Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Farm Labor and Freed Slaves in Reconstruction-era Laurens County, SC

Rendering lard in Laurens County, SC
Our series on Laurens County, SC, during Reconstruction continues, describing the adjustments of whites and blacks to a world where slaves were freed.
For whites, the freeing of the slaves was a fearful dilemma. African-Americans, free at last, were in shock at their newfound freedom. This brave new, free world was a confusing thing to everyone involved. Laurens resident William Watts Ball gives his white perspective:

The negroes stayed on the plantation that year, 1865. We furnished them homes, land and livestock for making the crops and food for themselves and their animals. [But] there was no way to make the negroes work after they were set free. There was no overseer to watch them and prevent their going out at night. They would stay up late and frolic, and next day they would be drowsy and would go to sleep at the plow in the field. It came to be a question whether they would make enough to feed themselves through the winter and at last the commander of the garrison [of United States occupying troops] gave orders that when negroes neglected or refused to work they could be reported to him. When they were slaves the overseer could flog them, and that was not common on our plantation, but there could be no flogging now. One day Larry caught two of them asleep in the bushes by the side of the field, and he reported them to the captain of the Yankee company. He sent two soldiers, a sergeant and a corporal, to punish them, and to Larry's horror, they hung up the two negroes by their thumbs. The negroes begged to be flogged instead.[1]

Two miles from the Belfast House on the Newberry County line, Colonel Bluford Griffin told his slaves they were free and could "live where they chose, visit as they wished, and work for themselves. Two of the six freed brothers kept the name Griffin."[2]


Freed slave Morgan Scurry recounted, "I was born in Newberry County , near the Laurens County line, above Chappells depot." The slaves hunted possums, rabbits, and squirrels. "We killed more squirrels than you can count.” He belonged to Drury Scurry whose home is today located across from Scurry’s Store at SC Hwy 56 and SC Hwy 39. Scurry owned 300 acres and 40‑50 slaves.  

“When freedom come,” said Morgan Scurry, “he come to us in the yard where we had congregated and told us we was free and could go anywhere we wanted. If we wanted to stay on wid him, he would pay wages. All of us stayed on wid him. He give us a one‑acre patch of ground to raise anything we wanted to raise."[3] At first the freed slaves did not fathom the marvels of freedom, and they would usually stay with their former masters, like Morgan Scurry’s fellow slaves. Later, however, African Americans began farming their own land. Jacobs declares that the greatest difficulty was the inequality of the races. The freed slave had a great zeal for education, but he did not often take it seriously.

The black man who could write was a rarity indeed. Very often one illiterate school master who could spell probably halfway through the blue‑black spelling book would have under him a hundred unlettered negro children all of whom looked up to him, amazed at his sublime importance and his unparalleled learning. It is easy to see, therefore, that the negro readily became the dupe of the white man.

Many blacks rented land and had nothing at harvest because of the country store's high interest rates. With nearly total illiteracy among ex‑slaves, the store could charge any amount, and the only defense a black man had was to skip out. One black man refused to work for a white for a fourth of the crop and readily agreed to a fifth. He got even with the white man, though, by saying "he had only the fifth on his place and the white man was to get nothing."[4]

Where did the blacks go when they left their owners? Some, like Mary, moved to Anderson, SC, until her husband died and then came back to “her people” (ie., her former owners) in Laurens and became nurse to the new white baby there whose mother had died.[5] Martha Dendy's family of freed slaves left Martin's Depot (Joanna) for Florence, Alabama.[6] Daniel and Patience were two former Ball family slaves who moved from Laurens in 1866 to the western part of Laurens County near the Greenville line and became sharecroppers and renters like other negroes. Once or twice a year they would drive to spend the day with “their white people. They were sure of a good dinner, and beforehand the Colonel handed Daniel his toddy." They would be given "clothes and bedding, food in tins or glass jars, and money enough to make the long journey on the railroad."[7]

Gordon Bluford was born in Laurens County, S.C., at the 'Brick House,' which is close to the Newberry County line." She married Arthur Bluford at 14 years of age and had ten children. She married at the "white folk's Methodist Church, by a colored preacher named Rev. Geo. De Walt." She said that most everyone left the plantation where she was a slave and went to Mississippi, "but I stayed and was hired out to a man who tried to whip me, but I ran away. Dat was after I married and had a little baby."[8]  She adds that during her days of slavery they used corn, apples, and peaches to make whiskey, wine, and brandy. Persimmons were for making beer, she said.


In order to get around the problem of undependable Negro tenant farmers and sharecroppers, many looked to bringing in foreigners, but by 1880 only 6% of the total foreign‑born population made a living in agriculture and was usually "as unreliable as Negro labor." Rev. Nickles J. Holmes was a Presbyterian clergyman whose father planted First Presbyterian Churches in Clinton and Spartanburg. He was educated at the University of Edinburgh and pastored Second Presbyterian Church on Greenville, SC’s, West Side. He would later found Greenville’s Holmes Bible College, the oldest Pentecostal training institution in the world. His mother wrote to him at Edinburgh from the Octagon House in Laurens in 1868: "Our people are much in the spirit of getting foreigners, but some have tried Irishmen and they are worse than the Negro, they drink and gamble worse and some of them are very trifling."[9]

Not all the foreigners were lazy, but the hard workers still did not alleviate the labor problem because they were able to work themselves up into a better living. The Catholic Josef Wishnevski[10] family fleeing persecution in Lutheran Bismarck's Germany was just such a set of foreigners.  Immigration officials in Charleston couldn’t spell the immigrant family’s name, so it was changed to Joseph Jerry, the derogatory term for Germans, though they were actually Polish Catholics. They were sharecroppers at Maddens Station for a time. At his death Joseph Jerry had accumulated several hundred acres and lived in a two‑story house at Maddens Station, having given New Prospect Baptist Church land for a cemetery. In return, the Jerry family members are all buried there.

[1]Ball, State, p. 127.

[2]Euna Mae Pitts , "The Pitts and Wyatt Families," Scrapbook, p. 305.

[3]Morgan Scurry (age 78) interview ed May 19, 1937. Elmer Turnage, ed., Slave Narratives, (II, ii, 89‑90).

[4]Jacobs, Literary, pp. 47‑48, 57.

[5]Ball, State, p. 118.

[6]Keith L. Cannon , "Martha Duckett Dendy," Scrapbook, p. 159.

[7]Ball, State, pp. 115‑116.

[8]Gordon Grazier Bluford (age 92) interviewed June 7, 1937. Leland Summer, ed., Slave Narratives, (I, i, 62‑64).

[9]"Mother" to N.J. Holmes, July 7, 1868, quoted in Joel Williamson, After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction, 1861‑1877, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965), pp. 119‑120.