Why did ownership of land and control of labor become major points of contention between former slaves and whites in the South?
Land and the control of labor became major points of contention because these were closely connected to economic viability and to freedom. The ability to make a living and the ability to feel that one is free are very important aspects of life.
After the Civil War, the freed slaves wanted to make a living and they wanted above all to feel that they were no longer slaves. Therefore, they wanted land and they wanted to control their own labor. If they could have the proverbial “forty acres and a mule,” they could make their own way in the world without having to feel that they were dominated by a master as they had been during slavery.
At the same time, the whites in the South naturally felt the desire to keep what had been their land and to continue to make money from it. Therefore, they were very resistant to the idea of giving any land to the freed slaves. Moreover, they wanted to continue to control the African Americans’ labor. They wanted to do this partly for reasons of white supremacy, but also because they needed to feel that they had a workforce to make their land economically productive. Therefore, they wanted to continue to control the land and the blacks’ labor.
For these reasons, both blacks and whites wanted the land and the control of the labor in the early Reconstruction era.