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Unit Six - Pursuing Citizenship: Justice & Equality
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Pursuing Citizenship: Justice & Equality
The ending of slavery did not automatically bestow full citizenship upon African Americans. Indeed, for nearly two years following the war, while President Andrew Johnson pursued a policy of leniency toward the white South, it appeared likely that 'freedom' could easily coexist with a whole range of laws and racial codes designed to uphold the color line and restrict blacks to menial labor. Even after the Radicals in the Republican Party managed to oust Johnson and uproot the state governments established under his administration, they faced an uphill battle in trying to inscribe into law the full equality that consistent friends of black freedom had long advocated. Some in the Republican ranks believed that the abolition of slavery concluded their obligation to the former slaves. Others worried that in pursuing full legal equality for freedpeople they might outrun northern white opinion and risk losing their electoral mandate.
As a party, Republicans disagreed about the desirability and the timing of further measures aimed at securing racial equality.
There was another major obstacle to equality before the law, however. Even where Republicans could muster the unity of purpose and the resolve to follow through on legislative advances at the federal level, a substantial element of the southern white population was determined to block their implementation. Conservatives sometimes openly defied federal directives, but more often the contest between the old order and the new moved from the Senate floor or the Supreme Court in Washington to local courthouses, jails and polling stations, where the federal government's ability to enforce the law was limited.
In both the Carolinas a kind of dual government existed at times, in which federal authorities-mainly Freedmen's Bureau agents and military officials-governed with the formal support of the U. S. government, but where local conservatives did their best to hold on to key posts and to use these to uphold elite prerogatives and undermine black freedom. This antagonism within the ranks of state government reached an extreme in North Carolina, where Governor William W. Holden considered the state militia so deeply saturated by hostility toward blacks that he felt unable to send them out to suppress the Ku Klux Klan. General Daniel Sickles regarded the violence against blacks in interior South Carolina so pervasive, and so unlikely to be restrained by local authorities, that he replaced
civilian courts with military proceedings and threatened planters that he would transport the entire black population of Barnwell and Edgefield counties out of the state unless violence against them ceased.
For freedpeople, of course, the contest over legal equality had never been a merely philosophical one. Its effects were often devastating, and personally felt-families could be forced to sacrifice a year's crop at the whim of a local magistrate; discharged from employment and left homeless for exercising the right to vote; or compelled to languish in a filthy prison for an extended period on trivial charges.
Thus they looked to the Republican governments to ensure that their rights were upheld and extended, and they organized, petitioned, and sometimes went on strike to claim their full rights as citizens of the United States. As had been the case during the war itself, throughout Reconstruction the link between grassroots activism and state and federal commitment to defending black citizenship was critical.
There was one further, and fundamental, complication that the Reconstruction state governments were themselves never prepared to face. Important as it was, the long and difficult struggle for formal legal equality could not overcome the vast disparities in wealth and education, landholding or economic and political power that marked southern society. Indeed late Reconstruction coincided with a period in American history where such basic inequalities seemed to be growing rather than abating, and we might question whether legal equality could make equal citizens of a population marked by glaring inequality in so many other respects.
N. C. Planter Denying Schoolchildren Use of the Public Roads
The freedpeople's conventions that took place across the former slave states between 1865 and 1867 asserted that republican government could not take root unless literacy and learning was "generally diffused among all classes," and to that end they demanded that Reconstruction legislatures build a "uniform system of common schools." Having been denied access to formal education under slavery, freedpeople believed fervently in education, committing their meager resources to funding schools and teachers when the state was unable or unwilling to shoulder these costs.
Some whites were indifferent on the question of educating freedpeople, but from the evidence it would seem that a majority were hostile to the idea, fearing that "too much" learning would spoil a race destined for a life of labor in the fields or-even worse-foster ambitions that might lead freedpeople to challenge the status quo. By the late 1860s schoolhouses and the women and men who taught in them were prime targets of Klan and paramilitary violence. In the following document we see an early manifestation of white hostility to the education of black children.
Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abd. Land
Supt. Affairs So. Dist. North Carolina
Wilmington July 12th 1866
Mr. Q. L. McMurray
Complaint is made to me that you forbid and refuse to allow a number of colored children to pass along a public road leading through your plantation in order to attend a school kept by a colored man under our jurisdiction.
I have to inform you that it is the right and duty of these children to pass and attend the school. You should consider it to the interest of yourself and others to have these freed people educated to some extent at least. Whether you do or not, we regard it as our duty to educate them and to protect them in receiving instruction.
If the children interrupt your property please report it to me. If they conduct themselves properly we must protect them and you cannot purposely forbid them passing. Yours &.
Source: Bvt. Lieut. W. H. H. Beadle (Supt., Freedmen's Bureau, Wilmington) to Mr. Q. L. McMurray, Press Copies of Letter Sent, in M1909: Records of the Field Offices, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands
Document 1 Questions
- Why might whites in McMurray's position oppose education for black children? In what ways might it challenge their ideas about the organization of southern society?
- Beadle tries in his communication to convince McMurray that he should regard some education for freedpeople as in his own interests. What does he mean by this? Is McMurray likely to agree?
- There are obviously different approaches available to an agent like Beadle in trying to win the support of the planters for reform. How would you characterize his approach in this incident? Is he flexible or unyielding? Amiable or stern?
