The term “peonage” refers to a debt labor system whereby workers are tied to a landowner due to debts owed the landowner by the worker. Peonage is considered a form of slavery since the worker is essentially prohibited from leaving the control of the landowner. Peonage was declared illegal by Congress in 1867, and two of the most famous peonage investigations occurred in Arkansas during the first decades of the twentieth century.
Potential for peonage came about following the Civil War when the South’s agricultural economy shifted from use of a slavery-based workforce to a farming environment that relied on a mixture of hired labor and tenant farming or sharecropping. The sharecropping system encouraged indebtedness to the landowner since supplies were advanced to the workers against their share of the annual crop’s sale.
The majority of peonage cases originated from the South’s cotton belt. Until the advent of mechanization, large-scale farming required a large workforce to produce the cotton crop. The framework governing employer-employee agreements reflected a complex mixture of debt servitude, local laws, and local customs. Sharecroppers, both African American and white, were generally poor, landless, and poorly educated. They were unfamiliar with the law or any recourse they might have to combat illegalities that might be imposed on them by landowners.
Peonage was not easily proven. The federal government was hesitant to investigate except where overwhelming evidence seemed to support peonage charges. State and local officials were even more hesitant to investigate peonage claims since they involved the economically and politically influential residents of the region.
However, two well-known investigations did occur in Arkansas. The first investigation involved Sunnyside Plantation in Chicot County, which, in an effort to supplement the labor force, encouraged Italian farmers to relocate to Arkansas in 1895 through the Italian Immigration Society. Conditions were so unfavorable, however, that in 1898, many of the Italian families left Sunnyside for northwest Arkansas. Over 100 Italian families remained, however, and their complaints to the Italian consulate led to an investigation by the Department of Justice in 1907. Investigator Mary Grace Quackenbos found evidence of peonage at Sunnyside, but the influence powerful Mississippian LeRoy Percy, who had leased the plantation, held with Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt resulted in her report being buried in the federal bureaucracy and no action being taken against Percy.
In a second case, Earle (Crittenden County) marshal Paul Peacher was convicted in 1936 of holding individuals in involuntary servitude for his own private benefit. Peacher had received a contract from the school district to clear some land, sell the timber, and make the land suitable for farming. He acquired workers for this undertaking by arresting African Americans and charging them with vagrancy. Earle’s mayor then found the accused guilty, and, regardless of whether or not the men had money or jobs, sentenced them to thirty days of labor at Peacher’s land-clearing operation, where armed guards prevented any escape.
The Peacher case fell under federal jurisdiction because the charges against him related to an 1866 federal law outlawing involuntary servitude. Peacher was sentenced to a two-year jail term that was suspended, and he was removed from his job as marshal. The $3,500 fine assessed Peacher as part of his sentence was paid by local landowners chagrined that “local customs” had been ignored by a federal judge.
Other peonage investigations occurred in Arkansas in addition to the Sunnyside and Peacher cases. In 1912, thirty-six African-American families worked under armed guard at a farming operation in Poinsett County. The land owners were acquitted of peonage charges by a local jury. Also in 1912, twelve workers were held on a farm in eastern Arkansas for five months before escaping and reporting their experience to federal authorities.
Hungarian immigrants were involved in a peonage case against a lumber company in Fouche (Perry County) that had recruited them in New York City. On their arrival at the work site, their possessions were confiscated, and they were housed in a boarding house under armed guard. They were arrested if they made any attempt to flee.
In 1925, the Wilson plantation (Mississippi County) was the target of numerous complaints received by the Mexican Embassy. The Wilson operation had recruited over 5,000 Mexicans in Texas but was not paying the workers the wage rate promised them after their arrival in Arkansas. Lee Wilson was also charged with following a worker to Memphis and having him arrested and placed in a Mississippi County jail until the worker agreed to return to Wilson’s fields.
Peonage cases are still investigated. Contemporary peonage allegations involve migrant workers rather than the cases of earlier years that involved black and white sharecroppers.
For additional information:
Daniel, Pete. “Peonage.” In Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
———. The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South, 1901–1969. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972.
Hawkins, Van. Moaning Low: From Slavery to Peonage, Involuntary Servitude in the Arkansas Delta. Jonesboro, AR: Writers Bloc, 2019.
Thompson III, Robert F. “The Strange Case of Paul D. Peacher, Twentieth-Century Slaveholder.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 52 (Winter 1993): 426–451.
Whayne, Jeannie M., ed. Shadows over Sunnyside: An Arkansas Plantation in Transition, 1830–1945. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1993.
Woodruff, Nan Elizabeth. American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.
Bill Clinton State Government Project
Central Arkansas Library System
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