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Course: For teachers > Unit 2

Lesson 3: Go deeper: oppression and resistance

Carving out a life after slavery

A desk made by a formerly enslaved man in the post-Civil War South. See learning resources here.

Writing desk, attributed to William Howard, c. 1870, yellow pine, tobacco box and cotton crate wood, 154.31 75.88 x 60.17 (Minneapolis Institute of Art) A Seeing America video. Speakers: Dr. Alex Bortolot and Dr. Beth Harris.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazzy piano music) - [Beth] We're in the galleries at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, MIA, and we're looking at a writing desk. - [Alex] This is a desk made around 1870 in Madison County, Mississippi. - [Beth] And what seems unusual to me about it is all of these applied decorations. - [Alex] Farm tools, industrial tools, which have been individually carved and then nailed or tacked to the surface. - [Beth] I see knives and spoons and forks, a gun, something that looks like a compass and something that looks like an implement that you would use to weave or store thread. Boots and hands that might have been part of a sign in front of a glove maker's store. - [Alex] There are also other implements which may not be as recognizable, including at the bottom, a scale used for weighing bales of cotton. - [Beth] We believe that this was made on a plantation. - [Alex] This desk was discovered in the vicinity of the historic Kirkwood Plantation, whicih was one of the larger plantations in Madison County. It had approximately 200 enslaved men and women and children working in the house, its winery, its blacksmith shop, its carpentry shop, and in the fields of cotton, which was the staple crop of this area. - [Beth] Cotton required lots of labor, and that labor was the labor of enslaved people. - [Alex] It's also important to remember where cotton was sent. Cotton is the raw material. It's harvested, baled up, and sent north. This is made out of many pieces of wood that are recycled, including a cotton crate with Medford, Mass. stamped or stenciled on one of its surfaces. Medford, Massachusetts was a major industrial textile producing center outside of Boston. - [Beth] So it reminds us that cotton is not just important for the economy of the South, but important for the economy of the United States. - [Alex] And the cotton economy collapses with the advent of the Civil War. - [Beth] So we believe that this desk was made by a man named William Howard. - [Alex] A formerly enslaved man whose name appears on the Madison County census of 1870 as having resided on Kirkwood Plantation along with this wife and son. Howard has been associated with this desk largely through oral records, family remembrances. There are two other desks similar in appearance which are also associated with the name William Howard. - [Beth] We do hear of William Howard also in the correspondence of the mistress of Kirkwood Plantation. - [Alex] William McWillie, his wife Catherine, and their extended family lived on this large plantation. - [Beth] They were a prominent family. Mr. McWillie served in Congress. He became governor of Mississippi. - [Alex] William McWillie dies in 1868 and leaves the plantation and its operations to his wife, Catherine. After the Civil War, the economic prosperity of the region and the plantation itself had taken a severe downturn. The labor force that had been used to run the plantation had been emancipated, and that labor force was legally no longer under the authority of the planter class, people like the McWillies. The former confederate states passed legal codes that recreated slavery in everything but name. - [Beth] These are called Black Codes, these laws that severely restricted the rights of former slaves in the South. - [Alex] The only livelihood that was available to many of them was staying on the plantations. This is a system called the sharecropping system, where landowners allowed sharecroppers to grow crops on their land with the idea that, when the crop was harvested, the landowner and the tenant would each take half of the crops. But then, of course, there's also the added debt from the loans that made farming the land possible. - [Beth] So after the war, William Howard appears to stay on the plantation and to work, likely sharecropping. - [Alex] In 1869, when Catherine McWillie takes over the administration of the plantation from her late husband, she writes a letter to her son sketching out the sharecropping system. She writes: I have employed some of my old negroes. I shall give to each place a grant of land for a church and a schoolhouse, and to every hand that will build his own house, the nails required and the hauling of his logs. I hope Willie, meaning William Howard, may conclude to live ever here and give his precious wife and children, as well as his beloved self, a chance for a long and useful life. - [Beth] In this quote, we hear what historians call paternalism, this idea that those people needed to be cared for, that they couldn't care for themselves. - [Alex] What her letter sketches out is a much more brutal reality of coerced labor that is driven by indebtedness. - [Beth] And yet here we have this beautiful writing desk. In its forms, it recalls the classical language of the decorative arts. We see a cornice alternating forms that are called dentils, forms that are beautifully carved, but out of very mundane materials. This could've been opened, and inside there would be little slots for letters and paper and things, and so this utilitarian object that was still so evidently, lovingly, and carefully made, and yet here, combined with the objects that someone would see on a plantation in the South. - [Alex] The carved implements that he has applied to the surface speak very much to his own times and his own lived realities. (jazzy piano music)