Whites Reclaim an Edisto Church from Freedpeople
While a minority of slaves had been converted to Christianity before or just after the American Revolution, slaveholders made no systematic attempt to bring the bible into the slave quarters until after 1800, and even then they did so, in part, to fasten the chains of slavery more securely. On the whole, however, slaves rejected the doctrine of submission and unconditional obedience that their owners tried to convey in favor of a theology of liberation and deliverance. Even while slavery lasted, whites and blacks pursued distinct and, at times, antagonistic versions of the Christian message.
After emancipation there emerged a powerful impulse among former slaves to move out from under the supervision and control of whites, and this was plainly evident in freedpeople's attempts to establish their own churches. On the sea islands below Charleston, a unique situation developed: after whites deserted the islands freedpeople laid claim to the white churches that some of them had worshipped in previously, often sharing them across denominational lines and partaking in shared services on Sundays. The document below details the means by which whites, abetted by federal military authorities-reclaimed the Edisto Presbyterian Church in 1866.
After the fall of Port Royal [on] Nov. 13th, 1861, the [white] inhabitants of the Sea Islands were ordered to the mainland. This island and those south of us were deserted.
My next sight of the church was one night in Aug. 1862, where, as one of a scouting party, I passed her, a lonely sentinel, still keeping her silent vigil, over the quiet sleepers of generations passed...
The church at that time  was robbed of all her furniture. The pipe organ was taken down and [later] carried away by the enemy. . .
The close of the Civil War found us penniless. Our homes in possession of the US Government. Our church in possession of our former slaves.
After much trouble and anxiety we were repossessed of our lands and returned in May 1866 to our homes, with our rights in them disputed by the negroes, who had possession of them as they were led to believe by the U. S. authorities...
Having secured possession from Washington, D. C., and seeing the absolute necessity of getting immediate possession of the church building and property, which was being used by the negroes, our Senior Elder wrote to our venerable old Pastor, Re. Wm. S. Lee, who was still in Edgefield, S. C., where he had refugeed, to come down at once to open services, which he did.
Well do I remember the scene on one Sabbath morning in the last of May or first of June, where a little band of ten of us, with two or three children, assembled across the road opposite the old church, that was packed with negroes, we holding a conference, as to what was best to be done.
The decision was to send for the Commandant out of the U. S. military, located on the Island and let the government execute her own orders.
When the Commandant came, we formed in line of twos, and marched in on the north side-door. The Commandant and our venerable old Pastor, who had led this flock for half a century, taking the lead, followed by Elder I. J. Mikell and his wife [and others]. As we entered the door we found the building packed. The old Pulpit, with its winding stair-way on either side, and which we represented 'The Holy of Holies' of the Temple, contained four-what shall I call them? Embassadors of Heaven. No!! Well what? I think the scene is well described in Jude where the Devil was contending for the body of Moses.
The whole congregation was singing most lustily. Mr. Lee waited, thinking there would be a cessation after the singing, when he would tell them of our mission, but before it stopped, another opened the Bible and commenced reading. Mr. Lee then held up the restoration papers and said, "In the name of God and by the authority of the U. S. Government, we are here to claim our church," and addressed them, asking those who were former members to retain their accustomed places. Their preacher Rev. Hedges (colored) answered, that for reasons best known to themselves, they had better stay to themselves. Then told the congregation that as the U. S. government had as ordered they would have to leave, which they did in a body. We then had our quiet service, Mr. Lee preaching from the text, "I determined not to know any thing among you save Jesus Christ." (1 Cor. 2-2) Our fears and cares now were by no means at our end to protest this old citadel from the wily attack of the evil one-headed...traitors.
One of our next biggest fears, which was also the fear with other churches on the coast, was that the negroes would be persuaded to come forward in a body and join our church, then elect their own officers and get possession that way. The Session could not refuse to receive them if their examination was satisfactory. The Corporation could not refuse them membership, according to the requirements of Article 8th of our Constitution, as the Fifteenth amendment of the Constitution of the U. S. blotted out the words, "white and black," from all legal papers and made it unconstitutional to refuse membership on account of color. Then what were we to do? Well; we commenced amending too, and rewrote our constitution, requiring a two-thirds majority to become a member of the Corporation, we would lock its church door and say to the would be congregation, "Find some other place to worship." Our fears were not realized.
Source: Edisto Island Presbyterian Church Corporation Records: March 6, 1867, Townsend Mikell Papers, Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina at Columbia
Document 2 Questions
- On what grounds might freedpeople "dispute" the right of former owners to reoccupy the church and reassert ownership of the lands on the sea islands?
- Rev. Lee beseeches those former members attending the freedpeople's service to "retain their accustomed places" in the church. What does he mean by this? How are they likely to respond?
- Why does Rev. Hedges submit to the order to leave the church? Is it likely that the whites would have been as successful in reclaiming the church if they had not been accompanied by federal troops? Is it the fear of federal troops that compels Hedges to submit?
- What measures do the whites adopt to ensure that blacks cannot reassert their leading position in the church?
Report on Conditions in a North Carolina Jail
Between the end of the war and the inauguration of Radical Reconstruction in 1867, federal authorities and military officials struggled to assert control over local institutions in which ex-Confederates continued to wield considerable power. Often they used this authority in flagrant attempts to resubjugate blacks, now formally emancipated but in many places lacking the power or the support to enforce change. Across the Carolinas, Freedmen's Bureau agents received frequent reports that blacks were being held on trivial charges, or even on the mere whim of influential whites, and confined in horrible conditions. The report below, from northeastern North Carolina, offers poignant evidence that the end of slavery did not necessarily bring immediate change to freedpeople's conditions.
