“Something suspiciously akin to old fashioned slavery”: Missouri’s vagrancy law

 In May, 1892, three decades after Lincoln’s Emancipation proclamation freed the slaves, three African American men were sold on the steps Howard County courthouse 1887of the Howard County courthouse in Fayette, Missouri. In March, 1893, George Winn, also African American, was sold at the same courthouse to R.B. McCambell, for $20.[1] Howard County was known as the heart of “Little Dixie" for its position at the center of several Missouri counties dominated by slave-holding southerners before the civil war.

The sales were authorized under Missouri’s vagrancy law of 1889, which specified that a person “found loitering about without visible means of support and maintenance, and who does not apply himself to labor, or some other honest calling to procure a livelihood,” was to be arrested, imprisoned and on a jury’s decision that he is a vagrant “hired out at the court house door of the county for six months to the highest bidder.” The proceeds from the auction were to be applied to the paying of the person’s debts or for the benefit of his wife and children. [2]

There was no stipulation that only African Americans could be prosecuted under Missouri’s vagrancy laws, but it was often the case that vagrancy laws were used to keep African Americans “in their place,”[3] and, as a Times story on the Winn sale reported, some African Americans “naturally revolt at a law that provides for temporary disposal by sale on the block.” But, continued the story, “they are calmed when they understand that the same rule is applicable to vagrant whites.”[4]

Indeed, soon after Winn’s sale a white man, George Hardin, known as “Dago,” was sold in Audrain County, another "Little Dixie." Hardin, it was reported, “has not stained his hands with work this winter.”[5] One can’t help speculating, however, that Hardin’s sale was an attempt by authorities to mollify blacks by showing the vagrancy law could be applied to whites, since the sale of George Winn had attracted so much outside attention in the press.

Press attitudes toward the sale, as toward African American rights in general, were ambivalent. The Times describes the people’s “natural” fear of slavery’s return but also recounts a tale of an “ancient African” in Texas who begs a white friend to “take me” if slavery is restored.[6] It refers to Winn as “a lazy, worthless negro,” and a “tough looking negro… of black complexion,” as if to justify the sale, but also calls Winn the “victim.” It summarizes the prosecutor’s case that Winn had “worked only about six days in the last six months, and…. was invariably addicted to street loafing,” but also reports on the tense situation at the earlier sale in May, when African Americans gathered on street corners for days beforehand:

Many of the older negroes who had been sold as slaves before the war talked very hostile, and many of the timid white citizens feared the town might be fired by the negroes for revenge. The officers and citizens, however, made them understand that they would be summarily dealt with should they attempt anything of the kind.

One of the three men up for sale, John Hicks, was defiant, assuring “you white folks” that he was not going to “work for nobody nohow.” Another African American watching the proceedings -- characterized for no apparent reason as a “lazy negro” -- is quoted as saying he “wished he had a chunk of dynamite to drap among dat passel of poh white trash.” Another says the sale “reminded him of the day he saw his daddy sold ‘befo de wah,’ but that ‘his ole dad brung $1,200, and ‘twa’nt no good day for niggrahs either.'”

The Times story concludes with the observation that during the fall, 1892, national elections Republicans in Chillicothe, Missouri, had used the March, 1892, sale to argue that if the Democrats got into power they would re-establish slavery. As a result, suggests the story, Republicans won by a large majority.[7] Since the Times was a Democratic paper, its coverage of the Winn sale was a way of pointing out the political inexpediency of the vagrancy law. The Kansas City Star, also a pro-Democratic paper, reprinted an editorial from the London Telegraph describing the law as “something suspiciously akin to old fashioned slavery.” Under the Missouri law, said the Telegraph,  the buyer can “order his negro to do whatever labor he chooses to set him during a half year, and to pay him less than five shillings a week; and for that time the unhappy African will practically be in the position of bondage will all negroes occupied before the war.”

Audrain County -- and perhaps also the unwanted attentions of the domestic and international press -- played a role in the Supreme Court of Missouri’s declaring theFrederick William Lehmann anomalous law unconstitutional in June, 1893. The County had prosecuted another African American man, Jo Thompson, on vagrancy charges,[8] when a railway company attorney, Fred W. Lehmann, a stalwart Republican who would become U.S. Solicitor General in the Taft administration,[9] took an interest in the case and decided to test its validity in court. 

The court’s ruling striking down the law was not made on the basis of racial discrimination or civil rights as such, but because the state constitution, like the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. constitution, prohibited involuntary servitude “except in punishment of crime,” and Thompson had not been convicted of any crime. “The premises considered,” wrote the court justice, “we hold that the law under which petitioner is restrained of his liberty contravenes the constitution of the United States and of this State, and he is, therefore, entitled to be discharged, and it is so ordered.”[10]

As soon as the law was declared unconstitutional, Howard County’s African Americans, five of whom had been sold as vagrants in the past year, began talking of suing the county for damages.[11]

[1] “A Negro Sold for Vagrancy.” Kansas City Star, March 16, 1893.

[2] Revised statutes of the State of Missouri, 1889, Ch 169, sec 8846-8853. Tribune printing company, state printers, 1889 http://books.google.com/books?id=tLchAQAAMAAJ&dq=missouri+revised+statutes+of+1889+chapter+169&source=gbs_navlinks_s.

[3] “vagrancy laws were often applied to poor black Americans to restrict their mobility…. either to keep them in place and working at low-paying jobs in the South, or keep them out of areas in the Midwest and West where few blacks lived.” http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/harp/1108.html.

[4] Kansas City Times, March 13, 1893, p. 4.

[5] “A White Man to be Sold.” Kansas City Times, March 18, 1893, p. 1.

[6] Kansas City Times, March 13, 1893, p. 4.

[7]To be sold on the block.” Kansas City Times, March 12, 1893, p. 9. Story reprinted verbatim in The American Citizen, the African-American newspaper of Kansas City Kansas, edited by C.H.J. Taylor, prominent black Democrat (March 17, 1893, p. 1).

[8]Missouri Supreme Court.” Kansas City Star, June 20, 1893, p. 2.

[9] Frederick William Lehmann. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_William_Lehmann.

[10] “Vagrants Can Not be Sold.” Kansas City Times, June 20, 1893, p. 1.

[11] Kansas City Star, June 23, 1893.

June 24, 2012