Masters Theses

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts



Major Professor

Stephen V. Ash

Committee Members

Cynthia G. Fleming, Robert J. Norrell


This thesis explores the black labor situation in postwar Tennessee from 1865 to 1868. Using a wide array of primary sources from Tennessee, the research unveils an inherent bias in the Freedmen’s Bureau’s forced contract system of labor. My conclusions highlight the collusion and complacency of bureau officials and planters who confined freedpeople to agricultural labor during the initial years of African-American freedom. Whites—Northern and Southern—worked cohesively toward common goals of agricultural prosperity, law and order, and white supremacy.

The bureau’s contract system was devised as an emergency measure to put idle blacks back in their “appropriate” positions as agricultural laborers, but bureau officials failed to recognize that freedpeople refusing to work on farms were not lazy and irresponsible; rather, they were discontented with former slaveholders and desperate for non-plantation work. Contracts served the needs of the planter class and the free-labor proponents of the North. The bureau restored order and productivity to Tennessee by providing ex-slaveowners with the legal means to acquire cheap and exploitable labor. Formal stipulations codified the old system of enslavement through a new medium, and bureau-approved contracts became the new figurative overseers of African-American agricultural laborers in the post-emancipation South.

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