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Chapter 55: first appropriation by congress for the bureau; the reconstruction Act, March 2, 1867; increase of educational work

The year 1867 for the Freedmen's Bureau was an eventful one. The army appropriation by Congress for the year ending June 30, 1867, was made July 13, 1866, and contained the first formal appropriations for the support of our work. The items of most interest were: for salaries, stationery, printing, quarters, and fuel, $308,200; for clothing and rations for distribution, $4,273,250; for medical department, $500,000; for transportation, $1,320,000; for school superintendents, $21,000; for repairs and rent of schoolhouses and asylums, $500,000; for telegraphing, $18,000. Total, $6,940,450. Hostile spirits thought almost $7,000,000 enormous.

By a law, of date March 2, 1867, the plan of Congress for a reconstruction of the South had been passed over the President's veto. Its preamble read: “Whereas, no legal state governments or adequate protection for life or property now exist in the States of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Texas, and Arkansas; and whereas, it is necessary that peace and good order should be enforced in such States until loyal and republican State governments can be legally established,” etc., etc. The law provided for five military [332] districts through which the country would be governed until the people of any State should adopt a constitution framed by a convention elected by male citizens without distinction of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, but still disfranchising participants in the rebellion. The new constitutions must grant suffrage to negroes and be submitted to Congress for approval. Civil governments where they existed were allowed to continue till the new were established.

The districts were then organized with General Schofield in command of Virginia; General Sickles for North and South Carolina; General George H. Thomas for Georgia, Florida, and Alabama; General Ord for Mississippi and Arkansas, and General Sheridan for Louisiana and Texas. All these officers, as will appear, who were commanders of individual States, became ez-officio my assistant commissioners. Coincident with the Bureau work, the work of reconstruction along the lines of the new law now began and went on. In each State the assistant commissioner was at the head of the Bureau work with at least an adjutant, a disbursing officer, a medical officer, and a superintendent of schools as his staff in Bureau matters.

Each State was divided into military districts whose commanders were the Bureau agents in matters pertaining to the freedmen, and under them were the subdistricts where the subagent, usually without troops present, procured the necessary supplies for the extremely destitute, adjusted labor matters, encouraged negro education and counteracted the effect of unjust, prejudiced juries, and the action of some local courts, which arrested and in many instances practically reenslaved [333] the negro. I simply conformed to the new law, as I had to President Johnson's previous plans.

It was all the while my steady and avowed purpose, as soon as practicable, to close out one after another the original Bureau divisions, namely, that of lands, commissary and quartermaster supplies, justice through Bureau or military courts, and the medical establishments, including provisions for the orphans and the destitute, while with all the energy I could muster I increased the school work. I hoped at the end of the Bureau term to transfer the educational division in a high state of efficiency to some more permanent department of the general Government for continuance and enlargement, certainly until the States should severally adopt a good, wholesome school system whereby all the children of every color and description should have the same facilities as those of Massachusetts or Ohio.

As a condensed account of this year's work let us take a survey of each assistant commissioner's field, instancing only enough of detail to show how the variety of conditions led the efforts of each State into directions peculiar to its own necessities.

I was glad enough that new laws and orders made General Swayne a district commander as well as my assistant commissioner for Alabama. From and after November 1, 1866, the status of freedmen, under the laws of that State, was the same as that of other nonvoting inhabitants. The Reconstruction Act of Congress gave the men the ballot. The school work though small was really hopeful. There were 68 white teachers and 15 colored. Preparations had been made to erect large buildings for educational use at Mobile, Montgomery, and Selma. At remote places and on [334] plantations rude temporary structures were put up, and these Swayne aided with school furniture. Applications for assistance beyond the ability of General Swayne or myself to supply, were on the increase. The willingness of negro parents out of their poverty to sustain, as far as they could, schools for their children was everywhere manifest; they soon warranted Swayne's strenuous efforts to make them wholly selfsupporting.