The first thing that came to my notice was the condition of the County Jail which I found to be horrible indeed. I found incarcerated within its walls, eight Colored men half starved and nearly suffocated on account of the lack of air and the stench of accumulated filth. Upon investigation I ascertained that four of them had been in confinement for over six weeks, for language muttered which their former masters termed insulting, the rest were Charged with having been engaged in Cotton stealing.
I took possession of the keys of the jail and discharged them on the following grounds,
1st That mere words uttered constitute no offence...
2nd That the parties were imprisoned without legal proof.
3rd That no right exists to confine [any] human being in so filthy a place.
The building was of brick, and the windows being half shut down, the heat of itself was hardly endurable. And upon opening the door the [putrid] air was [so] dense that one could feel it sensibly. Instead of cleansing the wards in which the prisoners were confined each day as required by law, not even the excrement had been removed for four or five days, and there being no mineral the floor was [wet] and slimy[.] Instead of wholesome food, being furnished them three times a day, they were not even fed once a day, and were then compelled to eat stinking fish, which with the excessive heat made them require much water, drink was not supplied them, and the poor wretches could be heard by the passers by crying for water.
As is the usual case with men who have been guilty of barbarity, no one was responsible. The sheriff it was said was sick and had been Confined to his house for some weeks, and the Jailor, was a "new man", and had had charge for a day or two only, and the responsibility was so shifted from one to the other, that it became a difficult question to determine where the responsibility lay, unless with the Sheriff who has had the assurance to present a bill of Jails Fees, of about [$60.00] for me to [cash]...
There is about Twenty five thousand Colored people in this district a great portion of which have not heard that they were free, except from inauthentic sources, and on some of the Plantations, I find slavery nearly in status quo antebellum.
Source: Extract from Report of Lieutenant Perminan on Sub-District of Weldon, included in Report of Lt. Col. Dexter H. Clapp, 38th USCT [Freedmen's Bureau Headquarters, Raleigh], October 13, 1865, M1909 The Records of the Field Offices, Miscellaneous Records,
Document 3 Questions
- What are the charges upon which the men in question have been imprisoned? What are the grounds upon which Lieutenant Perminan has the men released?
- Judging from this document, what are the major challenges to be overcome in enforcing emancipation in outlying rural areas?
- If you were the local Freedmen's Bureau agent, what measures would you adopt to ensure that injustices like the one described here are not repeated? What kinds of resources would you require to implement these measures?
- Who should be held responsible for the situation in the Weldon jail? What would be a suitable punishment?
Charleston Protests against Streetcar Segregation
Although the South's slave society operated on the basis of a very clear racial hierarchy, the need for blacks and whites to work together, often in close quarters, meant that it was difficult to enforce a definite 'color line' in day-to-day interactions. And so long as the basic hierarchy went unchallenged, legally enforced segregation seemed unnecessary. Emancipation posed a fundamental challenge to the entire social order, however, as freedpeople disputed white assertions about their alleged inferiority and challenged southern white custom on a range of fronts. In Charleston and in other places throughout the urban South, freedpeople launched a series of streetcar protests to publicly reject their treatment as second-class citizens and to lay full claim to public space. These protests were in many ways the forerunners, of course, to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Freedom Rides of the twentieth-century civil rights movement.
On Tuesday afternoon, March 27, after the adjournment of the Freedmen's mass meeting in Charleston, S. C., an attempt was made by some of them to test their right to ride in street cars, which is denied them by the rules of the Company.
One of them entered a car, and declined to leave it when requested to do so by the conductor, who at the same time informed him of the Company's rules. The conductor, however, insisted that he should at least leave the inside of the car, and finally his friends who feared he was liable to be forcibly ejected if resistance was offered, persuaded him to yield. On its return trip the car was filled at the same place by a crowd of negroes, who rushed into it, to the great discomfort of the white passengers, and although remonstrated with and appealed to by the conductor, declined to go out. The driver then attempted, by direction of the conductor to throw his car from the track; and, failing in this, unhitched his horses and left the car. The negroes attempted to push the car forward, and threatened personal violence to the conductor, but the arrival of police and detachments of soldiers caused the negroes to disperse. Other cars in the meantime were entered in the same way, and the negroes, finding the conductors would not permit them to ride, endeavored to interrupt the travel of the cars by plain stones on the track.
Source: "Southern Affairs," New York Times, April 2, 1867
Document 4 Questions
- This account of the streetcar protests was published in the New York Times, a leading northern newspaper. Is it a sympathetic account?
- Does the protest seem to have arisen spontaneously or was it inspired by other events? Was the Republican Party likely to support Charleston’s freedpeople in asserting their rights on public transportation?
- How would you expect freedpeople to react to the deployment of soldiers to disperse them?
Harassment of Freedpeople in the Vicinity of Wilmington
The inability of federal authorities to impose control over local officials or to stem abuses against freedpeople, mentioned in Document 3, continued into 1866 and 1867, even growing more acute under the lenient approach pursued by President Andrew Johnson. In the city of Wilmington, home to a large population of former slaves, a deep antagonism developed between Freedmen's Bureau officials and the local mayor, who was reported to recruit men to the local police force on the basis of their former service in the Confederate military. As the following documents make clear, this force became widely detested in Wilmington's black community for their frequent outrages against freedmen and women of all ages. The first of these is from testimony by Bureau agent W. H. H. Beadle before the Joint Congressional Committee on Reconstruction; the second is from a field report filed by another agent relative to the same matter.
