How Homesteading Failed

After Emancipation, it was circumstance—not citizenship—that enabled freedmen in Klan-run Alabama to acquire the land they had worked in bondage.

James Hopkinson's Plantation. Planting sweet potatoes. African American men and women hoe and plow the earth while others cut piles of sweet potatoes for planting. One man sits in a horse-drawn cart.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo of James Hopkinson’s Plantation courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Adapted from A Mind to Stay: White Plantation, Black Homeland by Sydney Nathans. Published by Harvard University Press.

Since 1845, the plantation-owner Paul Cameron had seen his Alabama purchase as a grievous mistake, and been ready to sell it, even at one point to abandon it. By 1865 Cameron had received inquiries from whites who knew the land was up for grabs, but had never gotten an offer firm or credible enough to take. That the formerly enslaved Paul Hargis or other freedmen would have the wherewithal to buy the plantation surely seemed far-fetched. Even if they had the means, there was no indication that Paul Cameron was prepared to join planters he scorned in 1867 as ready “to give it up to the Negro.”1 For all the Hargis brothers’ hard work, it would take more than “good conduct” for them to be allowed to acquire any part of Paul Cameron’s land. But unexpected events—and unexpected advocates in Alabama—would reward their perseverance.

There was supposed to be another way for landless people like the Hargis brothers to acquire a farm in post–Civil War America: homesteads. First advanced in the late 1840s, the idea of homesteading was to offer public land to settlers at no cost. If a settler stayed on homestead land for five years and made improvements on it, he would acquire title to anywhere from 40 to 160 acres.

Before 1860, the South had opposed the policy of homesteading, fearful that a “free soil” policy would undermine slavery. But secession paved the way for passage of the first Homestead Act in 1862. Millions of acres of public land became available in Kansas, Colorado, the Dakotas, the Nebraska territory, and the High Plains, drawing hundreds of thousands of settlers.

In every way, however, white settlers had the jump on freed people. They had means to travel. They had skill and experience in working land in more northern climes. They had political supporters to protect them from predators who might seek to filch from them. Whether young or older, single or married, male or female, almost all of those who homesteaded in the 1860s and early 1870s had a common characteristic: They were white.2

Advocates of homesteading for blacks proposed that land be set aside for former freedmen. The public land in the Southern states would be a start, but since neighbors of those lands were white and implacably hostile, advocates also looked for set-asides in the Midwest.3 But none of the plans for black landholding came to fruition.

A more drastic proposal came from the most radical member of Congress, Thaddeus Stevens, who advocated confiscation of the lands of planters, and dividing their property among former enslaved workers. The Stevens proposal gave rise to reports that each freedman might receive 40 acres and a mule, or get some other “great benefit” from the federal government. But not just the opposition of Lincoln’s successor—former slaveholder Andrew Johnson of Tennessee—doomed confiscation. Among more moderate Republicans, the principle of confiscation met firm opposition. If the government could seize the estates of planters, why couldn’t it confiscate the property of corporations, bankers, and landholders in the North and the East, all in the name of equality or compensation? Confiscation proved to be a dead end as the way for ex-slaves to acquire land of their own.

How, then, could blacks who came out of the war with “nothing but freedom” hope to gain land of their own?4

To the blacks in the 20th century living on the 1,600 acres that Paul Cameron owned in the 19th  century, the answer was clear: “Paul Cameron caused them to be homesteaders.” It was not the United States government or the Homestead Acts. To these descendants, it was the former planter himself who gave Paul Hargis, Jim Hargis, Sandy Cameron, and a half-dozen other freed people the opportunity to homestead.5 Without Paul Cameron as seller and lender, not one of the black purchasers would have acquired an acre of his plantation, and they knew it.

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New calculations had entered the Cameron plantation picture in mid-1872. Under manager Wilson Oberry’s rule, much of the land had gone fallow, abandoned to broomsedge weeds when the manager decided to have his workers farm only the most productive parts of the plantation. Though not worthless, the abandoned portion of the place looked worthless, and could never bring a fair price if put on the market. In May, Oberry wrote the North Carolina landowner after a long silence. He’d made no money in recent years with poor crops. If nothing changed, he might have to move to Mississippi, “where I could make something.”

