“We Are Going To Do Away With These Boys …”

Out of the ashes and ruins of the Civil War the shadow of slavery once more crept over the South. Even while some southern Negroes tried to achieve political power, civil rights, and personal security during Reconstruction, many laborers became mired in the quicksand of debt. Booker T. Washington, usually softspoken on economic and social issues, observed in 1888 that black sharecroppers “are held in a kind of slavery that is in one sense as bad as the slavery of antebellum days.” Washington referred to the system of debt that oppressed the black laborer, that “binds him, robs him of independence, allures him and winds him deeper and deeper in its meshes each year till he is lost and bewildered.” Blacks were forced to work without compensation to pay off obligations that somehow became never ending. At the turn of the twentieth century the Justice Department, seeking to end this new form of slavery, discovered that an 1867 federal statute outlawing peonage—forced servitude to creditors—could be used to free laborers who were held involuntarily because of debt.

Booker T. Washington secretly joined in the campaign to eliminate this complicated and often invisible practice that blended into the customs and laws of the South. Yet neither his efforts nor those of the Justice Department ended peonage. It clung to poor workers like a disease. An experienced investigator estimated in 1907 that one third of the large planters “are holding their negro employees to a condition of peonage, and arresting and returning those that leave before alleged indebtedness is paid.”

Periodically throughout the twentieth century, thejustice Department would announce that peonage had been stricken, that only the vestiges of the system remained, but complaints of the practice continued. It was most prevalent during the first dozen years of the twentieth century, but a rash of cases broke out in the 1920’s and again in the late igso’s, and even during the igoo’s the Justice Department continued to receive some fifty complaints of peonage each year. Among those thousands of complaints and cases, one story emerged that drastically illustrated both the dreadfulness of the system and the halting inadequacy of federal officials in controlling it. The tale unfolded in rural Georgia in 1921.

On February 18 of that year federal agents George W. Brown and A. J. Wismer investigated the two-thousand-acre plantation of John S. Williams in Jasper County. Finding the owner briefly away that Friday afternoon, they talked to several of his black workers before he returned, and were especially interested in questioning twenty-seven-year-old Clyde Manning, Williams’ black foreman. They asked him if he and Williams had once caught a Negro laborer named Gus Chapman who had fled from the plantation. Manning said No.

When Williams, a fifty-four-year-old man who one observer said was a “giant in stature,” got back, he learned that the agents were investigating a complaint that he held men in peonage. The planter quickly offered to show the agents anything they wished; then he asked the terms of the law. Wismer and the other agent told him if he “paid a nigger out of the stockade, paid his fine, and kept him working on his plantation … he would be guilty of peonage, since he worked the nigger against his will.” Williams expressed amazement and declared that “I and most all of the farmers in this county must be guilty of peonage.” Then the agents asked Williams, as they had Manning, whether he had caught and returned to his farm Gus Chapman. The planter admitted that he had, claiming that Chapman had assaulted Clyde Manning’s wife and that they had thought of prosecuting him. Brown turned to Manning. “You lied to us about that,” he said.

Williams, at this point, escorted the visitors to his sons’ two farms five miles away and allowed them to talk with any of the hands. Before the federal men left, Williams asked if they had found conditions that would lead to prosecution. Getting no specific commitment, he assured the departing agents that though he might technically be guilty of peonage, he would never break the law again.

Less than a month later a small white boy named Cash spied the foot of a human body near the surface of a stream near Allen’s Bridge in neighboring Newton County. He immediately went for help, and before nightfall on March 13 two Negro bodies had been brought up from the Yellow River. The coroner ruled that the men had been murdered and postulated that they had been bound and weighted and thrown from the bridge alive.

The large crowd gathered at the bridge soon buzzed with speculation about the slain men’s identity. They surmised that Jasper County, rather than their own, would be the place to look for the murderer, because it had a history of racial turmoil. Thus county pride, plus the zeal of a group of conscientious local officers, combined to launch an investigation that led back to the Williams plantation. Within a few days Clyde Manning was arrested on suspicion of murder. On March 24—after being promised protection by officials—Manning confessed that he and John Williams had murdered eleven men. Two days later, with hundreds of local citizens flocking behind, he led law-enforcement officers on a gruesome trip about the county, pointing out the graves of nine other victims.