In the spring of 1867, the levees broke in Pointe Coupee Parish, Louisiana. Water poured out into planted fields, through pig pens and chicken coops, and into residents’ homes. It killed thousands of pigs, sheep, and cattle, devastating a region that had already been ravaged by Confederate guerrilla tactics during the Rebellion.
Following the spring floods, there was little work to be had in the parish. For several months, much of the region was accessible only by boat. Residents struggled to stay warm and dry and had almost no access to food, clean water, or shelter. People starved, got sick, and died. In this respect, it was much like the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico.
Circumstances grew so dire that locals began writing letters to anyone and everyone they could think of for help. They asked benevolent societies in New Orleans to send food and clothing. They petitioned local officials, the legislature, the governor, and the Union Army for assistance. I have yet to find an example, but I feel sure that they wrote to President Johnson.
One such letter made its way from Pauline Bourgeat, a white mother of four, to the local agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau, H.F. Wallace. Wallace had been a Union officer and, after the war, was charged with protecting the rights and property of formerly enslaved men and women as a member of the Bureau. Bourgeat’s letter to Wallace, which I include below in full, fell well outside of his jurisdiction. She was a white woman who did not employ any black workers. Though we can’t know for certain, the way she describes her family’s plight suggests her husband may have died serving the Rebels. Even without this disloyalty wrinkle, white Louisianans nearly universally opposed the Bureau and basic civil rights for African Americans. Writing to Wallace must have been an act of desperation.
Bourgeat’s letter is important for several reasons involving gender, motherhood, civic virtue, federal benefits, and loyalty. What most interests me here, though, is her position as a worker. Can we rightly consider her a laborer if she couldn’t labor? And two larger questions her struggle raises: what does it mean to be working class and what do we, as a wealthy society, owe those who toil?
Bourgeat had worked, but she no longer had, nor would she be able to get, any work. As she put it, “I have lost my last three crops by the Caterpillars and the high water.” Three successive crop failures would have left her deeply in debt with little hope of accessing credit and rebuilding over the long term. Her misfortune also left her destitute, on the brink of starvation. She confided “I have hardly nothing to eat.”
At the center of Bourgeat’s plea to Wallace was her duty as a caretaker. “I am the mother of four young Children,” she wrote, adding “I have no body to help me.” It may be difficult for contemporary readers to fathom her desperate situation. Under normal circumstances, poor folk in Pointe Coupee might have expected some help from the police jury, the nineteenth-century equivalent to modern parish and county governments. The entire parish had been devastated during the floods, however, and officials had scant resources upon which to call. If the contemporary reports were accurate, roughly 90% of the local food supply had been destroyed. Her neighbors and local government would not be able to help.
There were no umbrella assistance programs to help poor folks on the brink of starvation like Bourgeat and her children.
There were no umbrella assistance programs to help poor folks on the brink of starvation like Bourgeat and her children. As a federal organization able to distribute resources to civilians, the Bureau was actually among the first of its kind. It was the forerunner of contemporary relief programs like SNAP and WIC. Although initially reluctant, Bureau officials would eventually send barrels of salt pork and sacks of cornmeal to men and women on the brink of starvation like Bourgeat’s family. There was, however, one important caveat: African Americans had to show that they were employed and would reimburse the government for its aid. This doesn’t appear to have applied to Bourgeat.
Wallace recommended that, unlike her African American neighbors, Bourgeat be given aid with no strings attached. He wrote simply “Pauline Bourgeat and her four children are very destitute and in great need. I recommend that rations for one month be sent them.” This raises an important question: Did Wallace consider Bourgeat to be a worker? She was a white woman, and contemporary ideology held work to be the domain of white men as well as black men and women. As a white woman, Bourgeat’s work was unacceptable and invisible in a way that black women’s work was not.
Although Bourgeat obviously did work, it does not seem that Wallace considered her a worker. He commonly wrote labor stipulations into these relief requests, even sometimes for white men, but did not do so here. Further, it seems unlikely that she would be able to work again until the following spring. That is, she did not have the potential to become a worker. Her past work, because of racial and gender norms, was invisible. Her future work was practically impossible due to the flood.
In a scholarly sense, Bourgeat’s predicament reveals the extent to which the term worker is socially constructed to exclude marginalized groups, even white women like Bourgeat. She could receive benevolence because white men considered her white femininity a disability. Likewise, white authorities treated black workers suffering under similar circumstances as disabled by popular conceptions of African Americans as lazy and thus undeserving of benevolence. African Americans, they believed, had to be forced to work. In their imagined hierarchy of labor, white men were ideal workers, white women were non-workers, and African Americans were un-workers, made productive only by compulsion.
It is not enough simply to be poor to deserve relief in the United States. One must also look poor correctly.
This is why African Americans had to repay the government for the same aid Bourgeat received for free. Broadly racist white officials believed that black workers would relax and enjoy government benefits as long as they could with no intention of ever working. This racist misconception continues to shape American labor and aid policy. It is not enough simply to be poor to deserve relief in the United States. One must also look poor correctly.
To pull Bourgeat’s plight and that of her African American neighbors into the present, we need look no further than Puerto Rico. The island has been exploited as a colony by the U.S. for generations. Through plunder and policy, the U.S. has drawn Puerto Rico’s wealth and most skilled workers to the mainland while denying it the protections afforded by statehood. That’s textbook imperialism. And, as the Times recently argued, Puerto Ricans (all of whom are American citizens) are receiving “Second-Class Treatment on Food Aid.” Much like Bureau agents treated black residents of Pointe Coupee as undeserving of aid, conservative Americans view the island’s suffering through the racialized lens of the un-worker.
Dealing equitably with those in need requires that we reject the history of the un-worker. It also demands that we consider the purpose of work beyond the superficial compensated labor-time formula. We must relentlessly question the rationale for labor. Is waged labor really an end in itself? Is it even reasonable to presume that the wage is universally accessible? Most importantly, as we occupy a world of increasing plenty, we must concede that the way we distribute resources is a choice. We choose to let our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico starve. That is our collective failure, not theirs.
Pauline Bourgeat to the Honorable Provost Martial, August 16, 1867, Bayou Fordoche, Registered Letters Received, April-December 1867, Target 5, Roll 96, M1905, Records of the Louisiana Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
“I take the liberty to write you this few lines to let you know my position and beg you to be so good to help me if it is your power. I am the mother of four young Children and I have lost my three last crops by the Caterpillars and the high water I have no body to help me. I have hardly nothing to eat if you can send me some provisions I will be very much oblige to you.
P.S. My four children Pauline 42 years
Alice 10 years
Paula 8 years
Hermoyene 6 years
Rosilus 4 years”
Endorsement, H.F. Wallace to L.O. Parker through Lt. W.H. Webster, August 30, 1867
“with information that said woman Pauline Bourgeat and her four children are very destitute and in great need I recommend that rations for one month be sent them to New Texas Landing given care of E. Oubre.”
Thavolia Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage examines the ways that race and gender impacted work and expectations, as does Tera Hunter’s To ‘Joy My Freedom. David Roediger analyzes America’s racialized ideology of labor from the perspective of the white worker in The Wages of Whiteness.
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