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tv   Debt Servitude in the Southwest  CSPAN  July 4, 2015 10:38pm-11:00pm EDT

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were operating in a vacuum. i say they were operating without a net. there were not those support groups. there were not the prior experiences of other groups to challenge racial discrimination and segregation. >> we look back to the union civic and how the construction of union station helped the economy. >> the union pacific was one of the premier railroad companies of america founded in 1862. it combines several railroad companies to make union pacific. they were charged with building the transcontinental railroad. they started here, was moving west and central pacific started on the west coast moving east and they met in utah. that is what propels us even further. we become that point of moving west. >> see all of our programs from
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omaha throughout the day on c-span2's book tv and sunday afternoon at 2:00 on american history tv on c-span3. >> american history tv was at the organization of american historians annual meeting in st. louis, missouri. this interview is about 20 minutes. >> i understand you're getting close to completing your dissertation. what is your topic? >> my dissertation topic is slavery and involuntary servitude in the southwest. i am looking at both mexican debt peonage and indian slavery as two forms of involuntary servitude that existed in that region in the southwest. i am contextualizing those two
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systems of slavery within the idea of slavery in the american south. a much more familiar form of slavery to most people in the united states is the plantation style race based black slavery in the south. many people are not aware that other forms of slavery did exist in america being indian slavery and peonage. i am looking at those two forms of slavery in the 19th century. >> what does the term debt peonage mean? >> it was a form of servitude that existed in 19th century southwest and later in the jim crow south. it was basically a form of a course of labor, whereby a
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creditor became master and slave owner through the process of debt. in new mexico, it was a society of dependency and it was a hierarchical society were only a few people owned land in those were the wealthy people and they became the masters, similar to the american south. the majority of the population had no way of making any money so they were very poor and had no alternative other than to go into debt to a landowner and they would go into debt for basic things like food, shelter and clothing. they were not paid any wages. a master and creditor would
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basically give a person clothing and shelter, and that would create a debt. that debt was then the tie that bound them servitude to that person. the system was manipulated in such a manner that the person could never repay the debt. if they needed a new shirt after six months, that is more debt. there was no way of repaying the debt because there were no wages. it basically ensured a lifetime of servitude and slavery. >> where did this idea
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originate? >> debt peonage originated in colonial latin america, after the reportamiento systems were outlawed by spain. in the 1600s. the spanish crown discouraged they and slave meant of indians. landowning aristocrats, in mexico predominately, had to find another way of procuring cheap labor. the way that they did this was the instituted this system of debtor servitude. it originated in assisting hundreds in central mexico, on large estates, and it gradually trickled outward. by the late 1700s or early 1800s it had become a mainstay and it remained so up into the 1860's. >> were there particular groups of people most affected by the system? >> the thing about debt peonage that is distinctive is it was not racially motivated. unlike slavery in the south where it was a black and white system, there was no racial
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motivation to debt peonage in the southwest. it was basically hispanic people and slaving other hispanic people. same religion and ethnic background. the dominant characteristic was -- it was basically people who did not own land and did not have any means of making a financial living. it was literally rich people and slaving poor people within the society. it tended to be more oriented to males as opposed to females, but what ended up happening was
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entire families would fall into this system of servitude and it actually was operated in such a way that it was hereditary. after mexico became a part of the united states there were some legal cases that overturned that hereditary nature but prior to that, children born into pr on families were born into that system of servitude. >> was this system legal? >> it was regulated by several laws within mexican society. mexico gained independence in
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1821, and it passed three separate laws that regulated relationships between masters and servants. that was the terminology they used. basically, the last such law was passed in 1851. they passed another law. the laws were very lopsided in favor of the master, so it gave the master the right to reclaim runaway peons. if they claimed that they satisfy their debt and repaid the debt, there was no way of proving that. it was operated on verbal contract. there were no written labor contracts or debt contracts. strictly verbal. the law recognize those verbal contracts is legally binding so
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in an instance where a peon might state a grievance for their creditor or master, the peon versus the master's word. in court, the judge or the jury would have peons themselves because they were part of that upper echelon of society, so it was manipulated in a way that it ensured that they had no legal rights. >> when did mexico become a state? >> it became a state in 1812, a territory in 1850. one of the reasons that new mexico failed to become a state in the civil war era, was because of these unfamiliar forms of slavery. because of sectionalism, the north and south were debating back and forth, is peonage really slavery? the northerners did not want to admit new mexico's statehood because they perceived a system of slavery. in the eyes of northerners, if new mexico is a state, it is a slave state. it is more slave representation in congress. southerners, in contrast, wanted it to become a state. that is one of the reasons in my opinion why it failed to become a state during the civil war era. >> how did the 13th amendment affected debt peonage? >> it did not impacted at all, which is why congress had to pass another law to expand that amendment. >> the 13th amendment was -- >> at the end of the civil war it simply said to free the
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slaves. it stated that there shall be neither slavery or involuntary servitude in the united states. that was the result of the civil war and that is what freed the slaves. the emancipation proclamation was part of that, but the language was involuntary servitude. the argument in new mexico, on the part of the masters holding peons, was that it is not involuntary servitude because we are not forcing them to go into debt to us.
