The term gang system denotes a particularly exacting mode of labor widespread on slave plantations in the United States. The gang system is based on key factors, including division of labor and the strict supervision of slaves working together in groups. In its fully developed form, gang labor requires the synchronic or coordinated (hence interdependent), mechanical performance of relatively simple, repetitive tasks at a high, regular work pace. In these respects, gang labor on U.S. plantations anticipated the regime of the industrial assembly line.
The gang system was first developed on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. In the United States, it was particularly widespread on the tobacco plantations in Maryland and Virginia, in the Cotton Belt, and on the sugar plantations of the Gulf coast.
Forms and Extent
At its simplest, gang labor involved the supervised synchronic work of a group of field hands. A carefully selected worker set the pace; the others were required to follow his or her example, urged on by the whip and yells of a white overseer or a black driver. This mode of work was common; for example, in the hoeing of cotton, in which several dozen slaves could be employed together on large plantations. At times, hoe gangs were used in tandem with plow gangs, for whom they set the pace of work.
A more complex form of gang labor assigned different tasks to workers within the same gang. In sowing cotton, slaves chosen for their skill and experience drilled the holes for the seed. (This was the most important part of the work as the spacing and depth of the openings played a key role in the success of the crop.) The weakest or poorest workers dropped the seed into the ground, others followed and closed the holes. Thus each gang consisted of groups of three workers, the most dexterous of whom set the speed for the two others. The leaders of the groups, in their turn, followed the movement of a pacesetter. Because of the mechanical nature of the work, gang labor reminded observers of military formations or machines.
A sizeable number of slaves was required to realize the full potential of gang labor with its differentiation of the workforce. In their 1974 work on the economics of American slavery, the historians Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman suggested that, on average, only holdings of sixteen and more slaves comprised enough able field hands for the deployment of the gang system. However, not all large plantations relied primarily on gang labor. In the low country of coastal South Carolina and Georgia, in particular, planters generally preferred the task system. But the forced mobility of slave labor meant that most likely a majority of antebellum slaves experienced gang labor at some point in their lives.
Even on those plantations that made heavy use of the gang system, labor was organized differently on many occasions. Gangs proved especially efficient in the simple repetitive tasks that formed part of the cultivation of sugar, cotton, and tobacco. They were also used in raising provisions. But much work both in the production of the slave staples themselves and in other parts of the plantation economy was not congenial to the gang system. Moreover, some evidence suggests that the use of gang labor declined during the antebellum period as slaves opposed the rigors of the regime and mechanization changed the work requirements on large plantations.
Gang Labor and Slave Life
Work dominated slave life, and gang labor was one of its most oppressive and monotonous forms. A former slave recalled that, as a large gang of cotton pickers pushed ahead to finish their rows before dinner, "not a sound could be heard, only a steady click, click, click, click of the fingers of three hundred Negros [sic] splitting cotton pods, with the heavy tread of half a dozen Negro drivers just behind them" (Gaines 2003, p. 17). Invariably, the black drivers or the white overseers supervising the gangs carried whips, and the image of large groups of slaves working uniformly under the whip struck travelers and, to the twentyfirst century, dominates the public perception of slave work.
The slaves suffered from the brutal enforcement of gang discipline. Their role, however, cannot be reduced to that of parts of a machine, passive in themselves, but driven to do their work until they broke. Gang labor, for one, was a communal experience. Working together at the same pace put the slaves under pressure, but also gave them some strength. Often slave gangs accompanied their work with songs, which eased the monotony of their toil and could also serve to slow down the rhythm of the work. One master reported that he forbid his slaves to sing "drawling tunes … for their motions [were] almost certain to keep time with the music" ("Management of Negroes," 1850, p. 163). Apparently, however, such policies could not always be implemented or enforced (Mead 1820, pp. 13-14).
Forced labor did not disappear with the end of the Civil War. The Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, expressly exempted convicted felons from its provisions. Convict labor was not limited to the South, but both symbolically and numerically it gained special significance in the region.
In the postbellum period, the southern states began to lease out convicts to private businesses, which at times employed the men in agricultural operations, but more often in the production of turpentine, in industrial establishments, or in railroad construction. Both task and gang systems were used in the exploitation of convict labor. The convict-lease regime provided a cheap substitute for regular state prison systems and served, at the same time, to control the recently emancipated African American workforce. Many states formally abolished leasing out convicts as early as the 1880s, but the practice continued well into the twentieth century until it was no longer perceived to be fiscally profitable.
About the turn of the twentieth century, chain gangs appeared in a new context when southern states began to employ convicts systematically in the construction of public roads—a form of gang labor that had largely ended by the 1940s. In the mid-1990s, however, chain gangs employed in public work were reintroduced by several jurisdictions, most notably by Maricopa County, Arizona, where the system continues in the twenty-first century.
Lichtenstein, Alex. Twice the Work of Free Labor: the Political Economy of Convict Labor in the New South. New York: Verso, 1996.
Mancini, Matthew J. One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866−1928. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.
The individual worker within a gang was not altogether powerless either. The slaves could cause irrecoverable damage to the plants or their yield even when they worked under supervision, and it was not always easy to trace back the damage to the perpetrator. A cotton planter of the South Carolina Upcountry lamented: "The slave … by experienced craft, unless your eye is on the very stalk at the time, can cut it up, so that you will not be able to find whence it came" ("Cotton Culture," 1839, p. 359). This vulnerability of the crops put some check on the use of brute force and made concessions to the workers necessary even under the strict regime of the gang.
On gang-system plantations, slaves generally had to work from sunup to sundown. Gang laborers, therefore, had as a rule no incentive to work fast and often seemed lazy and listless to white observers. But the significance of the gang system went beyond the setting of the fields. Overworking of pregnant women and young mothers was common and led to very high infant-mortality rates on gang-labor plantations. Unlike the task system, the exhausting regime of the gang left the field hands hardly any room to work on their own account and limited the time for communal activities. The gang system also stood for the classification of slaves by age and gender, strength and skill. It contributed to the stratification of the slave community and thus helped planters to establish a set of incentives, which, while not inextricably linked with gang labor, derived particular resiliency from it. The gang system was a key element of the plantation regime. Its combination of ruthless coercion and calculated regimentation helped make many slave plantations remarkably productive. The slaves highly resented gang labor and the oppressive plantation regime associated with it. Once emancipated, southern freedmen refused to work in gangs whenever possible.
"Cotton Culture." Southern Agriculturalist 12, no. 7 (July 1839): 358-360.
Fogel, Robert William. Without Consent or Contract: The Rise and Fall of American Slavery. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.
Fogel, Robert William, and Stanley L. Engerman. Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery. London: Wildwood House, 1974.
"Management of Negroes." Southern Cultivator 8, no. 11 (November 1850): 162-164.
Morgan, Philip D. "Task and Gang Systems: The Organization of Labor on New World Plantations." In Work and Labor in Early America, ed. Stephen Innes. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Roberts, Justin. "Working Between the Lines: Labor and Agriculture on Two Barbadian Sugar Plantations, 1796–97." William and Mary Quarterly 63, no. 3 (July 2006): 551-586. Available from http://www.historycooperative.org.
Claus K. Meyer