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The Final Emancipation of Enslaved African Americans



By Henry Robert Burke

Slavery and “King Cotton”

On January 1st, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln’s executive order freed all the slaves in the States in Rebellion and on December 6th 1865 slavery became illegal in the United States and all enslaved African Americans were freed. At least that was what the Law stated, but when did the enslavement of all African Americans really end in the United States?

The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution was the first of the Reconstruction Amendments. This is the time that schools have always taught when slavery in the United States ended, but this is not an accurate portrayal of slavery in the United States. To get a real view of slavery in the United States we need to look at conditions that many African American familys faced in the Deep South after the American Civil War.

Ginning Cotton
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In the agricultural field there were many labor intensive crops before machines were invented to replace human and animal labor. Here we are concerned with the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 which replaced the human hand in removing the seeds from cotton fiber. Ironically, while the cotton gin replaced the human labor of separating seeds from cotton fiber, it necessitated the use of more enslaved Africans to do the other labor intensive task of picking cotton.

Picking Cotton
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   Late summer is the season for picking cotton. The work day for  enslaved African Americans began at sunrise, with a brief midday break for lunch, after which the work resumed until dask. Children from age 10 years old worked along side adult men and women. Pickers made their way down the long rows, kneeling or bending at the waist, taking a firm grip on each fluffy cotton boll, and giving it a sharp  pull. The thorny sheaths at the base of each cotton boll are as rough as splintered wood which made the workers’ fingers sore and sometimes bloody.

   Under the blazing sun each picker dragged a sack that grew heavier as cotton filled the sack. Much of that weight was seed that was later combed out by the cotton gin. Children as young as 10 years of age would pick as much as 150 pounds of cotton per day.

The cotton gin had made large-scale cotton growing profitable in the southern States of the United States. The cotton gin separated seeds from the cotton 50 times faster than human hands and without pain or bloody fingers. Unfortunately the cotton gin pumped new life into the faltering institution of slavery and caused millions of African Americans to remain enslaved for another generation and it also ensured that something very close to slavery, (sharecropping), which would keep millions of African Americans enslaved for another Century after the American Civil War had ended.

Slave Markets along the Upper Ohio River.
Click on image to enlarge.

   A Domestic Slave Trade ensued in the U.S. Centuries of tobacco cultivation had depleted the soil in Virginia and Virginia had an excessive number of enslaved African Americans. The “western expansion” of the South had begun after the Revolutionary War and this provided the market for excessive number of slaves in Virginia. Actually there is evidence of slave breeding in Virginia to accommodate domestic slave markets that sprang up along the Ohio River.

From around 1810 through 1860 thousands of African Americans were transported from Virginia and Maryland to the Deep South to work in cotton fields. From the Tidewater Region enslaved African Americans were transported by ships down along the Atlantic Coast. In western Virginia enslaved African Americans were transported down the Ohio River to the Mississippi River the down to slave markets in Memphis, Tennessee and Natchez, Mississippi.

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River Boat Loaded with Cotton


   Cotton was first introduced about 1664 from Barbados into the English Colonies of North America which became the United States. About 1778-9 a gentleman named Burden, living upon John's Island a few miles south of Charleston, S. C., clothed his Negroes with cotton cloth made on his plantation. At that time the only manner of separating cotton fiber from the seed was with human fingers. There were no cotton gins. Sea Island cotton was the only kind cultivated because the lint does not adhere to the seed as tenaciously as does upland variety of cotton.

About 1849 or '50 time was spent upon the Burden plantation researching the early history of cotton from a son of the first Mr. Burden. Burden reported that when cotton was first grown the constant evening work for all the family, men, women, children, and servants was cleaning seeds from cotton fiber. As simple and inefficient as the roller-gin was compared with the later improvement of the saw-gin of, it was hailed with joyous acclamations when replaced the very toilsome labor of the hand removal of cotton seed.

Burden stated that the first cotton ever shipped from this country (English Colonies of North America) was one bag sent from Charleston S.C. to England about the year 1740. Fifty years elapsed before the next shipment was made.


Loading Cotton
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   After the American Civil War from 1866 through 1877 during the Period called Reconstruction, the conditions written in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were pretty much adhered to. Recently freed African Americans seemed to be making rapid progress. During Reconstruction, the State Legislatures in the former rebellious States had been suspended and the United States government kept Federal troops stationed in the former rebellious States to enforce the Reconstruction Amendments, (13th, 14th and 15th), protecting citizen’s rights for African Americans who were now enfranchised citizens.

When the United States Congress reinstated the State Legislatures in the former rebellious States and removed Federal troops, the Southern States immediately began to pass discriminatory laws and repressive codes against African Americans. They formed clandestine groups, (i.e. the Ku Klux Klan), to intimidate and control African Americans. White Southerners still owned nearly all the land and so millions of freed African Americans were quickly re-enslaved in a new scheme of slavery called “sharecropping”.

   Most aspects of cotton cultivation still depended on human labor and millions of recently freed African Americans were coerced into becoming sharecroppers and tenant farmers to fill the labor need; in principle re-enslaved. Few blacks would have chosen to become sharecroppers if they had a choice. Quality education for African Americans was hard to acquire, so recently freed African Americans, were prevented from receiving educations, so they were vulnerable to share cropping schemes developed by educated Southern land owners. These recently freed African Americans weren’t stupid; they suffered from the lack of any type of formal education. Through no fault of their own many African Americans were illiterate. Being unable to read, write or figure arithmetic made them vulnerable to the worst type of exploitation.

