Freedman’s school, possibly in Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1863 – 1865
> In November 1865, a Colored People’s Convention of the state of South Carolina, meeting in Charleston, asked “that the three great agents of civilized society—the school, the pulpit, the press— be as secure in South Carolina as in Massachusetts or Vermont.”
Image Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection; Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-stereo-1s04415 (digital file from original item, front) LC-DIG-stereo-2s04415 (digital file from original item, back)
By the end of 1865, the American Civil War was over, and the United States had defeated the Confederate States. With the Union now “preserved,” it was clear that the wartime goal of emancipating the slaves would be achieved. But the question remained: how “free” was “free?” Freedom meant different things to different people, and no one, definitive meaning had been determined. And so a contest to determine the scope and extent of the former slaves’ freedom was on.
On one side of this contest was men like South Carolina’s Edmund Rhett, Jr, a former Confederate army officer and editor of a prominent newspaper in Charleston. In correspondence discussing the post-war status of the freedpeople, he recommended a set of laws that would prohibit freedpeople from ever owning land, restrict “the method of (their) movements,” prevent Negroes from “competing with white men,” “control him, and keep him under good discipline,” and otherwise keep negroes “as near to the condition of slavery as possible.” If Negroes could no longer be owned, they would at least be controlled and subjugated.
African Americans had another idea. They were not ignorant of or naive about the intentions of former Confederates. After the war, they assembled at conventions throughout the South and North to discuss their dreams, goals, and action plans for improvement and progress. In November 1865, the Colored People’s Convention of the state of South Carolina met in Charleston and issued a statement (called a “memorial”) to the Congress which: protested so-called “black codes” legislation that would place the freedmen in a state of virtual enslavement; demanded that their right to bear arms be protected; asked for suffrage rights equivalent to those of white men; and expressed hope that the “great agents of civilized society—the school, the pulpit, the press— be as secure in South Carolina as in Massachusetts or Vermont.” If there was to be a war of words, South Carolina’s black community was more than willing to exchange fire.
And as it turned out, the fight for a truly full-featured freedom would extend far into the future, to the Civil Rights era. Consider this one of the first volleys in the post-war struggle for liberation:
We, the colored people of the state of South Carolina, in Convention assembled, respectfully present for your attention some prominent facts in relation to our present condition, and make a modest yet earnest appeal to your considerate judgment.
We, your memorialists, with profound gratitude to Almighty God, recognize the great boon of freedom conferred upon us by the instrumentality of our relates President, Abraham Lincoln, and the armies of the United States.
“The fixed decree, which not all Heaven can move,
“Thou, Fate, fulfill it; and, ye Powers, approve.”
We also recognize with liveliest gratitude the vast services of the Freedmen’s Bureau together with the efforts of the good and wise people throughout the land to raise up an oppressed and deeply injured people in the scale of civilized being, during the throbbings of a mighty revolution which must affect the destiny of the world.
Conscious of the difficulties that surround our position, we would ask for no rights or privileges but such as rest upon the strong basis of justice and expediency, in view of the best interests of our entire country.
We ask first, that’s a strong arm of law and order be placed alike over the entire people of the State; that life and property be secured, and the laborer as free to sell his labor as the merchant his goods.
We ask is that a fair and impartial instruction be given to the pledges of the government to us concerning the land question.
We ask that the three great agents of civilized society—the school, the pulpit, the press— be as secure in South Carolina as in Massachusetts or Vermont.
We ask that equal suffrage be conferred upon us, in common with the white men of this State.
This we ask, because “all free governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed”; and we are largely in the majority in this State, bearing for a long period of the burden of an odious taxation, without a just representation. We ask for equal suffrage as a protection for the hostility evoked by our known faithfulness to our country and a flag under all circumstances.
We ask that colored man shall not in every instance be tried by white men; and that neither by custom or enactment shall we be excluded from the jury box.
We ask that, in as much as the Constitution of the United States explicitly declares that the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed—and the Constitution is the Supreme law of the land — that the late efforts of the Legislature of this State to pass an act to deprive us of arms be forbidden, as a plain violation of the Constitution, and I’m just too many of us in the highest degree, who have been soldiers, and purchased our muskets from the United States government when mustered out of service.
We protest against any code of black laws the legislature of the state may enact, and pray to be governed by the same laws that control other men. The right to assemble in peaceful convention, to discuss the political questions of the day; the right to enter upon all the avenues of agriculture, commerce, trade; to amass wealth by thrift and industry; the right to develop our whole being by all the appliances that belong to civilized society, cannot be questioned by any class of intelligent legislators.
We solemnly affirm and desire to live orderly and peacefully with all the people of this State; and commending this memorial to your considerate judgment.
Thus we ever pray.
Charleston, S. C., November 24, 1865.
Zion Presbyterian Church
Source: Proceedings of the Colored People’s Convention of the state of South Carolina held in Zion Church, Charleston, November 1865