Fighting over Freedom in Post-war South Carolina, Part 2: We Want to “to raise up an oppressed and deeply injured people”

http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s04415
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. Continue reading

Fighting over Freedom in Post-war South Carolina, Part 1: Keep the Negro “as near to the condition of slavery as possible”

Negro quarters on Fripp Place, St. Helena Is. [i.e. Island], S.C. 2a
Negro quarters on Fripp Place, St. Helena Island, S.C.; circa 1863-mid 1866; Hubbard & Mix, photographers; a group of African Americans gathered outside of their living quarters, possibly on Thomas James Fripp place on Saint Helena Island, South Carolina.
Note: Edmund Rhett, Jr’s post-Civil War proposal for the “preservation of… our social system,” as described below, would prohibit African Americans from owning land and restrict their ability to move. Thus, they would be forced to live in housing quarters like this into perpetuity, if their master so desired.
Image Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection; Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-stereo-1s03955 (digital file from original item, front) LC-DIG-stereo-2s03955 (digital file from original item, back)

What, exactly, was freedom supposed to look like? This was a subject of much debate in late 1865, in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War (and for some time after that, as it turned out). The Union promised that slavery would end, and ongoing efforts to pass the 13th Amendment, whose ratification at the end of the year constitutionally abolished slavery, gave good reason to believe that the peculiar institution was truly in its death throes.

But it was still an open question as to how far freedom would go. Emancipation did not necessarily mean economic independence, or political or social equality. Over the course of the Reconstruction era – when the former Confederate States were re-integrated into the United States – there would be a battle between blacks and whites, northerners and southerners, and Republicans and Democrats, about the rights, privileges, and opportunities that African Americans would have in the South.

Edmund Rhett, Jr, had his own vision of emancipation: keep the Negro “as near to the condition of slavery as possible.” Rhett, from the prominent Rhett family of South Carolina, was an editor of the Charleston Mercury newspaper, and served as an officer in Confederate Army. In mid-October, 1865, he wrote a letter to former U.S. Representative Armistead Burke, which detailed his ideas for dealing with the freepeople in the post-war South. [1] These are excerpts:

Edmund Rhett, Jr, letter to Armistead Burt, October 14, 1865.

Dear Sir:

With great diffidence and some hesitation I venture to enclose you certain propositions relative to the negro-discipline and negro-labor questions, Which have occurred to me, and impressed me as essential to the preservation of our labor system, and, indeed, our social system. As one of the Commission Appointed to suggest such laws as are advisable for the regulation and the protection of the Negro, I venture to submit these propositions to your consideration.

…[T]he sudden and entire overthrow of that system which has taken place is unwise, injurious, and dangerous to our whole system, pecuniary and social… it must follow as a natural sequence, it appears to me, that, sudden and abrupt abolition having taken place by force of arms, it should be to the utmost extent practicable be limited, controlled, and surrounded with such safeguards, as will make the change as slight as possible both to the white man and the negro, the planter and of the workmen, the capitalist and the laborer.

In other words, that the general interest of both the white man and the Negro requires that he should be kept as near to his former condition as Law can keep him and that he should be kept as near to the condition of slavery as possible, and as far from the condition of the white man as practicable. Continue reading

Major Martin Delany to the Freedpeople of SC: “(W)e would not have become free, had we not armed ourselves and fought out our independence.”

Major Martin Delaney
US Army Major Martin R. Delany: Delany was a free born “African American abolitionist, journalist, physician, and writer.” (per Wikipedia.com) Among other activities, he was co-publisher of the North Star newspaper along with Frederick Douglass. During the Civil War, “Delany recruited thousands of men for the Union Army. In February 1865, after meeting with President Abraham Lincoln to persuade the administration to create an all-black Corps led by African American officers, Delaney was commissioned a Major” in the US Colored Troops (per Blackpast.org).
Image Source: US Military History Institute, via The Senator John Heinz History Center

Edward M. Stoeber, a lieutenant in the 104th US Colored Troops, US Army, was shocked. He had just attended a “lecture” in St. Helena Island, SC, given by army Major Martin Robinson Delany to a group of fellow African Americans in July 1865, as the American Civil War was coming to an end. Delany’s audience had been enslaved, but were now unbound. Delany – who was commissioned an army major by Abraham Lincoln after appealing for the creation of black regiments led by black officers – gave the freedmen and women advice for how to move forward, advice which drove the white Lieutenant Stoeber to disgust.

