Emancipation in the Virginia tobacco belt, 1850-1870

Morgan, Lynda J, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Gaston, Paul M., Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia

This study explores the transformation from slavery to freedom in the tobacco region that formed the hinterland for an industrially-advanced southern city. This transformation was decisively influenced by Afro-Americans who employed pieces of the slave past to shape the contours of legal freedom, showing thereby the power of black labor over the process of emancipation and the development of capitalism. The study identifies market-oriented aspects of antebellum society that preceded free labor, and it integrates the experiences of the region with those of both state and nation.

The social ecology of the tobacco belt produced a distinctive emancipation experience. Although plantation agriculture dominated, market relations also existed, as indicated by industrial and transportation growth and by agricultural diversification. These economic sectors depended heavily on hired slave and free Negro labor. Through the hiring system, many tobacco-belt slaves and masters were familiar with market-like behavior. Hired slaves in turn shared their experiences with the slave community. Market relations accelerated during the war, and afterwards bequeathed a legacy that shortened reconstruction and facilitated the evasion of Republican government.

Because antebellum industry was the area where market relations were in greatest evidence, it had been on the cutting edge of economic change. Thus it was here that slave laborers won many concessions. Postwar industrial transition was relatively smooth, but black workers neither increased their numbers nor achieved any occupational mobility. Many lost economic status and bargaining power. By contrast, adjusting to free agricultural labor required revolutionary changes which created the opportunity for labor to force greater concessions. Thus agriculture proved more susceptible to labor pressure than did industry, and it was primarily on the plantation that freedpeople influenced the terms of their labor. The result was sharecropping, well-established by 1867.

In the South, full-blown market relations did not appear for decades; meanwhile, their development differed widely across time and place, influenced by the character of the society in which they appeared. In the tobacco belt, prior exposure to wage labor resulted in a more rapid adaptation to and acceptance of the postwar situation than was the case in cotton districts.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Slavery -- Virginia, Slaves -- Virginia -- Emancipation, Capitalism -- Virginia -- History -- 19th century, Tobacco workers -- Virginia -- History -- 19th century, Labor -- Virginia -- History -- 19th century, Working class -- Virginia -- History -- 19th century, Labor movement -- Virginia -- History -- 19th century, Virginia -- Economic conditions

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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