[Testimony April 4, 1866]
Question. How do the secessionists receive President Johnson's liberal policy of treatment?
Answer. With rejoicing. Everything favorable from the President is published with capital headings. They receive it with great satisfaction... The laws of the State retain whipping, cropping, branding, and letting or binding to service as punishments for crime.
My assistant heard men say in the street that they would soon get rid of the d--n niggers when the Freedman's Bureau was withdrawn. I believe he used the terms, "would soon kill off the niggers."
Question. Have you had any knowledge of such whipping cases?
Answer. Yes, sir I interfered and stopped the whipping of some freedmen by the sheriff of New Hanover county.
Question. Was the whipping order by the justices of the peace?
Answer. By what is called the county court, the court of pleas and quarter sessions, which consists of the Justices in the county sitting together quarterly, with exciting member.
Question. Has that been a frequent occurrence?
Answer. No, sir; it only occurred once after I went there. I saw it going on, stopped it, requested the court to suspend the lash, and forwarded a report, with a request that such punishment be forbidden. It was referred to the general commanding the department of North Carolina, but no action had been taken when I left...
[Respondent asserts under questioning the possibility that, if federal troops are withdrawn, black people "will be ultimately exterminated by bad treatment, the hard mode of life they will be reduced to and consequent disease."]
Question. Will not the perpetual oppression [by] the white race produce something more terrible than gradual dwindling away of black race?
Answer. There is great danger of that now, at times. When the freedmen were publicly whipped the others were very much excited. Freedmen of intelligence and some means of life came to me weeping at the degradation they were subject to. They begged that I should protect their race. They said that at a word from them the colored people would have rescued the prisoner, but they prevented such attempts. I advised quiet, and they said they would keep so if their rights were protected, or if there was reasonable hope they would be. They had no sympathy with crime, but abhorred the brutalizing method of punishment. This law applies to whites and blacks alike; but the practice would be that ninety-nine blacks would be punished in this way to one white man. Such degrading punishments always fall upon the unfortunate and poor race. The whipping, heretofore left by law to masters, and done on the plantations, will now be done at the public whipping-post, if allowed.
Question Have the blacks arms?
Answer. Yes, sir; to some extent. They try to prevent it, (the whites do,) but cannot. Some of the local police have been guilty of great abuses by pretending to have authority to disarm the colored people. They go in squads and search houses and seize arms. These raids are made often by young men who have no particular interest in hired and trusty labor, some of them being members of the police and others not. The tour of pretended duty is often turned into a spree. Houses of colored men have been broken open, beds torn apart and thrown about the floor, and even trunks opened and money taken.
A great variety of such offenses have been committed by the local police or mad young man, members of it... [Thus] there is some slight tendency towards outbreaks [among blacks] in Wilmington, because they think they have suffered greatly there from the police...(270-2)
[Report filed June 30, 1866]
I have the honor to call your attention to the fact that on the afternoon of Sunday the 25th Inst, a party of men, supposed to belong to the Police force of this City, entered the dwelling house of a colored man named George Moore, (aged 85 years) and without any provocation or exhibiting any warrant or authority hit and otherwise maltreated the said George Moore, and finally carried him to the City [Guard] House, and fired their Pistols into and at his house, destroying part of the fence, and stealing several articles of personal property. The Police - supposed to be acting under your orders - proceeded to Moore's house again the next day, and arrested [Wm. H James], a Grandson of said Moore, and placed him in the City Guard House, where he was detained until the afternoon and was then released on giving Bail in One Thousand Dollars for his appearance the next day and on his appearing as ordered he was informed that "the [bail] had been settled" by you. The following named men, said to belong to the Police force can be identified as being with the party that committed the assault on George Moore and who destroyed and stole his property and I request that they be placed in arrest until the matter can be investigated by the authorities.
Viz.: ___ Smith. ___McPherson.
A McClanning and Tim Scullion
- Testimony of Brvt. Lieut. Col. W. H. H. Beadle, Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, 270-272;
- Lieut. Col. Allan Rutherford [Superintendent, Southern District, Freedmen's Bureau] to A. H. Van Bokkellen [Mayor, City of Wilmington], Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands
Document 5 Questions
- Do former secessionists see the federal government as an ally or an opponent?
- From the transcript, which is worse: the "gradual dwindling away of the black race" or a rising by freedpeople? Explain.
- Aside from taking their cases to the Bureau, how might black citizens in Wilmington respond to such treatment at the hands of white policemen?
- Are there any hints in the documents about tensions within the black community at Wilmington? What are these?
- What does this document suggest about the potential for antagonism between agents of the Freedmen's Bureau and local authorities in North Carolina? What will it require for federal authorities to bring an end to this kind of abuse?
- What might the reaction of whites be to the arrest of the four men identified in Rutherford's communication?
Columbia Democrats Debate Black Suffrage
Conservatives were disoriented by emancipation, but both pleasantly surprised and relieved as it became apparent that President Andrew Johnson shared their antipathy to the former slaves. While Johnson held the reins of power in Washington, white Carolinians passed a raft of legislation severely limiting African American freedom, culminating in the infamous 'black codes.' But in allowing these to become law, and in vetoing legislation aimed at protecting black civil rights, Johnson alienated many in the Republican Party, and in northern society generally. By the middle of 1867 southern conservatives found themselves reeling yet again from a shift nearly as significant as emancipation itself.
