1790 to 4 million sometime in the early 1800s. And then we flash forward to 1862, when Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation, which is followed by General Sherman's Special Field Order No. 15, or the more familiarly called “40 acres and mule” provision. How did that promise fail to be fulfilled?

Let's just take a short moment and say a little bit about Lincoln and the emancipation. The idea that Lincoln freed slaves is really laughable. Any serious historian who reads the Emancipation Proclamation ... will understand that Lincoln only freed slaves in the areas of the country that were at war with the Union. So he freed slaves in the very areas of the country that did not recognize his authority … One of the things that was so strange is that he freed even the slaves in the South, with no plan for their freedom. 

What happened was that General Sherman, one of Lincoln's generals, realized we better have a plan for African Americans if we are prevailing in the war. And so Sherman then went, in South Carolina, to a group of Black ministers and said to them, ‘Hey, what do you guys want to do? What would be the most important thing for us to help you if we prevail in the Civil War?’ 

And the ministers, speaking through a fellow named Garrison Frazier, said, ‘What we really want is land.’ And so, under General Sherman, what was created was a plan to give former slaves, at first, 400,000 acres of land, and some of the prime land in the South. This was land confiscated from Southern landowners during the war efforts. And then that number of acreage actually went to almost a million. And it was left up to a general named Saxton and the Freedmen's Bureau that was created to help distribute that land. So about the time of Lincoln's assassination, some 40,000 African Americans had actually been given land in the Georgia Sea Islands and in the lowlands of South Carolina — really prime, fertile farmland — and they were beginning to establish means of supporting themselves as a community. 

Well, Lincoln is assassinated, and Johnson becomes president. And the first thing that Johnson does is to rescind Special Order No. 15 to stop the process of giving that land to those who had formerly worked that land as slaves. The truth of the matter is that African Americans have had so much of their land stolen from them. That land should have been the basis of producing wealth. And if it had been the basis of producing wealth, we would not be having the same discussions we are having now about how [to] close the racial equity gap. Just the other day, Biden was in Tulsa commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, promising to take steps to close the racial wealth gap. He has to say that now because of the litany of promises that were broken before him.”


Clyde W. Ford is the author of 12 books. His latest, “Think Black,” is a memoir about his father, the first Black software engineer in America. Photo courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.

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Evan Kleiman