The Failed Plan to Replace the South's Black Labor Force with Chinese ImmigrantsHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, Southern history, immigration, Chinese Americans, labor history
In the late 1860s, just a few years after the end of the Civil War, a group of plantation owners in the Mississippi Delta began talking to one another about a labor problem. Newly freed Black people made up the majority of the agricultural work force, but they were going against the party of the South’s white establishment and voting Republican. Some were simply picking up and leaving.
In 1869, an article published in De Bow’s Review cut right to the chase:
We will state the problem for consideration. It is: To retain in the hands of whites the control and direction of social and political action, without impairing the content of the labor capacity of the colored race. We assume the effort to restrain the political influence of the colored race in the South … has failed.
Efforts to recruit white labor had been hampered by the low wages and dangerous conditions on the plantations. The leaders of agriculture in the South needed a quick influx of workers that would keep the plantations running without bringing in anyone who might vote against the existing order. Their solution was to look to the Far East, to bring in Chinese workers (then known by the derogatory name “coolies”).
“Emancipation has spoiled the negro and carried him away from fields of agriculture,” an editorial in a Vicksburg newspaper read. “Our prosperity depends entirely upon the recovery of lost ground, and we therefore say let the Coolies come, and we will take the chance of Christianizing them.”
Thus began one of the strangest sales pitches in American history. Southern papers, politicians and plantation owners all began to broadcast a call to Chinese men — those already in the U.S. and those in China — to come work the cotton fields of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. The goal, according to Powell Clayton, then the governor of Arkansas, wasn’t just to replace lost hands, but also to undercut the remaining Black workers by flooding the fields with cheap labor — “to punish the negro for having abandoned the control of his old master, and to regulate the conditions of his employment and the scale of wages to be paid him."
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