Power had swung decisively in favor of the Radical Republicans, and Congress asserted its control over Reconstruction policy. Together the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment (granting African Americans equal citizenship) and the Military Reconstruction Acts (abolishing the Johnson-era state governments and granting the franchise to freedmen) diminished the power of southern conservatives to dominate their states through electoral means-particularly in states with a black majority like South Carolina. In this new predicament, as the following report on a Democratic Party mass meeting in Columbia makes clear, whites were divided on how to proceed.
The mass meeting on the 27th inst. to organize a Democratic Club in this city was a fair success. A club was formed, and most of the members are prominent citizens; and the main object seems to meet with general favor with the whites here. The name adopted is "The Democratic Club of Richland District," and the objects, as set forth in the Constitution adopted, are "to cooperate with the Democratic Party of the United States, for the purpose of perpetuating a white man's government, maintaining the Constitution and the Union, and preserving our republican institutions...in their original purity, as handed down to us by our fathers."... The article that excited the only discussion at the meeting, regulates the admission of persons to membership in the organization, and read as follows:
ARTICLE 9-Any free white man of the age of 18 years, a resident of the district, may become a member by signing the Constitution, in a book to be kept for that purpose, or sending in their letter asking membership...
The discussion was upon the opening phrase, "any free white man." The party of moderation urged that "white" should be stricken out, so as to admit to membership such negroes as might feel willing to cooperate with the whites in carrying out the end s of the organization; and it as urged with great earnestness that there were in this district many negroes of this class, and that it was both right and expedient to favor such cooperation.
The party of action replied that it was absurd to invite the negro to cooperate in a measure that looks to the supremacy of a race now placed by the negro himself in an attitude of antagonism to his own-that the action of the Convention of Radicals in Charleston has so arrayed the blacks against the whites as races, that no advantage to either race can result from an effort to political harmony now. This view prevailed, and the article excludes all negroes from membership in the Club [although there is some regret that race had been made an issue at all]...
Similar clubs have been organized in twenty or thirty of the counties of the State, and the sentiment is popular among whites everywhere. The course of the North toward the South has resulted in the blacks being as a race radical, and the white as a race democratic.
Upon the question of suffrage by the negro, the sentiment of our people is not opposed to giving the right of voting to the black and the white upon the same basis-education or property qualification. As it is universally held that minors should not vote because of their immature minds, so our people hold that the negro is in the immature state of the minor, and is really not competent to vote. Public sentiment is here entirely opposed to ignorant white men's voting, just as it is, and for the same reasons, opposed to the ignorant negro's voting. It is the ignorance and not the color that our citizens are opposed to...
Source: "South Carolina: Organization of Democratic Clubs," New York Times, April 5, 1868
Document 6 Questions
- What are the prospects for winning freedmen to a party committed to "perpetuating a white man's government?"
- What issue or issues are giving rise to factional divisions in the Democratic Clubs? What is the range of disagreement among conservatives, and how much of a threat do these disagreements pose to party unity?
- What is the rationale for denying suffrage to the mass of freedmen?
- How would educational and property qualifications affect the white electorate? What are the difficulties facing Democrats in balancing their commitment to 'white supremacy' with educational and property qualifications?
Sawmill Operator Tries to Prevent Employees from Voting the Radical Ticket
Being formally granted the right to vote was one thing: exercising that right was more complicated. Particularly in isolated, rural areas where freedmen's employment options were severely limited and where individual planters wielded considerable economic and political power, employers leveraged their economic advantage to attempt to coerce blacks into voting the conservative ticket. The following series of letters, from a sawmill operator somewhere in the vicinity of Hamburg, South Carolina, shows both the intense politicization among freedpeople in the fall of 1868 and the exasperation of an employer who, in this case, seems to have failed in persuading those dependent on him to refrain from voting. All the letters below were sent by George Ghiselin to his client, Edgefield planter Thomas J. McKie.
[October 9, 1868]
Yr favor of this day's date is at hand & contents noted. I have notified Jack that I shall retain $4 (Four Dolls) of his wages, the amt due to you & therefore adjourn [?] the debt.
I send you 15 plank at 21 ft. 10 plank at 16 ft. & 30 Slats -3x1-16 ft. long. The 14 in by 1 1/2 plank I will endeavor select & send when yr team is next here.
Tho' not positive of such being the case, I am somewhat of the impression that my Employees will relinquish their votive [sic] privilege. If so they must decide on or before Saturday Evg. should they persist however I shall at once send off for white men, unless there be concert of action on the part of the Employers both as regards white & black labor, the matter of steady & reliable employees must of necessity be a thing of the future.
P.S. I must do Jack the credit to say that he most cheerfully recognized his indebtedness to you.
[October 27, 1868]
Your favor of this day's date is at hand & I Send by your team 30 plank 21 ft. long...
I fully concur with you as to the entire absence of merit in the African race entitling them to confidence. On Sunday last I permitted two of those in my employ to ride mules to the Store at "Crofton's". They chose to go as far down as the ferry without my knowledge or consent to attend a radical meeting. On learning of it yesterday I called the employees together, pointed out to them in the plainest & most forcible manner the folly & error of their voting in favor of radicalism, but the poison has taken to deep a hold & they all seem resolved on voting as directed by radical Emissaries on Tuesday next, in which event I have assured them they can no longer work for me.
I trust every gentleman in the neighborhood will sustain me by refusing to give them employment as no other cause for dissatisfaction exists. I shall endeavor in Augusta or elsewhere to secure negro laborers freed from such infatuations, or else employ White men.
