Mentha Morrison: A Story of Debt Peonage in Jim Crow Georgia

By La Toya Tanisha Francis and Patrick Rael | Black Perspectives

Mentha Morrison wanted her husband back. The problem was not domestic, it was legal. Jackson Morrison owed the state of Georgia $100—likely the consequence of some petty or imagined infraction of the Jim Crow South’s endless litany of legal restrictions on the poor. A large sum for anyone in 1901, the debt would have seemed insurmountable for an impoverished African American farm worker in the Black Belt.

Because Jackson could not cover his obligation, Moses Jordan, Jackson’s occasional employer, paid the debt, thus transferring Jackson’s obligation to himself. These laws demanded no consent from the debtor, they simply transformed enpeoned African Americans’ civic obligation to the state into a labor contract with a private party. Like the colonial planters who commanded indentured servants, laborer owners could even transfer their peons’ obligations to others, as when Jordan ultimately “sold” Jackson to “Colonel” James Smith.1 Jackson worked for twenty months on Smith’s labor camp in Oglethorpe County, the heart of Georgia’s piedmont, but Smith refused to acknowledge his debt paid and obligation satisfied.

Desperate for her husband’s return, Mentha, a nursing mother, went directly to Smith’s camp and offered her labor to accelerate the repayment of her husband’s debt. On Smith’s plantation, Mentha “worked like a man, in all kinds of weather, rain, cold and all, and was not allowed to nurse her six months old babe except at dinner and night, the consequence of which was that it came near to starving.” Eventually, her baby “became so emaciated that it was little more than a skeleton;” Mentha “had to send it to her mother to save its life” (1:0645).

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