The Vagrancy Laws of Memphis that encouraged slavery under a new name after it was abolished

Etsey Atisu June 28, 2019
An 1866 print shows African-Americans gathered outside the Freedmen's Bureau in Richmond. - Richmond Times-Dispatch

Vagrancy law required that the Blacks should not be a vagrant while living in some communities, i.e. wandering about without proper means of livelihood. We have been told countless times how and when slavery officially ended but the relationship between the abolishment of the trade and the actual freedom is almost never discussed.

Following the Civil War of 1865, Black southerners numbering over four million were no longer slaves but they were definitely not free. And for the next 80 years, they were forced to labor without their will in an attempt to stay alive and eventually stay out of trouble.

This forced Blacks – who were without jobs – to return to the fields to till the earth for the white masters or risk the freedom of living in those communities.  

Memphis, a Southern city that fell to federal forces only about a year into the Civil War in June 1862, became a notorious place for the implementation of such a vagrancy law. This law, in essence, was only another way of ensuring that the African Americans (former slaves) still played pivotal roles in their working systems.

Although the city became a magnet for African Americans in the surrounding countryside during the war, they came seeking jobs, reuniting with loved ones, and building a sense of community. By the end of the war, Memphis’s black population had grown from 3,000 to 20,000 but it was not entirely freedom for them.

There was a belief among some whites that blacks were inherently lazy and would not work if not forced to. Many abolitionists worried that slavery had brutalized African Americans that they would be incapable of self-sufficiency.

The Vagrancy Laws of Memphis that encouraged slavery under a new name after it was abolished
Photo: Arc Digital

Becoming free involved figuring out the inconsistent rules and behaviors of these new authorities. Besides, the government of the day which sponsored this freedom did not equally play the role of a just judge because of how little it worked to discourage the more egregious case of vagrancy laws.

Vagrancy laws have come under constitutional attack because being poor is not a crime under the Constitution. The statutory language was often held to be vague and overbroad in violation of the due process requirements of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

There is also no denying the fact that the idea of criminalizing people who are vagrants has been around since medieval England. But, in the Civil War-era United States, the law described nearly everyone who had been a slave.

This became the practice in the wake of the Civil War when African Americans found themselves caught amid the same kind of dissonance: what freedom meant to them—unfettered mobility, access to education, and the security of their families—was not what it meant to white people.

The Vagrancy Laws of Memphis that encouraged slavery under a new name after it was abolished
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Freedmen’s Bureau was created in March 1865 to assist former slaves in their transition to freedom but wielded vagrancy statutes to do the bidding of white planters. The first superintendent of the Freedmen’s Bureau office in the city was ostensibly sympathetic with former slaves—he loudly deplored “injustice to the Freed people”—but even he said he was “determined that the Freed people shall not become a worthless, lazy set of vagrants living in vice and idleness.” That superintendent’s successor, Nathan Dudley, wrote that Memphis had a “surplus population of at least six thousand colored persons [who] are lazy, worthless vagrants.”

The Freedmen’s Bureau—the part of the federal government charged by Congress and Abraham Lincoln to ensure the integrity of black freedom—even authorized patrols that were arresting black Memphians indiscriminately and delivering them up to white employers for bounties ranging from a dollar to five dollars “per head.”

The Vagrancy Laws of Memphis that encouraged slavery under a new name after it was abolished
Photo: Pinterest

Anthony Motley, an African-American barber put it succinctly in a letter to the Freedmen’s Bureau commissioner, Clinton Fisk, that: “The great Slave trade Seems To be Revived in Memphis.”

Granted, the Vagrancy Law of Memphis was a straight, simple, exploitative era that marked the period in America which was as terrible as the days of slavery.

Last Edited by:Victor Ativie Updated: May 26, 2020


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