Then the manager switched to an unexpected subject. He asked Cameron whether he would set aside an acre of land for a church and also a school for the black people. Wilson Oberry knew that Cameron’s plans were fluid—he might again rent the land, he might try once more to sell. Still, it was a business proposition. On plantations that had a church and a school, it was possible to “keep hands in the neighborhood. Where farmers had done this they invariably can get a plenty of hands.” Whether Cameron rented or sold the plantation, the acre would serve Cameron’s purpose.6

Oberry saved the surprise for the end of his letter: “They will pay for it in cash.” The manager was acting as an intermediary—as an advocate for a proposal from blacks living on the land. The black people there were ready to commit. If Cameron accepted their offer, the acre would be home to their church, their school, and their community. They were prepared to do more than work in the neighborhood. They were ready to anchor their lives and futures where they were. “Let me know,” Oberry concluded his letter, “if they can get the land.”7

As it turned out, Paul Cameron was also pondering the future of his Alabama land in mid-1872. But the prompt came from a different offer that set in motion a chain of events that would finally spur Cameron to act on his long-held eagerness to sell the plantation. Less than a mile from where Paul Cameron dwelt in North Carolina, was the Hillsborough Military Academy. Started in 1859, it had gone defunct after the war, and postwar hardship had kept the school empty. In 1872, Cameron got word that an outside group was eager to buy the building and start a new school there for young black students. Rather than let freed people take over the site, Cameron agreed to buy the building.8 Cameron needed cash—much more cash, in fact, than might come from the sale of a single acre of land. On Nov. 8, 1872, Paul Cameron and his wife, Anne Ruffin Cameron, conveyed their power of attorney to a trusted agent in Alabama and authorized him to sell their entire Black Belt plantation.

The person that Paul Cameron turned to was his nephew, Thomas Roulhac, for whom he and his wife had the highest regard. Cameron took a caring uncle’s interest in his nephew and celebrated when Thomas Roulhac got his law license in 1867: “He is one of the most manly and correct youths in the county. We all have high hopes of him in his professional life.”9 To his uncle, Thomas Roulhac seemed the perfectly placed person to carry out his wish to sell his place in Alabama—and to sell it fast.

When Paul Cameron and his wife assigned their power of attorney to their nephew, they put no restrictions on who might buy the land. The document made no mention of race. The only stated requirement was that Roulhac should accept no less than $8 an acre for the land.10 But all other evidence suggests that not color but cash, not favors but speed, constituted Cameron’s foremost objectives.

Cameron’s edginess surfaced when his younger son asked for a supplement to his allowance. Cameron responded that he’d put everything into the pre-emptive purchase of the Hillsborough Military Academy and was waiting impatiently for money from Alabama. He wrote his son, telling him that he had “not one single dollar to waste until that property is paid for.” He couldn’t see what was taking Thomas Roulhac so long.11

Roulhac learned quickly that the plantation was not an easy sell, even at $8 an acre. “It is poor land, as you know,” manager Wilson Oberry had written Cameron in 1868. By the end of 1872, nothing had been done to improve the place, nor had general land values gone up in the county. Hopes for a good season in the spring of 1873 ran afoul of bad weather, rot, drought, and worms. By summer it was clear there was to be yet another short crop, and Roulhac found no buyers.12

Then came financial disaster—the Panic of 1873. In September, the country’s leading financier failed, and in rapid order trading houses and banks suspended payments, one after another. In Greensboro, Alabama, as in the rest of the South, all credit was suspended, all payments stopped, all debts deferred. The price of cotton was so ruinously low that Roulhac had it stored rather than sold. Land sales were impossible.

Still, the financial depression in no way diminished Paul Cameron’s impatience to have his Alabama land sold. For Paul Hargis and his brother, the good news was that if Paul Cameron had any residual reluctance about selling to black buyers, it likely had vanished by the end of 1873. If Cameron had changed his mind and was now willing to sell to blacks who gave him his price, one thing was for sure: He had little compunction about offending acquaintances in Alabama. Alabama had long since been a place the absentee landowner simply wished to divorce.

The same could not be said for Thomas Roulhac. If he sold Cameron’s land to Paul Hargis and other black buyers, he would have to answer to the best men and best families of his adopted home, Greensboro.