   Blacks were kept in a perpetual state of indebtedness by the land owner’s practice of using double books. One book kept the normal business figures while the book shown to sharecroppers was falsified to lead sharecroppers to believe they owed more money than their cotton crop had made. Land owners, who also owned company stores, would continue to extend credit to the sharecropper and year after year the sharecropper just sank deeper and deeper into debt. It was against the law for sharecroppers to leave the area if he was indebted so the sharecropper and his entire family were stuck on the land.

   African American sharecroppers were also ensnared in indebtedness by being paid with scrip rather than cash. The script could only be used at the “company store” which sold goods at inflated prices that also helped keep sharecroppers indebted. It is reported that as late as the mid 1960s some sharecroppers in Alabama had never seen an actual dollar bill.

    Night riders or Klansmen would visit to administer whippings or other forms of punishment, including lynching, to sharecroppers who did not follow the rules of the land owners. In some cases Kangaroo Courts were held, but local law enforcement ignored justice in cases involving African Americans.

Cotton Picking Machine
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For a long time there was absolutely no relief from the tedious labor of picking cotton. Inventors tried unsuccessfully to build cotton picking machines; one machine was patented clear back in 1850, but it just couldn’t handle the complexities of picking cotton.

   One problem is that cotton bolls don’t all ripen at the same time so cotton fields have to be picked over repeatedly. That particular cotton picking machine damaged and destroyed too much cotton and also collected pieces of leaf “trash” that discolored the cotton thus reducing its value.

   Inventors didn’t get very far with perfecting a cotton picking machine in the Nineteenth Century. Peter Haring, of Goliad, Texas, worked through much of the 1890s and built a machine that held some promise. The McCormick Harvesting Machine Company agreed to test it, but after running the machine down one row four or five times, no one could tell whether any cotton had been picked. Having decided that Haring’s contrivance had no “promise of success,” McCormick’s officials returned it to him.

   Another inventor, Angus Campbell, of Chicago, had similar bad luck. He built his first cotton picker in 1889 and then spent 20 years making annual journeys to the South to test improvements on it. Trash remained the problem.    In the 1920s International Harvester entered the field. The company was introducing the world’s first successful line of tractors, and farmers were using them to pull seed drills, plows, and combines. A good mechanical cotton picker would sell not only itself but more tractors. Clarence Hagen, the company’s chief engineer, conducted development work at the company’s headquarters in Chicago and then headed south for field testing.

He started in 1922 with a picker that resembled a vacuum cleaner. Workers would wield tubes to suck bolls from the plants. This sort of machine had been patented since 1859— with tentacle-like hoses that extended from a single vacuum tank, it tended to look like an octopus—and Hagen built both mule- and tractor-drawn versions. In September 1924 he set up a competition between a mule-pulled model and a hand picker near Dallas. The contest resembled the legendary race between John Henry and the steam drill, which John Henry won.

   The man pitted against the machine was an experienced field hand who had shown that he could pick up to 400 pounds of cotton in a day. The mechanical picker had four hoses, with a separate man tending each. After an hour the field worker was more than 50 yards ahead, and his cotton was considerably cleaner.

    When the Depression began to wane, activity at International Harvester picked up. In 1940 Hagen reinvented his cotton picking machine. His former designs had built it as a separate unit pulled by a tractor or set at the rear of a tractor. Now he had the tractor back down the cotton rows in reverse gear. He widened the rear wheels to avoid damaging the delicate plants, and the front wheel stayed out of the way until the cotton was picked. The row of cotton plants passed through the picking throat of the machine first. The cotton was picked before the plants contacted any part of the tractor. No cotton bolls were knocked to the ground before they could be gathered.

   Field tests began during the 1941 picking season and became an annual occurrence. The company sent a caravan south, with a big truck carrying the machine and a pickup following with tools and spare parts. The picking started in late July, in southern Texas, and swung up into Arkansas and Mississippi. In 1942 it went so well that by December International Harvester’s chairman, Fowler McCormick, announced that he was ready for production: “We are certain that it is a commercial machine right now … our picker has been tested exhaustively, and we know it will pick cotton profitably.…”

With the nation now at war, workers were heading off to both the fighting and the Northern factories, and cotton fields faced manpower shortages. Growers turned to Mexican laborers and even prisoners of war to do the work, and sometimes their crops rotted in the fields. They started feeling more receptive to automation. Meanwhile John Rust’s fortunes began to rise. He and his wife, Thelma, had little left save a heavily mortgaged home in Memphis, but at her urging he took three months to redraw the designs for his machine’s most crucial parts. Cashing in some war bonds, he traveled to Washington to file new patent applications. When he got there, he learned that representatives from the firm of Allis-Chalmers had been trying to get in touch with him, wanting to purchase rights to his patents and build experimental machines under his supervision. Allis put him on the payroll as a consultant and built six pickers from 1944 to 1945. International Harvester started pilot production too, finally realizing the goal Hagen had been pursuing back in the 1920s.

    Picking cotton was the hardest part of raising the crop, but unskilled hands also had plenty to do before the harvest. They planted the seeds, removed unwanted seedlings to leave the survivors spaced at proper intervals, and chopped out weeds with hoes. As early as 1944, however, International Harvester was pointing the way to the feasibility of completely mechanizing cotton cultivation. That year a Mississippi plantation produced the first cotton crop grown and harvested entirely by machine, which had no hand labor at any stage of the cultivation. Finally the enslavement of African Americans in the cotton fields of the southern United States had come to an end. The true date when enslavement ended for many African Americans in the United States was 1944 when a machine was invented that could pick cotton better and faster than human hands could. Then it took two more decades before mechanization was fully implemented into all cotton cultivation then African Americans were finally free from the enslavement of “King Cotton”.



Cotton Plantation Financial Record , Circa 1848