[November 2, 1868]
On Saturday last I sent you 30 planks 16 ft. long 12x1, but was too much engaged to give your Teamster a memo of it... This morning I discharged 3 of my hands[:] Jack, Jacob & Dan. I gave them from Monday until Saturday night to decide to whether or not they would vote, they were unwilling to give me a positive answer & I thereupon told them I would dispense with their services. I hope & expect to have their places filled by white men. I [kept] two who promised me last week in my parley that they would stay at the Mill & attend to their work.
[November 5, 1868]
...Last night about 15 ft in length of lumber cut from my sawbelt was carried off, I suppose it was done in consequence of my discharging the hands.
[November 28, 1868]
Since 31st ulto, I have been mainly relying upon hands hired pr diem to keep the saw mill in operation, & such I fear will be the case until the 1st Jany next for consequence I have to pay higher rates for labor & settle weekly. The difficulty of making collections in and above this vicinity, subjects me to the necessity of making another application to you on account of lumber delivered, & much as I regret it, before all you require is hauled [?] away...
Source: George R. Ghiselin to Thomas J. McKie, Thomas Jefferson McKie Papers, Duke University Special Collections
Document 7 Questions
- Some critics of black suffrage warned that planters and other employers would use their advantages to compel blacks to vote the conservative ticket? Does the evidence in these letters confirm or refute these predictions?
- Why does Ghiselin consider it important the employers act together in disciplining their 'white and black laborers'? Does he appear confident that such a strategy will succeed?
- In weighing up whether to agree to the conditions outlined in Ghiselin's "parley" with his workforce, what factors might freedmen have to take into consideration?
- Three men refuse to agree to 'relinquish' their vote. Where will they now go for employment?
- In some ways, his coercive approach seems to backfire on Ghiselin. What are the unexpected consequences of his actions?
The Difficulty of Obtaining Justice from Local Authorities
In the scattered agricultural communities and market towns that made up so much of the rural South, federal attempts at breaking the legacy of slavery ran up against deeply established custom and pervasive white hostility. In their daily lives, freedpeople often experienced this profound gap between aspirations and results through their dealings with local officials. Those charged with protecting their rights and dispensing justice- sheriffs and policemen; trial justices, lawyers and local magistrates-had been trained in the planter-dominated 'system' of legal arrangements that grew up alongside slavery, and were often bitterly opposed to black equality. Usually attached to the conservatives, these local authorities did what they could to defy the directives emanating from federal authorities, reverting instead to antebellum custom. Beyond that, as this report from a Freedmen's Bureau agent stationed near Charleston makes clear, justice was often simply priced beyond the reach of destitute blacks (and many whites).
...Most of the civil Magistrates have either declined or been unable to take the required oath,a and to my knowledge there are but two officiating Magistrates in Berkeley District.
[T. J. Browning, the magistrate at Grahamville, rejected the case of Cuffy Glover, a freedman against Nathan Guyton, for wages due, on grounds of that case is] far above the jurisdiction of a Magistrate, which is exclusive to twenty dollars...
Cuffy Glover is, like all other freedmen, very poor and needy, and dependent on his days labor for his base support. He claims to be entitled to more than $100 wages from Mr. Guyton, for whom he has been working nearly the whole year, but to get it he has now to sue in the Court of Sessions in Charleston; or, if he is unable to go to the expense of engaging a Lawyer and laying idle about Charleston until the case is brought before the Court and tried, he is forced to give it up. None of the plantation freedmen in my District have anything to spare, their earnings are often withheld from them on some slight pretense and they are unable to sue for their rights because of their inability to meet the expenses necessarily to be incurred in Lawsuits. Even some Magistrates refuse to listen to complaints of freedmen, unless the freedmen pay costs in advance... Freedmen are murdered and burried [sic] without notice being given to the authorities, colored soldiers sent out as Guards, are waylaid, freedmen are deprived of their earnings etc. etc. - all this because there is nobody in power to whom a poor helpless freedman can appeal. I hope that as soon as the civil courts have been fully established and Magistrates with proper power are within reach of all people, black as well as white and poor as well as rich, then a freedman might expect justice, but even then it will be uncertain, as a Magistrate, once a Slaveowner, will not very likely receive a freedman and a planter before him, without being prejudiced against the freedmen, especially when, as it often is the case, the planters for thirty and more miles around are all blood relatives, and the Magistrate perhaps one of the family. [Leidtke advocates that military courts be reopened]
aA reference to the "Ironclad Oath," which required local and state officials to pledge that they had "never voluntarily borne arms against the United States" or "voluntarily" given "aid, countenance, counsel or encouragement" to the Confederacy.
Source: F. W. Leidtke [St. Stephen's Parish] to 'Major,' December 31, 1866; RG 105: Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, Records of the Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina
Document 8 Questions
- Leidtke identifies three major problems in relation to the magistrates: there are too few of them to allow citizens easy access to the legal system; they charge fees beyond the ability of many freedpeople to pay; and they are likely to be more favorably disposed to planters than former slaves. How do each of these problems affect the delivery of justice? What is their combined effect?
- How might the difficulties experienced by freedpeople in bringing cases against their employers affect labor relations generally?
- In some cases the flagrant denial of justice to freedpeople led federal authorities to establish military courts. How might whites react to this development? How might freedpeople respond?
- In general terms, how does the disparity in wealth and influence shape the possibilities for establishing a just society in the aftermath of emancipation?
