In Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (2006), Moon-Ho Jung investigates southern efforts to import Chinese laborers (coolies) into the sugar plantations of Louisiana in the decade after the Civil War. W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (1935) heavily influenced Jung’s monograph. “More than any other work,” Jung writes, “Du Bois’ landmark study has guided my interpretation of the age of emancipation” (Jung, 222). For this post, I will highlight how Jung’s study engages with Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction and provides a new view of race and southern labor during the period of Reconstruction (1865-1877).
Both Jung and Du Bois, in short, argue that white Americans sacrificed true egalitarian democracy in order to uphold “white supremacy.” During Reconstruction, Du Bois argued, poor whites and blacks should have formed a working class alliance against the rich elite planters, but instead the white working class rejected freedmen and joined forces with southern white elites. Du Bois wrote, “The poor white clung frantically to the planter and his ideals; and although ignorant and impoverished, maimed and discouraged, victims of war fought largely by the poor white for the benefit of the rich planter, they sought redress by demanding unity of white against black, not unity of poor against rich, or of worker against exploiter “ (Du Bois, 130). For white Louisianans, Jung argues, the introduction of coolie laborers coupled with the recent military defeat and political reconstruction (universal male suffrage) “raised deep-seated fears” for all whites about the end of “white supremacy” (Jung, 166). Whites, therefore, unified across class lines by rejecting coolie and black laborers, which led to their movement of “ white redemption” from “multiracial democracy” (Jung, 224). Both Jung and Du Bois engage with Marxist language (Du Bois even uses the term “the Black proletariat”), but both historians conclude that race trumped class during this period.
Both studies, in their own right, make significant historiographical contributions. Du Bois, writing against works such as Claude Bowers’ The Tragic Era (1929), attempted to shift the traditional Dunning Reconstruction narrative. In the 1920s and 1930s, the pervasive historical narrative of Reconstruction, formed by William Archibald Dunning and his followers (called the “Dunning School of Reconstruction”) argued that Reconstruction ruined the South. White carpetbaggers and Radical Republicans were the “villains” who gave freedpeople the wrong ideas about equality. They overturned the established social order and left southern whites, especially white women, vulnerable to retributive attacks by ex-slaves. In turn white southerners, from all classes, joined forces and heroically came to the defense of their traditional “white society.”
Du Bois, writing well before his time, vehemently attacked this narrative. In his historiographical chapter, which he aptly titled “The Propaganda of History,” Du Bois contested three Dunning School theses: “(1) All Negroes were ignorant; (2) All Negroes were lazy, dishonest and extravagant; and (3) Negroes were responsible for bad government during Reconstruction (711-712). Throughout this work, Du Bois placed African Americans at the center of the Reconstruction story. Through education, Du Bois argued, freedmen were the ones who actually lifted themselves out of slavery and became positive contributors to society (not the result of actions by northerners, abolitionists, or Radical Republicans). Put in a different light, freedmen were agents in their movement out of slavery and into freedom. He illuminates how freedmen worked hard and ushered in a new era of black political leadership and social revolution. In his chapter “The Black Proletariat in South Carolina,” for example, Du Bois asserted that despite South Carolina, which held a black majority, raised taxes (a common accusation used by historians to demonstrate how Reconstruction ruined the South), it also “more than doubled it social responsibilities” which was essential “for the uplift of its laboring [black] classes” (425). Unlike most scholars during this era, Du Bois recognized the positive influences Reconstruction had on southern and American society, especially by providing, at least initially, equality and education to African Americans.
In Coolies and Cane, Jung makes a similar historiographical interjection. Although he does not provide as much detail as Du Bois (Du Bois’ work is 746 pages, while Jung’s study is only 275), Jung casts light onto an overlooked group of actors in the Reconstruction narrative: coolie immigrants. “Throughout this book,” Jung writes, “I have tried to show how racial imaginings of coolies disrupted and reestablished a series of overlapping social and cultural dualisms at the heart of American culture—slavery and freedom, black and white, domestic and foreign, alien and citizen, modern and premodern” (222). Like Du Bois, Jung demonstrates the role coolies played in shaping society after the Civil War. Like freedpeople, coolie immigrants’ presence and actions led to the creation of “a white national identity across regional and class divisions, in the bayous of Louisiana as much as in the halls of Congress” (223). Jung study, in short, moves our attention away from the white-black dichotomy that has structured most of the scholarship on Reconstruction. Like Du Bois’ characterization of freedpeople, Jung makes a strong case for coolies as actors who dramatically influenced the development of post-emancipation society, especially in regards to questions over race and labor.
Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction and Jung’s Coolies and Cane provide two groundbreaking works for the historiographical field of Reconstruction. Both historians place the question of labor at the center of the struggle over Reconstruction. They highlight how Radical Republicans, northern carpetbaggers, scalawags (southern whites who supported Reconstruction and the Republican Party), southern white Democrats, freedpeople, and coolies wrestled with the question of who would fill the labor void left by the emancipation of more than four million slaves. Who would work for whom, and under what terms? Would freedpeople and coolies work as sharecroppers? Indentured servants? Wage laborers? Or would they own their own land? These questions over “race and labor” during Reconstruction, I believe, will rest at the heart of my final paper for this class.
Any advice or comments about further readings or where I should go from here would be much appreciated. I have also included a brief bibliography (see below). Please feel free to note any works I should add or take off.
Reading List For Nineteenth-Century (Moon Ho-Jung Coolies and Cane)
- Alex Lichtenstein, “Was the Emancipated Slave a Proletarian?” Reviews in American History, 26 (March 1998), 124-45
- Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market
- Barbara J. Fields, “The Advent of Capitalist Agriculture: The New South in a Bourgeois World,” in Thavolia Glymph and John J. Kushma, eds., Essays on the Postbellum Southern Economy, 73-94
- Claude G. Bowers, The Tragic Era: The Revolution After Lincoln
- C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (3rd ed., revised)
- _____, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913
- David Montgomery, Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans
- Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II
- Elizabeth Ann Regosin, Freedom’s Promise: Ex-Slave Families and Citizenship
- Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877
- Eric L. McKitrick, Andrew Johnson and Reconstruction
- Edward L. Ayers, The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction
- Gregory Downs, Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908 (North Carolina)
- Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction . . . 1865-1901
- Howard N. Rabinowitz, Race Relations in the Urban South, 1865-1890
- James Alex Bagget, The Scalawags: Southern Dissenters . . .
- James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics
- James L. Roark, Masters Without Slaves: Southern Planters . . .
- Joel Williamson, A Rage for Order: Black-White Relations in the American South
- John C. Rodrigue, Reconstruction in the Cane Fields: . . . 1862-1880
- Julie Saville, The Work of Reconstruction: . . . South Carolina, 1860-1870
- Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery
- Steven Hahn, A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South
- Paul Cimbala and Randall M. Miller, eds., The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction
- Peter Kolchin, “Slavery and Freedom in the Civil War South,” in James M. McPherson and William J. Cooper, Jr., eds., Writing the Civil War, 241-60, 335-47
- Rebecca J. Scott, Degrees of Freedom: Louisiana and Cuba after Slavery
- ______, “More Than the Woodward Thesis: Assessing the Strange Career of Jim Crow,” JAH, 75 (December 1988), 842-56
- Richard L. Hume and Jerry B. Gough, Blacks, Carpetbaggers, and Scalawags: The Constitutional Conventions of Radical Republicans
- Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household
- Theodore Rosengarten, All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw
- Thomas Holt, Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina
- W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America