With his disadvantages of position, the absence of all moral training, and the dishonesty which was the natural result of the old system of labor, the negro could not be expected to observe all the rules prescribed for his guidance, but which were never explained. Like ignorant and degraded people everywhere, many of the negroes believed that guilt lay mainly in detection. There was little wickedness in stealing a pig or a chicken, if the theft were never discovered, and there was no occasion for allowing twinges of conscience to disturb the digestion.
I do not intend to intimate, by the above, that all were dishonest, even in these small peculations. There were many whose sense of right and wrong was very clear, and whose knowledge of their duties had been derived from the instructions of the white preachers. These negroes “obeyed their masters” in every thing, and considered it a religious obligation to be always faithful. They never avoided their tasks, in the field or elsewhere, and were never discovered doing any wrong. Under the new system of labor at the South, this portion of the negro population will prove of great advantage in teaching their kindred the duties they owe to each other. When all are trained to think and act for themselves, the negroes will, doubtless, prove as correct in morals as the white people around them.
Early in the present year, the authorities at Davies’ Bend, below Vicksburg, established a negro court, in which all petty cases were tried. The judge, jury, counsel, and officers were negroes, and no white man was allowed to interfere during the progress of a trial. After the decisions were made, the statement of the case and the action thereon were referred to the superintendent of the Government plantations at that point.
It was a noticeable feature that the punishments which the negroes decreed for each other were of a severe character. Very frequently it was necessary for the authorities to modify the sentences after the colored judge had rendered them. The cases tried by the court related to offenses of a minor character, such as theft, fraud, and various delinquencies of the freed negroes.
The experiment of a negro court is said to have been very successful, though it required careful watching. It was made in consequence of a desire of the authorities to teach the freedmen how to govern themselves. The planters in the vicinity were as bitterly opposed to the movement as to any other effort that lifts the negro above his old position.
At the present time, several parties in Vicksburg have leased three plantations, in as many localities, and are managing them on different plans. On the first they furnish the negroes with food and clothing, and divide the year’s income with them. On the second they pay wages at the rate of ten dollars per month, furnishing rations free, and retaining half the money until the end of the year. On the third they pay daily wages of one dollar, having the money ready at nightfall, the negro buying his own rations at a neighboring store.