A long quavering chant : peonage labor camps in the rural-industrial South, 1905-1965
This dissertation is a study of social and environmental conditions inside rural industrial labor camps throughout the U.S. South between 1905 and 1965. The use of peonage labor, i.e., the coercion of labor against ones’ will through indebtedness or violence impacted nearly a fourth of rural workers in the postbellum south, particularly in isolated railroad construction sites, lumber operations, turpentine camps, and commercial vegetable farms. Though employers’ various peonage labor regimes changed within the context of the camps’ physical environment and evolved over time, they continually took advantage of marginalized social groups, immigrants, African-Americans, and the poor. The relative inability of workers, their families, and reformers to prosecute employers and foremen for labor abuses stemmed from the collusion of local law enforcement and the indifference of federal government officials. Ultimately, broader market forces of globalization and technology changed peonage labor regimes, not the enforcement of federal statues outlawing the practice.