The stinking history of peonage in the U.S. where blacks were enslaved to pay off debts

Nduta Waweru July 22, 2018
Photo: Lebabi

By definition, peonage is a system of forced labour where individuals work to clear off their debts.

The system was outlawed in America in 1867 but it was still in practice in many places and the people who suffered the most were black people. It was just like slavery but with a new name.

What made it quite difficult to trace is that there were no records indicating that the people under peonage were owned by the plantation owners or their debtors.

Even so, these people could be called slaves for all the experiences they went through. According to a series of interviews conducted by Vice, people who had become indebted in some way to the plantation owners and were, therefore, forced to pay this debt by working in the fields.

At the end of the harvest, when they tried to settle up with the owner, they were always told they didn’t make it into the black and to try again next year. Every passing year, the workers fell deeper and deeper in debt.

This peonage system saw a lot of black people enslaved until the 1960s.  To keep them enslaved, the plantation owners would not let them out of the land and would limit access to TV and other forms of communication that would inform them of their rights and the outlawing of the debt system.

The stinking history of peonage in the U.S. where blacks were enslaved to pay off debts

Peonage was also implemented through paying for crimes.  African Americans would be arrested and charged for fabricated crimes. Since most of them were unable to pay the exorbitant fees, a local business person (usually white) would step forward and pay the fine on condition that the convict would work for him to pay off the debt.

Another way would be for the defendant to claim responsibility for their actions and a businessman would pay for their surety and vouch for their good behaviour. The defendant would work for the businessperson until the debt is paid off.

In this way, the workers under peonage would labour for free and in the process incur other debts because of lack of income thus putting them in an unending circle of debt.

Any attempt to run away from the workplaces or even try to avoid paying the debt would be met with arrests and even higher charges. It was not odd to find them returned to the same employer but at a higher debt or even sent to convict mines.

Since most of the black workers were uneducated, they tied themselves to this system by signing the agreement to work off the debt, making it difficult to take the employers to court for violating their work conditions.  The employers would take advantage of their illiteracy to include clauses that indicated that the workers had agreed to beatings and severe punishments and that any additional costs accrued while at work they would be added to the debt.

The hand of justice at the time was biased as there were no prosecutions for plantation owners or employers who abused the labour laws.

The practice of peonage reduced over the years due to new technologies in the early 1940s but it was still practised in secret in some areas.  A major move by then-Attorney General Francis Biddle announcing that all federal prosecutors, instructing them to actively investigate and try more peonage cases helped reduce the incidences of forced labour.


Last Edited by:Nduta Waweru Updated: July 22, 2018


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