Port Royal Experiment

views updated

Port Royal Experiment

The Port Royal Experiment has often been called a rehearsal for Reconstruction. It was designed to discover whether African Americans liberated from their slave-masters could work as free laborers. On November 7, 1861, planters on the South Carolina Sea Islands fled the Union's naval forces, leaving their enslaved laborers on the land. Military forces led by Lieut. Gen. William W. Reynolds occupied and looted the islands. William W. Pierce, a civilian attorney from Boston, was assigned to scout the land and direct efforts on behalf of the "contrabands" of war now under their control. He went north and in Boston and New York joined with abolitionists and reformers such as Edward Philbrick to form an educational association named Gideon's Band. Shortly thereafter, missionary teachers arrived to assist the newly independent blacks.

Missionaries from Gideon's Band, later assisted by the American Missionary Association, opened schools in the face of military hostility and racism. Within a short time, conflict emerged over the use of the land. Northern officials wanted to grow cotton to ease the wartime shortage. The former slaves, however, were used to laboring for others and interpreted "free labor" to mean independence. Like many whites, they preferred subsistence farming to wage labor on cash crops as part of large work groups. Eventually, the military coerced many blacks into growing cotton on abandoned plantations. Pierce, a free labor advocate, ordered blacks to grow cotton on the abandoned plantations. The federal government provided supplies and meager salaries for the freed people. At the same time, cotton agents and soldiers lined their pockets with commissions and profits on the cotton.

On July 7, 1862, Congress passed a bill that effectively displaced the absentee white landowners, and in March 1863 their abandoned properties were divided into lots and sold. Although 2,000 acres were bought by groups of blacks, who pooled their wages, most of the lands were bought by military officers and speculators. A consortium of abolitionists headed by Philbrick and Edward Atkinson, a Boston textile manufacturer, bought eleven plantations. They wished not only to profit, but to prove the superiority of black wage work. Philbrick opened plantation stores and stocked fine goods, hoping to create a desire for cash among African-American farmers.

In January 1865, Gen. William T. Sherman awarded all unclaimed land to the freedmen. Several months later, however, President Andrew Johnson allowed planters to reclaim land not already sold to investors. In early 1866 freedmen who refused to sign lease agreements with white owners were forced off the land by the military. Some left; others contracted to work for planters. A few did manage to retain title to lands.

Despite the small and isolated nature of Port Royal, the experiment aroused great attention in antislavery circles. The failure of the experiment, as far as black uplift was concerned, presaged the later collapse of Reconstruction. Differences between northern free labor ideology and black desire for autonomy would again appear, and the fragility of black independence in the face of white opposition would once again be demonstrated.


Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 18631877. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Rose, Willie Lee. Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964.

elizabeth fortson arroyo (1996)