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Ex-Slave Peonage (Debt Slavery)

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Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D.
Following emancipation conditions were so terrible for the newly freed and ignorant ex-Slaves that most had no alternative but to get into one of several forms of “debt Slavery” called Peonage. The word “Peonage” refers to someone deprived of liberty by serving involuntarily or otherwise at the mercy of a master. In Latin America “peon” once referred most specifically to someone held in involuntary servitude until he had paid a debt. Since this arrangement often proved permanent in practice, “Peonage” came to refer informally to any poorly paid laborer. An ex-Slave explained, in the name of the law, how it worked for colored people.  “If a colored man is arrested here and hasn’t any money, whether he is guilty or not, he has to pay just the same. A man of color is never tried in this country. It is simply a farce. Everything is fixed before he enters the courtroom. I will give you an illustration of how it is done. I was brought in a prisoner, to go through the farce of being tried. The whole of my fine may amount to $50. A kindly appearing man will come up and pay my fine and take me to his farm to allow me to work it out. At the end of the month I find that I owe him more than I did when I went there. The debt is increased year in and year out. You would ask, “How is that?” It is simply that he is charging you more for your board, lodging, and washing than they allow you for your work, and you can’t help yourself either…because you are still a prisoner…. One word more about peonage. The court and the man you work for are always partners. One makes the fine and the other one works you and holds you, and if you leave you are tracked with bloodhounds and brought back” (Katz, The Negro in American History p318).  In “Free Laborer” Peonage the ex-Slave signed a contract agreeing to work for a 10 year period.

Since ex-Slaves were not able to read, the White man read the contract to them but left out certain important pieces of information and certain lies were added that would enslave them for life. For example, only after signing were the victims told that they had

agreed to be locked up in the stockade at night or any other time and were not free to do anything but what was commanded of them.  In effect, they sold themselves into slavery and were helpless to do anything about it since White folks had all the courts, all the guns, all the blood hounds, and all the money while ex-Slaves only had ignorance and their empty hands.

When several men were collected —and there were some Black females who were treated no differently (which made the Black males’ blood boil)-- they were transported in big wagons to remote areas, like big plantations.  By using tickets or orders, and never money, all were required to buy, at extremely high prices, their supplies (e.g. food, clothing, etc) from that owner’s store. However, each free laborer was paid only $5 or $10 per year and this meant at the end of the year each was left in great debt to the store—at an amount stated by the lying White man. Under the unspoken threat of “life or limb,” no Negro was dumb enough to dispute the White man’s word, despite being lied to (Meltzer 135). At the end of the 10 years of required peonage the Negroes were told they had to sign an acknowledgment of their debts.  They wanted to leave so badly that they eagerly signed their mark—an “X.” Then they were immediately locked up and told they had just agreed to continue with hard labor work until all the debt was paid off. Since this could never happen, these Negroes were now lifetime Slaves—or peons—and dealt with in the manner of convicts.

Meanwhile, the White man and his White crew used the enslaved Negroes’ wives as their mistresses and often gave the peon’s children away. (Ref: Bailey, “Special” Minds Among Struggling Black Americans)

website: www.jablifeskills.com


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