Opposition on the part of the better and influential class of white people had diminished when Swayne made his annual report, and a manly purpose on the part of the freedmen toward self-help and independence was evident. Somebody, however, must organize in new fields and instruct the freedmen in their duty and interest. The General cited several instances of good disposition and success. At Mount Moriah, six miles from Mobile, lived a colored man, Edward Moore, who had built a log schoolhouse at his own expense, putting it on his own land. In this he was teaching 52 pupils. This school the freedmen supported. Again, at Selma, B. S. Turner, himself a prosperous and representative freedman, was helping his friends and neighbors by eloquent words and by money out of his own earnings to secure school advantages to the children. His brief speech to an inspector was recorded: “Let us educate, let us make sacrifices to educate ourselves, in this matter, let us help those of us who are unable to help themselves.” At Montgomery, one of the seven schools there existing was taught by a white man of Southern birth. All this was encouraging, but the cold fact remained that a large number of the 62 counties, densely populated with the freed people, had as yet no schools whatever, and further, [335] that when there were schools, only a small proportion of the children had the privilege of attending them. Such teachers as Swayne then had were earnest, laborious, and efficient. They preserved good discipline and made their instruction, as far as they could go, thorough and accurate.

To the State of Arkansas there had come a new commander and assistant commissioner, General C. H. Smith, General Sprague having left the service to become the Western general superintendent of the Northern Pacific Railway. Arkansas was a difficult State to reconstruct, and progress, especially in the line of justice, was slow enough. There were numbers of desperadoes in remote places, especially in the southern districts. They evaded punishment by running across the State line, so that emancipation acts and the civil rights law had there little effect.

The catalogue of wrongs upon freedmen indicated feeble progress, even among the better class of former slaveholders; yet in the aggregate in Arkansas the colored people had made great gains. They were allowed to testify in the courts, even against white men, and white men had been punished for offenses against negroes in State and city tribunals.

To the educational work planters, now evidently for self-interest, were more favorable than before; some proprietors had shown marked kindness; others had found facilities for the planting of new schools on their own estates. The ardor of the freedmen for education exhibited ever since emancipation was unabated. Strange to say, they were willing to be taxed and gave even from their poverty all they possibly could to bring knowledge to their children.

The teachers in Arkansas often had a difficult task; [336] but some of them overcame even ugly prejudice, which is a hard thing to do. One of such teachers, while on her way to open her school in the neighborhood of a large plantation, was refused shelter by the owner. His reason was that no real lady would perform a work so discreditable as teaching “niggers.” But in a few months she had so won the confidence of the planter by her judicious conduct and Christian efforts, that when she was taken suddenly ill, he had his doors opened to receive her and saw to it that she had every comfort and attention necessary. I enjoyed immensely the stories of such acts of gallantry.

There was deep sympathy between teacher and pupil. A single illustration from a school at Little Rock will illustrate. The teacher with moist eyes told a girl of perhaps twelve years that an act of childish indiscretion pained her. Seeing the tears the child ran to the teacher at once, asked her forgiveness, and said that in the future she would be a good girl. This spontaneous act sensibly affected the whole school. This teacher, who had taught the pupils to cast their burdens on the Lord, was soon to leave the school. The time of her going was announced. The grief was manifest and universal. One of the scholars arose and asked permission to pray. Permission being given, several scholars in succession, in simple and touching language, asked forgiveness for all their errors, and for blessings on their teacher, and that the Lord, if it were His will, would send her back to them.

In Florida, Colonel J. T. Sprague had succeeded as district commander and assistant commissioner to General Foster. The State, ostensibly for the education of the black children, in its new school law imposed [337] a tax of $1 upon all negroes between the ages of twenty-one and fifty-five; but very little money was obtained and so used. It was to be collected at the same time as the ordinary State tax, and paid into the treasury. No such law was imposed upon white men. The law went a step further-freedmen not paupers were to pay to the State superintendent, in addition to the tax, $1 a month tuition for each of their children attending the State schools. This State law had another feature capable of being used oppressively. No person was to teach any school of persons of color without a license costing $5 per annum — a license that the superintendent could give or withhold at his pleasure. The penalty for violating this provision was a fine of not less than $100 nor more than $500, or imprisonment for not less than 30 nor more than 60 days. The object of the license clause was to exclude Northern white teachers. If it had not been for the presence of the military forces, Northern teachers already there who had not the superintendent's certificate, though sent by the Government or by benevolent societies, would have been fined or imprisoned. Prejudiced men sought at every step to impose new and irksome burdens upon the newly made citizens.