North Carolina Conservatives Attempt to Frame a Union League Official
Across the South, the conservative reaction to the granting of the franchise to blacks shared certain features: among these a prominent one was the attempt to boycott black Republicans- to refuse to sell goods or extend credit to them; to ensure that they were unable to rent land and, most painfully of all, to deny them employment. But in the actions of local officials we can also see a more coercive approach evolving, one which would eventually find an outlet in paramilitary activity. In this newspaper account we get an eyewitness account of the attempt to victimize a prominent black Republican. The identity of the gentleman correspondent is unknown.
A difficulty occurred in Wilson county on Saturday, between Zeno H. Green, white, and Dave Ruffin, colored, in which the latter was shot and slightly wounded in the leg. Green was arrested and bound over to the Supreme Court.
Afterwards Bill Grimes, negro, President of a Union League, made a long, violent and incendiary speech to the negroes, from the courthouse steps. He and other negroes used threatening language, and urged the burning of houses and killing of the whites. About 11 o-'clock that night Green's barn was discovered to be on fire, but he and his family were afraid to venture out of the house for fear of being murder.
The negro Grimes was seen near the barn just before the fire. He was arrested, tried before a magistrate, and his guilt so clearly established, that in default of $300 bal he was sent to jail. There is considerable excitement in the community, but hopes are entertained that no further disturbances will occur.
A gentleman writing from Edgecombe county, North Carolina, to a friend in Philadelphia, on the 28th ult., says: "Cases are frequently reported to me of physicians refusing to attend the sick, because their relatives were Republicans, or expressed their intention to vote for Grant and Colfax. One man came into my office and told me that his little boy died on Monday for want of medical aid. No physician in the part of the country where he lived would attend the boy, because he was a Radical; one store keeper kept him from eight o'clock in the morning until two o'clock in the afternoon, and would not sell him any thing, because he persistently said he would vote for Grant. One man asked me to send for a Northern physician, because the faculty of the country would not attend his wife, and she was at the point of death. Did I tell you about the affair in Wilson county, a few weeks ago? The authorities, all rebels, and equal to Ku-Klux, arrested a colored man named Grimes, on the charge of burning a barn, but Grimes proved himself to any reasonable and unprejudiced mind perfectly innocent. But he is the leader of the Union League, and they wanted to rake him up, as he had made a severe speech against them and in favor of the Radicals the day before. A delegation of colored men came for me twenty miles. I went.
I asked for a hearing for Grimes in my presence. It was not granted. I offered to bail him. This offer was rejected. A rebel drew his revolver on me in the court house, behind my back. Some one more prudent stopped his shooting. I left, telling them I would have Grimes out, and the next morning they released him to prevent my having the gratification of doing it, so I was told. Grimes wouldn't promise them to vote for Seymour and Blair, but the next day he raised a company and went to the Raleigh Convention.
- "Serious Difficulty in Wilson County-Negro Outrage," New Orleans Times September 1, 1868;
- "Spirit of the Southern Democracy," Cincinnati Daily Gazette, November 10, 1868
Document 9 Questions
- How can we account for the discrepancy in these two accounts of the incident in Wilson county? Which of the two do you find most believable, and why? If you had access only to the first rendering of the story, what would you have concluded about Grimes's part in the fire?
- Judging from the second account, how well-organized was the conservative boycott against Republicans?
- The correspondent from Edgecombe county describes local authorities in Wilson county as "equal to Ku Klux." What does he mean by this?
- Judging from the article, why might conservatives target Grimes? How can the Republican Party protect freedmen against the kind of victimization experienced by Grimes in this case? What will be the consequences if they are unable to do so?
Freedpeople Petition for the Removal of a Trial Justice
As evident in so any of the documents included in this unit, the clash between freed slaves anxious to claim their rights as citizens under the new order and their adversaries, equally determined to deny them these rights, was frequently played out on a local level. The following petition, signed by nearly 250 former slaves and their allies and submitted to South Carolina Governor Robert K. Scott in 1869, shows just how bitter the confrontation at local level could become, and demonstrates in some detail the relationship between seemingly local issues and the wider struggle to leave behind the legal inequities that had been fundamental in upholding slavery. The lag between federal legislative gains and the effects that these produced on the ground, in small and intimate communities, was often frustrating for freedpeople looking for palpable evidence that their lives had changed for the better.
[Simon Lucas, the magistrate in St. Thomas Parish near Charleston] is guilty of proceeding in every case in which there is an opportunity the same as during the existence of Slavery, in so much that notwithstanding the great number of cases which must have been adjudged by him during his apparently infinite Tyranny here, there is not a single instance when one of our White Brethren have been duly punished for any Crime Committed against a Colored Person.
And there are colored Men who are this day dwelling in the lovely Forest...being afraid to enter the Household and in order to keep out of the reach of his Tyrannical Decrees, it is an ordinary occurrence for him to proceed against Colored Persons in open violation of the Constitution and Laws... he is in the habit of incarcerating Colored citizens under Constables at his Private Residence for weeks, whenever there is no possible Pretext for Committing them to prison. He is Guilty of intimidating uninformed colored people by means of threats etc. in order to make them sign Papers the Contents of which is opposite to their interest, and Contrarily explained to them. He is Guilty of unlawfully ejecting Colored People from Plantations, at any season of the year, regardless of contracts, causing them to leave the whole benefit of their Labor to be kept without recompense [from] their more fortunate employers. He not only protects Crime by refusing to execute the Laws upon Citizens alike for similar Offenses but actually obstructs the Laws by his unlawful interference with every case taken jurisdiction of by the newly appointed Magistrate in this Parish, in which a White Person was concerned. He violates the Civil Rights Bill regardless of the Law of Our Legislature to enforce it. He has escaped so long with impunity that He has now grown Cold and Defiant in his injustice, and is now guilty of the most Palpable wrong. He is an Aristocratic Atheist, and is therefore disqualified to hold Office under the Constitution of South Carolina.
