Peonage (1916)

Peonage (1916)

The picture on the opposite page is authentic. It was taken in Lee County, Ga., where on January 20 five were taken from the jail, rushed into the adjoining county in automobiles, hanged and shot. The photograph was taken on the spot and a copy sent to a prominent white man in a neighboring city. His colored servant took it while he was at lunch, handed it to a Crisis agent, who had it quickly copied. The original was then returned and the copy sent to us. It was a little dim and has been slightly retouched. Otherwise it is absolutely authentic.

These men were killed for defending themselves from “arrest.” The arresting mob was led by a sheriff. The sheriff was killed. What was the real cause back of this wholesale lynching and back of the lynching of six Negroes in Early County, December 30th?

The answer is clear: Peonage.

Slavery under another name; the absolute defiance of the spirit of the law of the Thirteenth Amendment.

This is perfectly well known. The United States Government once, quite by mistake, ran afoul of it. It was trying to stop the peonage of Italians when its over-zealous prosecuting officer ran across this slavery of Negroes; but after a few desultory prosecutions Mr. Taft succeeded in hushing this up.

To understand the situation look at your map of Georgia. Worth, Lee and Early Counties are all in the black belt. These three counties have 18,000 white people and 31,000 colored people. Most of the white people are in the small towns; most of the colored people are in the country. The business of the white people is to make the colored people raise cotton. We quote a southern white man, C. D. Rivers, of Somerville, Va.:

The Times only the other day carried an account of an overseer in southwest Georgia, named Villipigue, who, with his wife, were the only whites living among a great Negro population on a big plantation. This overseer was killed because he had thrashed a Negro boy for some impudent reply made to the overseer. A mob of whites gathered and armed and a reign of terror was precipitated among the Negroes for miles around. Their secret society halls were burned, a church was burned, cabins were burned and several Negroes shot. Villipigue, the overseer, would not have whipped this boy had he been white. Perhaps had the boy been white his words would not have been considered impudent at all. Again, had Villipigue not been an overseer, charged with making the Negroes produce cotton, there would have been no reason for the altercation, and none would have happened. But sir, these overseers, throughout this vast black belt of cotton plantations are expected to do with the Negroes, to get results from them in the form of cotton produced at the least possible cost, which cannot be got from whites or blacks, except by unrelenting harshness. These overseers are in the position of a lion tamer in a den of lions. To hold their positions and to get the cotton made, they are obliged to use measures which are unknown to the law. Villipigue violated the law when he whipped the Negro boy. Of course, there was no redress for the Negro boy, for who thinks a jury controlled and in sympathy with the black belt plantation interests could dare to punish an overseer for whipping a Negro for impudence? To punish overseers for whipping saucy Negroes’ would amount to turning over the black belt cotton plantations to the Negroes, who would make much less cotton if released from the rule of the overseer. Yes, but it is expecting too much of any sort of human nature to expect that Negroes to whom redress at law is impossible will not avenge themselves for the whipping of their own members, especially their boys.

And as much as possible to prevent the Negroes from taking revenge it is absolutely necessary that they should always be kept in mind of swift and terrible penalties which wait not for the slow movements of the law but stand ever ready to strike them. The authority which the overseers and owners of these plantations are obliged to exert over the Negro workers cannot be sustained by the law. There must be extra-legal means always in reach and this extralegal means is the mob, always ready to inflict capital punishment upon Negroes violating that code which arises upon the relations of blacks and whites in the black belt. Consider the immense territory over which these conditions prevail and the immense white population affected by them, and the power and the influence of the interests which are protected by lynch law, and you may see how difficult it is to suppress lynch law.

“The power and the influence of the interests which are protected by lynch law!” There you have the whole modern government of the black belt with the South in its naked nastiness. Small wonder that the President of the United States is “protesting” against the Armenian atrocities of the Turks. We trust that A. Rustem Bey will answer that protest.

Citation: Du Bois, W.E.B. 1916. “Peonage.” The Crisis. 11(6):302–305.