But as it turned out, political expediency encouraged Thomas Roulhac’s choice of purchasers. Early on, the few whites who had sold land to blacks had suffered reprisals. White sellers were shunned, black buyers shot.13 That continued to be the case in neighboring counties. But though the Klan was active in Greensboro’s Hale County, the editor of the local Alabama Beacon decried the politics of violence. Rarely did editor John Harvey have words of praise for the Union League, for black leader James K. Green, or for other Radicals. But to him, killing was not the way.14 Rather, he and others thought that the task of whites was to persuade black voters to follow white leaders: let them know that whites respected their rights, remind them that whites were their authentic friends. The planter “electioneers with the freeman to secure his labor, the merchant to secure his custom—and why not the politician to secure his vote?”15

The editor of the Alabama Beacon had advice for freedmen as well as for whites. “Heed your best friends,” he wrote. “Your children must grow up in the midst of friends, otherwise they will be a hopeless people for generations. Whites will never sell homesteads to those who persist in being their enemies.”16 And if blacks did heed those “best friends”? The message was understood: Whites would sell land to blacks who said no to the Republican Party.

It was in this setting that Thomas Roulhac felt permitted to sell Paul Cameron’s plantation to black buyers. He could exemplify the very bargain that the editor and other leaders were advocating. Tellingly, in March 1874, after only four years in Greensboro, Thomas Roulhac was chosen mayor of the town without opposition.

So by the summer of 1874, the word was out: If blacks could come up with the money, Cameron’s plantation would be sold in parcels to them. Paul Cameron’s nephew made a trade-off. He sold most of the land for more than the minimum of $8 an acre.17 But almost all the purchases were to be paid over time.18 Cameron would get his money, but none immediately.

Because Roulhac had become the collection agent for renting Cameron’s 1,600 acres, he was able to choose buyers who he knew had the will and skill to complete a purchase. Brothers Paul and Jim Hargis, who had stood by the overseer, the planter, and the land for seven years, together bought 100 acres for $8 an acre.19 Sandy Cameron, the carpenter and most valued man of the plantation, was one of the first to gain a home place.20 For all of the potential purchasers, Roulhac knew their reliability as farmers and their ability to pay off their mortgages.21

Most of the purchases were formally confirmed on the first day of January 1875 and detailed in a letter to Cameron on Feb. 15, 1875. Cameron was relieved at the sales but vexed when he came to understand that he would have to wait—and wait, and wait—for his money.22 The deeds were not formally conveyed and recorded until paid in their entirety. For Paul Hargis and his brother, that was 1884. For others as well, payments lagged into the 1880s.23

Descendants of the black buyers recalled it rightly. In their words, planter Paul Cameron “had homesteaded them.” Whether his heart was in it was another matter.

Extract edited from A Mind to Stay by Sydney Nathans, published by Harvard University Press, $29.95. Copyright © 2017 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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1. Paul Cameron to George P. Collins, Dec. 22, 1867, Anne Cameron Collins Papers, SHC.

2. The exception was Kansas, the destination of a notable black exodus from the South during the 1870s. See Nell Irvin Painter, Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976).

3. Eric Foner, Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983).

4. Interview with James Lyles, Aug. 9, 1979.

5. Wilson Oberry to Paul Cameron, May 15, 1872, CFP.

6. Ibid.

7. Jean Bradley Anderson, Piedmont Plantation: The Bennehan-Cameron Family and Lands in North Carolina (Durham, North Carolina: Historic Preservation Society of Durham, 1985), 127; Paul Cameron to James Hunter Horner, Aug. 9, 1872, CFP.

8. Paul Cameron to Anne Cameron Collins, May 20, 1867, Anne Cameron Collins Papers, SHC.

9. Paul C. Cameron and Anne Cameron, power of attorney conveyed to Thomas R. Roulhac, Nov. 8, 1872, Record of Deeds, Book G, page 196, Probate Office, Hale County Courthouse, Greensboro, Alabama.

10. Paul Cameron to Bennehan Cameron, Jan. 20, 1873, CFP.

11. John Parrish to Henry Watson, July 23, 1873, Watson Papers, Duke University; Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015), 263–266, 286–287, 289–293.

12. C. W. Pierce, Superintendent, District of Demopolis, to O. D. Kinsman, Superintendent, Montgomery, Feb. 13, 1867, BFRAL, Alabama, in the unregistered letters, Freedmen’s History Papers Archives, College Park, Maryland. Pierce gave a list of murders, assaults, and outrages from January 1866 through February 1867. In May 1866, in Marengo County, assailants attempted to drive away several families of freedmen who had rented a plantation and were working it themselves.

13. Trelease, White Terror, 83–94, 304–305, 308; Michael W. Fitzgerald, The Union League Movement in the Deep South: Politics and Agricultural Change during Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 83, 143, 213, 221, 223–224.