We are the Loyal People, both to the state and United States. And in this instance have borne with forbearance so much that Patience, has now ceased to be a virtue, And your humble Petitioners having waited long but in vain for relief,
was Compelled to resort to this mode of Calling upon Your Excellency in this [request] to exercise your Executive Authority in Our behalf, to the end that Simon Lucas Jr. may be removed from the Office of magistrate. The people St. Thomas Parish know that They are Free, and in order that They may experience the benefit of...their Voting, of their Labor, and their Freedom [ask that he be removed].
Jon Selfridge and 248 signatures
Source: Petition from Jon Selfridge and 248 others to Governor Robert K. Scott (June 19, 1869) Governor Scott Papers, South Carolina Department of Archives and History
Document 10 Questions
- How likely is it that the Governor of South Carolina would have received a petition like this during the period before the Civil War? What has changed in freedpeople's understanding of the government's obligation to uphold their rights, and why is this significant?
- In what specific ways do the petitioners consider magistrate Lucas's actions to be reminiscent of legal inequities "under slavery"? Does Lucas seem to have resigned himself to the new order brought about by emancipation? What can Scott do to protect the petitioner's rights? What considerations might he bear in mind in deciding a course of action?
- The petitioners accuse Lucas not only of violating rights himself but of obstructing justice by denying the newly-appointed magistrate the right to rule in certain cases. Why might he do this?
- Why do the petitioners refer to their "right to experience the benefit of...their Labor" in asking the Lucas be removed? In what way is he depriving them of this?
Black Workers Petition Governor Scott against Extortion
Among the most common charges levied against the Republican state governments established under Radical Reconstruction by their enemies was corruption. White conservatives, searching for a strategy with which to undermine the Radicals in 1867 and afterwards, organized taxpayers' conventions and other assemblies which brought together propertied, 'respectable' whites to rail against the 'wasting' of public funds on newly expanded services (like public schools) which overwhelmingly benefited the poor of both races. Beyond this conservatives popularized an image of the Reconstruction state governments that associated them with pervasive corruption, fraud, and officially-condoned graft. There was substance to some of the charges, though the Republican regimes had no monopoly on such practices at the dawn of America's 'Gilded Age', a period when men of wealth came to dominate both political parties. More importantly, those who benefitted from such corruption were not the recently freed slaves most committed to Radical Reconstruction, but the moderates and unprincipled men-white and black-who would continue to dominate the Party after Reconstruction's collapse. In the following document a group of black workers appeals to Governor Scott of South Carolina to protect them against corrupt county commissioners in Charleston.
[undated, circa. summer 1872]
We pen this note knowing you to be a friend to the coloured people you always did attend to our rights when you was a general, and we chose you to be our Governor on that account We have been working for the County for the past nine months, and during all that time we never received any money, except from the store [we] took provisions from, the Storeman told us that he had to charge us twenty cents on every dollar as he had to pay the County Commissioners ten cents on each dollar and had to make ten cents for the loan of this money. We don't find fault with the Storeman making something but we do find fault with the County Commissioners who has been elected by our Votes making ten cents on the dollar out of our labour, the Storeman say he would not charge us any percentage on our groceries more than if we had the money if we had to pay the County commissioners ten percent on the dollar on all groceries sold us. I don't see why we can't get our money and buy our own things. This is just what the Democrats told us, the Republicans would do to us we don't believe all this as we know how these people treated us in former times we believe there has been some bad men put in office, But we know you to be a friend of ours and we thought we would right [sic] and let you know how we have been treated,
and see if you could do something for us, we could sign our names to this but we are afraid we would be removed and get no work, we will refer you to Mr. Miller Cor. of King and Broad streets, I think he will tell you the truth about paying the ten cents on the dollar, although he is grand rascal, has cheated us in weight and in every other way he possibly could, The store we trade in now is Mr. Leinstead Cor[ner] Calhoun and King streets. He is a gentleman and sell us good goods, he will have no hesitation in telling you that he pays the Commissioners ten percent, as he has told several gentlemen we know of We think very strange that these gentlemen we put into office by our vote should try to rob us of our honest labour, we are only paid 75 cents per day and we think that little enough at the high price of provisions without the Commissioners cheating us out of ten cent on the dollar.
Source: "From Many Freemen," [Charleston] to Governor Robert K. Scott (undated: circa: 1872), Governor Scott Papers, South Carolina Department of Archives and History
Document 11 Questions
- According to the petitioners, how did Scott come to be elected Governor?
- The freedmen composing this letter are concerned that the corruption they've encountered will play into the hands of conservatives (Democrats). Explain? Do they have a point? On what basis are the conservatives trying to appeal to freedmen for their votes?
- Why won't those submitting the letter sign their names? What does this suggest about the limits of freedom in Reconstruction Charleston?
- Imagine yourself part of this group of freedmen. Describe the process by which you all agreed to submit the letter: how the discussion was initiated; how the group decided what points to include (or exclude) in your submission; and how you decided which of you should actually compose the letter? What other issues might you discuss while going through this process? What response do you expect from Scott?
This ends Unit Six.
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Unit Seven: Gender and the Politics of Freedom