6.5.3 Deep South (1877-1920): Peonage and Residential Segregation


Peonage laws

Toney v. State – Alabama, 1904 (37 So. 332); State v. Murray – Louisiana, 1906 (40 So. 930); Ex parte Hollman – South Carolina, 1908 (60 S.E. 19); Bailey v. State – Alabama, 1909 (49 So. 886), reversed, 219 U.S. 219 (1911); Wilson v. State – Georgia, 1912 (75 S.E. 619); State v. Oliva – Louisiana, 1918 (80 So. 195)

  • During the “straight out” era,, many Southern states attempted to resurrect pre-Reconstruction worker controls by enacting laws commonly known to supporters as “false pretences” laws and to detractors as “peonage” laws.  Typically, the laws provided that workers who received advances of cash or goods under labor contracts and then quit to join a new employer who offered a better deal, could be.criminally convicted and imprisoned.  The laws were challenged as a new form of slavery and imprisonment for debt.
  • Most courts upheld the laws at first at first, but in 1903 Alabama federal judge Thomas Jones, reflecting the opinion of many Bourbons who were uneasy about the increasingly harsh penalties being enacted, denounced the laws as a form of slavery.  The following year, in Toney, Alabama’s supreme court struck down the state’s peonage law on the ground that it impermissibly interfered with workers’ right to choose their employer.  Workers could be sued for breach of contract, but they could not be criminally prosecuted unless they had intended to defraud the employer.
  • Alabama’s legislature and most other Deep South states responded to Toney by passing laws stating that failure to repay the employer on demand would be considered fraud, justifying a criminal conviction, unless the worker could convince a jury otherwise.  In Bailey the Alabama court upheld this rule and in Murray, Louisiana went a step further, holding that criminal penalties could be imposed in “extreme cases” even where no fraud was shown. In Hollman, several members of South Carolina’s court argued that failure to repay should automatically be deemed fraud. 
  • When the Bailey case was appealed, the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to this trend:  it signaled that using criminal law to punish breaches of labor contracts was tantamount to slavery no matter what standard of intent was used.
  • Most Deep South courts accepted the Supreme Court’s decision and overruled earlier decisions upholding peonage laws; the Oliva case, in which Louisiana’s supreme court overruled its Murray decision, is an example.  Georgia was the lone exception:  in Wilson, its supreme court upheld a peonage law creating a presumption of fraud, based on a flimsy attempt to explain away Bailey.


Residential segregation laws

Carey v. City of Atlanta – Georgia, 1915 (84 S.E. 456); Harden v. City of Atlanta – Georgia, 1917 (93 S.E. 401); Tyler v. Harmon – Louisiana, 1926 (107 So. 704), reversed, 273 U.S. 668 (1927)

  • At the end of the 19th century, rural Southern blacks began moving to Southern and northern cities in large numbers.  One of the by-products of this movement was a rash of urban race riots that began in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898 and flared up sporadically throughout the nation for decades.  In response, several Southern cities enacted residential segregation laws, which typically prohibited blacks from renting or buying housing on a majority-white block and vice versa. 
  • Many lawmakers worried that the laws impinged on the right to own property, a basic civil right, and accordingly the laws were less fiercely defended than other segregation laws.   In Carey, Georgia’s supreme court struck down Atlanta’s 1913 residential segregation ordinance for this reason, although one judge suggested that the law might be defended a use of the police power to reduce the risk of racial violence.  Two years later, Atlanta passed another ordinance prohibiting only future residential mixing, and the court upheld that law as a legitimate exercise of the police power which did not interfere with existing rights. 
  • The U.S. Supreme Court held in Buchanan v. Warley (1917) that all such laws, even laws limited to future transactions, violated both races’ basic right to acquire and hold property (see § __).  But as with peonage laws, some Southern courts – in this case Louisiana’s supreme court – were reluctant to let go.  In Tyler, the Louisiana court upheld a New Orleans residential segregation ordinance, stating in strong terms that residential segregation was necessary to public safety and openly criticizing Buchanan.  The Supreme Court summarily overturned the Louisiana decision on appeal.    

“When the busy worktime on the farm arrives, the laborer is generally in debt to the landowner for advances secured on the faith that he will perform the stipulated work.  It is then the dishonest laborer repudiates his obligation, and not only fraudulently deprives the owner of his property, but frequently brings disaster on the landowner’s farming business.  The frequency of such conduct, and its evil influence on the farming industry, called for some remedy.”  - Justice Ira Jones (dissenting), in Hollman

"What the state may not do directly it may not do indirectly.  If it cannot punish the servant as a criminal for the mere failure or refusal to serve without paying his debt, it is not permitted to accomplish the same result by creating a statutory presumption which, upon proof of no other fact, exposes him to conviction and punishment.  … [T]he statute here in question … furnishes a convenient instrument for the coercion which the Constitution and the act of Congress forbid; an instrument of compulsion peculiarly effective as against the poor and the ignorant, its most likely victims.” – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, in Bailey

 “This indebtedness becomes the cord by which the laborer is bound to the master’s service, and the service is enforceable by most potent means, the instrumentalities created by the state to punish lawlessness and crime.”  - Justice Paul Leche, in Oliva



“A public policy long in existence in this state, firmly entrenched in our statutes and decisions, upholds racial integrity.  … If it be justifiable to separate the races in the public schools in recognition of the peril to race integrity, induced by mere race association, then we cannot see why the same public policy cannot be invoked to prohibit the black and white races from living side by side.  Segregation is not imposed as a stigma upon either race, but in order to uphold the integrity of each race and to prevent conflicts between them resulting from close association.” – Justice Beverly Evans, in Harden

“If [Buchanan] conflicts with these views, then that case marks a long step backwards in the march of civilization; not so much because it interferes with the segregation of the races (which will take care of itself), but more especially because it will serve in future as a precedent against still other restrictions on the use of property, which, in time, may become necessary in the public interest; and it ought therefore to be overruled before the rolling pebble becomes an avalanche.  At any rate, this court should add nothing to the growing mass.”  - Justice John St. Paul, in Tyler