It was, then, a little refreshing to catch a word of hope for Florida. I wrote at the time: “Notwithstanding the peculiarity of these enactments, there is reason to believe that former white residents are not altogether averse to the establishment of freedmen's schools, but are coming to look upon them with increasing favor. During the past year the Bureau had repaired a large number of church and other buildings, in order to adapt them to school purposes, [338] and the educational results achieved give favorable promise.”

General N. A. Miles took great interest in the freedmen's schools of North Carolina during this year, and under the management of his assistants and himself they were exceedingly prosperous. He built on the good foundations that his predecessor, General E. Whittlesey, had laid, while the latter came to my headquarters to perform a most important duty. The pupils in North Carolina were greatly increased in numbers, and the hard-working, self-denying teachers were much encouraged. Upward of 10,000 colored children were enrolled in our schools in the State, and three or four thousand more could have been added if teachers could have been provided for them. The rental of school buildings by the Bureau had secured the continuance of many schools which having been started during the war would otherwise have been obliged to disband. Occasional adversities had appeared, as the burning of schoolhouses in Green and Chatham counties and the violent assault upon a teacher in New Hanover county. But on the whole the prejudices were far less pronounced. In fact, in many places former opposers had become friends and were encouraging this educational campaign. It is a wonderful thing to recall that North Carolina had never had before that time a free school system even for white pupils, and there were then no publications in the State devoted to popular education. The death of slavery unfolded the wings of knowledge for both white and black to brighten all the future of the “Old North State.”

In South Carolina General R. K. Scott was the Bureau representative. He reported that there was a [339] class of men within his jurisdiction who took the greatest pleasure in persecuting freedmen, and considered the murder of a colored man only a practical joke; that the civil authorities took little pains to put a stop to such crimes, and that freedmen were killed and buried without notice to the authorities. Yet by the end of October, 1867, he considered his educational work highly satisfactory. Like North Carolina, there was here no State system of public schools for any of the children. Beyond the limits of the Charleston district there was not a single free school in that State. The law, however, with grim humor encouraged education by the following exemption: that persons convicted of certain crimes, as burglary and arson, were relieved from the death penalty, provided they could read and write — a strange survival from the English law of the “benefit of clergy.” At that time 30 per cent. of the white population of that proud State could not write their names. In the Charleston district the colored people, who were then two thirds of the whole population and paying their proportion of the taxes, had all their children excluded from the new “free schools,” i. e., in the district where schools just started were supported by 30 per cent. added to the general tax. The excuse was that the general Government had freed the negroes and might now educate them; and taxes of all kinds put upon the whites were but a meager return to the State because of the loss of slave property. The colored schools in South Carolina, both those aided by the Bureau and private ones not formally reported, contained 20,000 pupils. Some of the most prominent South Carolinians, among them the Rev. A. Toomer Porter, D. D., had come forward to take a positive and earnest interest in the work of [340] education for all the children of the State. The latter came to visit me at Washington, and together we succeeded in obtaining the use of the great Marine Hospital for the colored children. We together visited that building afterwards and found it filled with pupils called “colored,” but actually presenting the spectacle of all shades as to the hair, the eyes, and the skin. It was, indeed, an admixture of races. The whites proper were, of course, not there. For these the worthy doctor himself founded an institution of a high order which will endure.

For Georgia, General Tillson, after his faithful work, the middle of January of this year (1867) was replaced by Colonel C. C. Sibley of the regular army. Tillson in his conciliatory policy had appointed as subagents many resident civilians, allowing them remuneration by the collection of fees upon labor contracts of freedmen. Upon Sibley's report that many of the resident agents had shamefully abused their trust, inflicted cruel and unusual punishments on the blacks, and were unfit from their education and belief in slavery to promote the interests of free labor, I directed him to discontinue the fee system altogether and employ salaried men only. Of course, it took time to complete such a reorganization and some bitterness and fault-finding came from every district which was touched by the change.

