The way that work was managed and organized changed dramatically after Emancipation throughout the South. New economic relationships were developed between planters and black laborers. On the surface, these arrangements appeared to provide laborers with the freedom to work their own land, while ensuring that planters continued to have enough labor to work the fields. However, in most cases, these arrangements were economically unfair: contracts were regularly abused, black laborers and their families were regularly kept in debt to their landlords, and the amount of work necessary to pay off that debt often restricted the ability for families to emerge from poverty. In most cases, these arrangements were broken into three types of agreements: Wage Labor, Sharecropping, and Tenant Farming. At St. Mary’s Manor, it is unclear what type of arrangements were undertaken, although it is likely that laborers worked in both wage labor or tenant farming arrangements. Nonetheless, architectural and archaeological evidence indicates that the laborers at St. Mary’s Manor lived in extreme poverty.

The Family and Agriculture

Tenant and sharecropping arrangements were established between the planter and the male head of an African American household. Unlike during slavery, where the burden of labor production was on the entire enslaved community, these arrangements were between the planter and a single family, who was responsible for a certain portion of the plantation land. This meant that the members of the family had to carry out the tasks required to plant, tend, and harvest the crop, in addition to the standard household responsibilities. Everyone in the household worked: the husband, his wife, and their children.

The role of children was often critical to a successful crop yield. This meant that, particularly during harvest, African American children were pulled out of school, a new and cherished experience that came with emancipation, to work in the fields with their family. At St. Mary’s Manor, only one of the 43 African American children on the 1870 census had attended school in the previous year. The families that lived at St. Mary’s Manor in 1870 were quite large: for households with children, families averaged almost six children. This high number of children would have placed additional burden on the resources of an impoverished family, while simultaneously providing additional hands in the fields and around the house. There is little doubt that all members of the family bore the responsibility for survival following emancipation.

African American children from St. Mary’s playing on a fence in the early 20th century.

Women and Work

In addition to participating in field labor, women on the plantation were also responsible for the household tasks in their own home. This ranged from cooking and cleaning to mending clothes and raising children. In many ways, the role of the woman changed: while she was no longer under the direct control of her slave master, she now had to contend with her husband, who often gained the upper hand in the household setting. While most of the women were listed with the occupation of “Keeping House” on the 1870 census, their role was likely larger than this considering the tight economic conditions that their family lived under.

This image shows an African American woman standing outside the duplex quarter, with a washing table and an ice box in the background: likely an area that she worked doing household chores.

African American women also took jobs working as maids or servants in the big house. The 1870 census notes that Lucy Nelson and Adaline Biscoe are both listed as “house servants,” indicating that they worked for Dr. Brome and his family in the Manor Home, while living in a separate house. Lucy had a twelve-year-old son, Julius, who also worked as a servant, while Adaline had four children under the age of 10. While their work at the manor was similar to that during slavery, there were a number of benefits: they could return to a separate home instead of living at the manor home as they did during slavery, and received a wage for their work. These distinctions were important, as they offered them the opportunity for separation between their personal lives and their work at the manor home. The duplex quarter continued to be a home where house servants lived: Emma Hall, who grew up in the duplex during the 1940s, noted that her stepmother worked in the manor home for Dr. Brome’s descendants, often returning home late after cooking dinner at the manor home to then prepare food for her own children.

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