14. Alabama Beacon, June 11, 1870, Aug. 15, 1873.

15. Alabama Beacon, Sept. 28, 1872.

16. Paul Cameron wrote a memorandum summarizing the sales reported “in Mr. Roulhac’s letter”; the memo was dated Feb. 15, 1875, CFP. Roulhac reported selling most of the Alabama plantation’s 1,600 acres. One small parcel sold for $20 per acre; almost all the rest of the land brought from $9 to $12 per acre.

17. Paul Cameron memo on the sale of Alabama land, Feb. 15, 1875, CFP. Thomas Roulhac to Paul Cameron, Feb. 15, June 22, 1875, CFP.

18. Paul Cameron and Anne Cameron to Paul and James Hargess, Deed Book K, page 480, Probate Office, Hale County. Thomas Roulhac was the Camerons’ agent for all the sales. In this case and others, there was a gap between the date of purchase and the date the deed was officially recorded. Roulhac’s summary of purchases stated that all agreements to buy Cameron’s land came by February 1875. The Hargis brothers’ deed was recorded in 1884. Paul and Jim Hargess made their initial purchase of 20 acres in 1872. See Deed Book G, page 196. The second purchase of 80 acres for $640 was made on March 27, 1876. See Deed Book X, pages 614–615. The family name began its migration—from Hargis to Hargess and ultimately to Hargress—in the mid-1870s.

19. On Oct. 18, 1873, acting as designated agent, Thomas Roulhac gave a mortgage of $1,600 to Sandy Cameron for 160 acres of the plantation. The acreage conveyed was known as Edwards Field. The mortgage loan was for the entire amount due. Cameron committed to pay for the land in five installments of $320 each, staring on Jan. 1, 1874, and concluding on Jan. 1, 1878. Cameron was able to pay for only 30 acres. In a 1960 a davit, Sandy Cameron’s son-in-law Forrest Hargress stated that an unrecorded deed was dated July 1, 1876. Hale Mort- gage and Deed Book, Vol. 52, pages 276–277, Probate Office, Hale County. A 1917 mortgage on Edwards Field, signed by Sandy Cameron’s daughter, states that the thirty acres was conveyed by Thomas Roulhac on Jan. 1, 1875. Mortgage agreement of Bettie [Cameron] Hargress and For[r]est Hargress with L. K. Jackson, Jan. 2, 1917, Deed and Mortgage Book R, page 309.

20. For example, purchaser Wilson Rainey worked on the Locke plantation, about seven miles up the road; purchaser Robert Cabbil worked even closer, on the Stollenwerk plantation. With his wagon, purchaser Champ Hall hauled for the city of Greensboro, where Thomas Roulhac was mayor. See the Hale County Commissioners Minutes for 1874–1877, Book 2, pages 67, 77, 103, 104, 241. As an attorney, Roulhac was a knowledgeable and “excellent collector” of payments. Entry for Thomas Roulhac, Alabama, Volume 1, page 111, R. G. Dun & Co. Credit Re- port Volumes, Baker Library, Harvard Business School.

21. Paul Cameron to Milly Coles Cameron, Feb. 26, 1875, CFP. “Tom Roulhac writes me he has sold all my land in Ala. but 160 acres. I hope he may get the pay.” The money didn’t come. George Collins to Paul Cameron, Feb. 27, 1876; Paul Cameron to Anne Ru n Cameron, June 14, June 17, June 19, 1879,

CFP. “I have never had business with such a man. How unlike his father. … Do tell me what to do with such a man.” When Cameron found out that Roulhac was visiting Hillsborough in 1880, Cameron declared he would “seek him out” and presumably confront him. Paul Cameron to Anne Ru n Cameron, February 28 and 29, 1880, CFP. Cameron was not the only creditor to wait for payment from Thomas Roulhac. In the credit reports of R. G. Dun & Company, which contain confidential credit appraisals from reliable local sources, Roulhac was consistently characterized as “not prompt,” “slow pay,” and “constitutionally slow abt paying.” Entry for Thomas Roulhac, Alabama, Volume 11, page 249, R. G. Dun & Co. Credit Report Volumes, Baker Library, Harvard Business School.

22. For 1875 buyers James Mosley, Robert Cabell, and James McCoy, deeds were recorded and sales confirmed in 1884; for Ned Smith, 1885; for David Jackson and Henry Wilson, 1886.