The peonage cases were a rare but notable example of judicial protection of African-American rights during the highly racist era of the early twentieth century. In Bailey v. Alabama (1911), the United States Supreme Court invalidated an Alabama peonage law on the ground that it violated the Thirteenth Amendment’s ban on involuntary servitude. The Alabama law criminalized a worker’s breach of a labor contract in any case where he had received an advance payment from his employer (as was common practice in southern agricultural labor contracts at the time). Criminal punishment, usually including prison time, was a far more severe sanction than the standard civil remedy for reneging on a labor contract (which usually involved only financial compensation to the employer). This made it far more difficult for African-American farm workers to leave their employers in search of better opportunities elsewhere.
In the 1914 case of United States v. Reynolds, the Supreme Court struck down a second pillar of the peonage system: “criminal surety” laws. Such laws gave convicted criminals a choice between paying a fine, serving time in prison (usually on a chain gang), or working for a planter in exchange for sufficient funds to pay off the fine. Although these laws were less clearly unconstitutional than those at issue in Bailey, criminal surety statutes were part of a system in which poor African-Americans were routinely arrested for minor or nonexistent offenses for the purpose of using them as forced labor for the benefit of white planters.
The peonage cases arose from efforts by white southern planters to restrict the mobility of African-American agricultural labor after the abolition of slavery between 1863 and 1865. Planters initially attempted to force down African-American laborers’ wages by organizing cartels under which they agreed to keep wages low and refrain from hiring away each other’s workers. However, such private arrangements repeatedly broke down in the face of competitive pressures that gave planters an incentive to compete for workers by offering higher pay and superior working conditions. As a result, the planters turned to state governments for assistance, hoping that government action would suppress the competitive pressures that had stymied private efforts.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, therefore, southern states enacted a variety of laws intended to restrict the mobility of African-American labor. Early peonage laws were even harsher than those invalidated in Bailey and Reynolds, forcing workers into involuntary servitude in order to pay off debts to their employers. The federal Peonage Act of 1867, upheld by the Supreme Court in the 1905 case of Clyatt v. United States, banned such laws. Southern state governments then had to rely on other measures to restrict black labor mobility, and the laws struck down in Bailey and Reynolds were among the results.
The history of the peonage cases shows that, in at least some situations, oppressed minorities can benefit from free labor markets. Although nearly all the planters who employed African-American agricultural laborers in the segregation-era South were white and most held racist views, competition between employers still led to improved pay and working conditions. Despite their commitment to racial hierarchy, white planters were usually unable to curtail the mobility of African-American labor without the aid of government intervention. In the aftermath of the peonage cases, hundreds of thousands of African Americans were able to improve their social and economic prospects by switching employers or moving to the North, where—despite widespread racism— opportunities for black workers were often better than in the South.
The Supreme Court’s decisions in the peonage cases were not the only, or even the most important, factor enabling increased African-American mobility in the early twentieth century. Rising black education levels, lower transportation costs, and the availability of new job opportunities in the North also played key roles. Nonetheless, the Court’s actions had an impact as well. Peonage complaints decreased after Bailey, and several southern states removed peonage laws from the books or stopped enforcing them.
The peonage cases were not a simple morality play in which a heroic court triumphed over racist public opinion. Although racism was endemic in the North as well as the South, peonage laws were a sufficiently blatant affront to the Constitution that most northern whites, and even some southerners, disapproved of them. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court probably went further in attacking peonage than most white elected officials were inclined to do. Although the peonage cases hardly revolutionized early twentieth-century race relations, they did measurably improve the lives of poor African Americans in the South.
Bernstein, David E., and Ilya Somin. 2004. “Judicial Power and Civil Rights Reconsidered.” Yale Law Journal 114 (3): 591–657.
Bickel, Alexander M., and Benno C. Schmidt. 1984. The Judiciary and Responsible Government, 1910–21. New York: Macmillan.
Cohen, William. 1991. At Freedom’s Edge: Black Mobility and the Southern White Quest for Racial Control, 1861–1915. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Daniel, Pete. 1990. The Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South, 1901–1969, rev. ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.