Why was Stoeber so upset? For one, Delany told the freedmen that they had had freed themselves by enlisting and fighting in the Union army. Stoeber disagreed, evidently unable or unwilling to acknowledge African American agency, or perhaps, angry that the martyred Abraham Lincoln was not getting enough credit. “This is a falsehood and a misrepresentation. Our President Abraham Lincoln declared the colored race free, before there was even an idea of arming colored men,” said Stoeber in a letter to his superiors. “This (talk from Delaney) is decidedly calculated to create bad feeling against the Government,” he insisted.

Additionally, Stoeber was concerned that in “acquaint(ing) (the freedmen) with the fact that slavery was absolutely abolished,” Delany had thrown “thunders of damnations and maledictions on all the former slaveowners and people of the South, and almost condemned their souls to hell.” Stoeber might not have been aware that jeremiads against slavery and the South were not uncommon for black abolitionists, perhaps even some white ones.

Stoeber was also alarmed that Delany warned the freedmen to beware of white “ministers, schoolteachers, Emissaries, (and others who would come South to help the freedmen) because they never tell you the truth.” Such talk, said Stoeber, “is only to bring distrust against all, and gives them to understand that they shall believe men of their own race. He openly acts and speaks contrary to the policy of the Government, advising them not to work for any man, but for themselves.” Such talk was dangerous, according to Stoeber: “In my opinion of this discourse he was trying to encourage them to break the peace of society and force their way by insurrection to a position he is ambitious they should attain to.” Delany’s views were informed  by a lifetime of prejudice against himself and other African Americans living in the North; this included his dismissal from Harvard Medical School after just a month of attendance, when white students wrote of their objection to the presence of blacks at the school.

Delany and Stoeber seemed to have irreconcilable views of the past, present, and future. Major Delany, an activist African American from the North, had his own ideas about the role of African Americans in building the South and winning the Civil War, and in charting their own future as free people. For him, self-pride, self-worth, economic self-sufficiency, and a healthy dose of skepticism concerning the intentions of, and advice from, whites were key for black progress. But as far as Lt. Stoeber was concerned, Delany was a “a thorough hater of the white race (who) excites the colored people unnecessarily” and horrified white onlookers. Stoeber was also concerned that Delany gave incorrect information about the Union government’s land and labor policies, information that he feared would create false expectations and eventually result in anger among the freedpeople.

Delany was not the first to speak to what some might call a “black” (others might say “correct”) understanding of the war, emancipation, and permanent freedom, nor would he be the last. Stoeber’s reaction to his comments underscores that the memory and interpretation of the Civil War, as well as the strategies and policies for African American independence, would be contested, even among those who were on the Union side, and lead to outcomes that no one could predict.

This (partial) text of Delany’s July 1865 speech to former slaves in Beaufort, South Carolina, is based on the recollection of Lt. Stoeber, as written in letter to Brevet Maj. S. M. Taylor, Assistant Adjutant General with the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (AKA the Freedmen’s Bureau). There was some fear among (white) government officials that Delaney might be using inappropriate language or giving improper instruction and advice to the freedmen, hence Stoeber’s presence at the speech.
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Partial text of letter from Lt Edward M. Stoeber, dated July 24th, 1865, written to the Freedmen’s Bureau, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida (For the full text, including more of the white reaction to the speech, see the source: Columbia University):

Major:

In obedience to your request, I proceeded to St. Helena Island, yesterday morning for the purpose of listening to the public delivery of a lecture by Major Delany 104th Ne[gro] S.C. Troops. I was accompanied by Lieut. A. Whyte Jr. 128th Ne[gro] S.C. Troops, Com[an]d’g Post. The meeting was held near “Brick Church,” the congregation numbering from 500 to 600.

As introduction Maj. Delany made them acquainted with the fact, that slavery is absolutely abolished, throwing thunders of damnations and maledictions on all the former slaveowners and people of the South, and almost condemned their souls to hell.

He says “It was only a War policy of the Government, to declare the slaves of the South free, knowing that the whole power of the South, laid in the possession of the Slaves. But I want you to understand, that we would not have become free, had we not armed ourselves and fought out our independence” (this he repeated twice). Continue reading