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there voluntarily accepting the food, shelter and clothing. so they understand that it is probably a lifetime of servitude so it is voluntary. so it became a lifetime of slavery. it was kind of a is ingenuous argument and it was very self-serving on the part of the people holding the peons as slaves. so after the civil war, congress passed another long, that specifically broadened the 13th amendment. that law explicitly banned debt
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peonage. it named new mexico specifically as the most egregious offender but it banned debt peonage throughout the united states. >> was there a relationship with the jim crow era? >> the connection between the jim crow south and 19th-century new mexico was that in the jim crow era, peonage was instituted in the south as a way of maintaining african-americans in
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a form of bondage, neil slavery if you will -- neo-slavery, if you will. slavery by another name. the bondage in mexico served as an operational prototype for the system instituted in the jim crow south. the most significant impact that new mexico had -- by the early 1900s that is not much peonage existing, it is pretty much eradicated. the significance of new mexico is that there were several court cases, in the 1850's and 1860's, that ruled on debt peonage. there were federal district courts and even the u.s. supreme court in 1905. they used those new mexico cases from 50 years earlier as their guiding precedent. new mexico was very significant inasmuch it had these long-lasting, legal implications in terms of american centralization of free labor and slavery. >> when going about your research, what kind of documents did you turn to? >> unfortunately, unlike slavery in the south, there are no slave narratives, or peon narratives. they were invariably illiterate. there are no existing stories from the peons themselves, which is unfortunate when you are trying to research this kind of thing. one of the most useful sources are published travel logs, government reports, military
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documents. almost any white american, who visits the southwest from the 1840's to the 1860's wrote about debt peonage. they noticed it and wrote about it and compared it to the slavery they were more familiar with it there were american outsiders passing through. that is useful. it can also be a little difficult because they have a biased opinion and they are looking at peonage from their own racist, nativist anti-catholic viewpoint. you have to view them through their jaundiced opinions, but they provide great descriptions of the system. in the territorial archives, there are records from court cases. there were maybe half a dozen to a dozen court cases that pertain specifically to peonage. that gives you a window into the system. but it is a rather obscure topic and there is not a plethora of
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primary source material, unfortunately. >> in st. louis, there still stands the courthouse where dred scott and his wife harriet sued for their freedom. were there any people caught up in the debt peonage system that's not legal recourse -- that sought legal recourse as a way out? >> there were a couple. not much because the system was manipulated to way that the masters did everything that they could to prevent those peons from bringing their cases in court. there were two in 1857, those are the two that the supreme court cited. one of them -- they both dealt with minors.
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young women who are 12 to 13 years of age, who were born into this hereditary system of peonage. those systems ruled that a minor could not be held in slavery based on a parent's debt. it overturned this hereditary system. one case dealt with the young woman who had run away from her master, and she was basically being held in the image to repay her mother's $51 debt. her mother gave her over to slavery, instead of for self, to satisfy her debt. it is kind of a rather perverse
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system in some ways. the court ruled in favor of the young woman and ruled that she could not be held in this form of slavery because her mother had a debt. basically, the debt is her mother's. the second case dealt with sexual relationships between female peons and their masters. it involved a young girl born out of wedlock illicitly between a master and his hispano peon. the situation was such that the master and his legal wife, or raising young girl as his legal daughter. the similar thing going on to the south with white plantation owners, like thomas jefferson and sally hemmings. in that case the court ruled that the master could not claim ownership of the girl as a peon and it gave parental rights to the mother despite the fact that
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she was in exiled status. those are the exceptions, for the most part these cases never gained much of a foothold in court. there were a couple of cases where the attentive to sue their masters for mistreatment. one peon certain his master for chaining him like a ball and chain and forcing him to work that way. he lost the case. by and large, there is not a lot of legal cases. they did not have a lot of legal recourse. very similar to black slaves in the south. the dred scott case you allude to said that black people were not citizens and head no right to sue in court. the chief justice of the supreme court ruled that no black person had legal rights whatsoever in america the cause they were not citizens. similar circumstances. >> how did this system come to an end and when? >> legally, in 1867, congress passed the peon law that brought
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in the 13th amendment and said that peonage is banned in north america. in actuality, it did not completely and until the world war ii era, in the south. as far as i can tell, through my research, the system gradually tapered off in new mexico and the southwest. in 1868, the government sent around a federal investigator and there were 368 grand jury indictments of people who continued to hold peons in slavery a year after the law had been passed. almost none of those people had been convicted because the judge and the jury were people who had them themselves and so they were sympathetic.
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so what really and it is difficult to document this but what really happened is it sort of died off over the course of a generation and so many of the people who were already held in peonage and servitude kind of remained in that condition for the remainder of their lives. as result of both the legal cases and the law it was no longer hereditary institution and soap free labor gradually supplanted debt peonage in new mexico. in the south, the system didn't even really again until the jim crow era and it did not die out
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until the world war ii era, the reason being that it was not until the mid-20th century that mechanized farming replaced the need for manual labor. it wasn't until they invented these large tractors that could pick the cotton, that peonage died out in the south. >> thank you very much. >> like many of us, first families take vacation time. a good read can be the perfect companion. what better book than the one that peers inside the personal lives of every first lady. "first lady's," inspiring stories of fascinating women who survived the scrutiny of the white house. available from public affairs as a hardcover or an e-book. >> historians discuss how african-americans remembered and interpreted the civil war.


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