Reconstruction Era

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Why did land ownership and labor control cause conflict between former slaves and whites in the South?

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Following the Civil War, ownership of land and control of labor became major points of contention in the American South. Recently freed African Americans found themselves in a situation that very closely resembled slavery. Although they had technically received freedom, they did not have the means to produce a living...

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that would truly liberate them. They did not have land, or really much of anything of value, and they often did not have many skills that could be used to achieve economic and social growth.

Land became an issue of contention, because with land a recently freed African American could grow and sell crops on their own. This would allow them to hopefully earn enough for an independent living and possibly have a surplus of money which could be reinvested for further growth. Freed African Americans had heard of being provided land to begin their new lives and hoped that this opportunity would be provided (as they did not have the resources to purchase land on their own). Southern whites were opposed to this for a few reason. First, many of them had strong ties to their land, as it had been in their family for generations. Second, many did not want to see a scenario where African Americans had a chance to not only improve their lives, but also possibly increase their economic status beyond that of white Southerners. It is important to note that land in the agricultural South was essential to gaining wealth.

Control of labor became another point of contention. African Americans who had recently experienced slavery hoped that freedom would allow them the opportunity to choose who they worked for and to search out better opportunities. Many Southern whites, however, did not wish to see this. Wealthy Southern whites did not want to see their former slaves, and source of cheap labor, refuse to work for them or demand higher wages, as this would eat away at their profits. Poor Southern whites also feared African Americans gaining greater control over their labor because they feared the challenges that could arise in socio-economic status. This was also largely based on race. Many poor Southern whites still saw themselves as superior to poor African Americans, but the issue could become more clouded if African American workers challenged them for jobs and held a higher economic status.

The result of these struggles led to continued difficult times for African Americans. Ultimately, many areas in the South required African Americans to maintain labor contracts in order to avoid punishment. Additionally, with a lack of land and marketable skills, many recently freed African Americans found themselves in sharecropping situations, where they worked hard for little pay, often on the same land they had worked as slaves, and couldn't afford economic independence.

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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.

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