This essay traces the cultural legacy of the Port Royal Experiment, the Civil War–era social experiment in free labor conducted by Union forces on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Whereas literary and cultural historians typically focus on the “discovery” of slave spirituals by Northern missionaries and educators at Port Royal, this essay tracks how later writers, performers, and sociologists returned to the Sea Islands to reimagine the promise of free labor. The archive thus assembled includes Civil War–era ethnographies, memoirs, and reports; the scholarly monographs in UNC Press’s Social Study Series; and DuBose Heyward’s popular “Negro novel” Porgy (1925). Across this interdisciplinary tradition, writers of various stripes seek by turns to celebrate and contain the threat of the free but noncapitalist black body. The latter figure, recalling the disability category’s historical role in sorting people into work-based or need-based systems of social distribution, is commonly represented as disabled. Ultimately, the essay documents a dual development in US political economy as the marginalization of contraband slaves as capitalist laborers on the Sea Islands—the “failure” of the Port Royal Experiment—gives way to the consolidation of “black culture,” a success of a different kind.

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