Mississippi always afforded a peculiar study of human nature. General T. J. Wood, who went there after General Thomas's transfer to Washington, was himself relieved by General A. C. Gillem, an army officer who had long been a special friend of President Johnson. He entered upon his duties the last part of January, 1867. Gillem, whom I had known as a fellow [341] cadet, consulting his hopes, believed that public sentiment in some sections of Mississippi was then undergoing a most favorable change. He found the freedmen usually ardent for education and willing to bear part of the expense of the children's schooling; and also employers who desired the friendship of their laborers who were encouraging schools on plantations, as well as in villages and cities; but the whole number of schools for the large population of Mississippi aggregated only about 66 (day and night) with pupils 4,697. General Gillem reported that while laborers were working well and complying more strictly than heretofore with the terms of their agreements, a number of white citizens were disposed apparently to defraud their laborers of their earnings by quarreling with them upon the slightest pretext, and for trivial reasons would drive them from their homes by threats of actual violence.

The burning of the freedmen's schoolhouse at Columbus unhoused 400 pupils. Teachers took scholars into their quarters, but not half of them could be accommodated. There was little doubt that some evildisposed persons and not accident had done the burning. It was a hopeful sign, hewever, that year in Mississippi that John M. Langston, school inspector, with his color against him, should be everywhere civilly treated. He had many good things to say of both the white people and the negroes of that State. The Society of Friends was supplying the teachers and doing good work at Jackson, the capital of the State. Tuition of fifty cents per month was required and the small tuition was educational in itself, favoring selfsupport. At Meridian, the school, for want of a structure, had to be held in the Methodist Church. Langston [342] found six miles from Meridian a Southern white lady, who was conducting a colored pay school on her own account with 90 pupils. At Columbus, Miss., the white people had already given $1,000 to rebuild the schoolhouse which had been destroyed. Mississippi thus at that time appeared an inviting field and no personal hostility whatever met this colored inspector, and his picture of the freed people was a happy one. Many of them were intelligent, many reading the newspapers and having accurate and comprehensive understanding of the political situation. This was a better story than Gillem's. It is a pity that subsequent years had to vary the tale.

General Mower, in Louisiana, gave a very promising view of the reaction during the year (from 1866 to 1867) in favor of the schools of his jurisdiction. The numbers, however, were not large enough for that great State-only 246 schools with pupils 8,435. More than half of these were sustained by the freedmen themselves. The majority of the planters in the southern and western portions of Louisiana were still openly against education of the freedmen, so that plantation schools in those localities were few indeed.

By army and Bureau changes General Charles Griffin came to be, the first of this year, district commander and assistant commissioner in Texas, with headquarters at Galveston. He did good work while he lived. I wrote of him: “His thorough knowledge of the people, eminent patriotism, sympathy with the freedmen, and the remarkable energy and promptness which marked his administration endeared him to the laboring classes and commanded universal respect.” He fell a victim to the epidemic of yellow fever that prevailed during the autumn of that year, dying at [343] Galveston, September 15, 1867. General J. J. Reynolds, a respected instructor of mine at West Point, replaced him for the remainder of the year. Before Griffin came, Texas had been but partially occupied. The troops had been mostly located near the southern coast. The agents of the Bureau could do little or nothing away from the garrisons. In remoter parts, robberies, murders, and other outrageous crimes were matters of daily occurrence. Griffin at once distributed the troops and by May, 1867, had occupied 57 subdistricts, and sent out 38 army officers and 31 civilians as his representatives; all were so stationed and so supported as pretty thoroughly to cover the State. He made these assistants his school inspectors, each of his own subdistrict. Schools were started. Every school was visited monthly. Land was obtained by donations; on lots so obtained and held, usually by colored trustees, Griffin permitted or caused school buildings to be erected and school furniture to be supplied. Through our Northern benevolent societies and through the freedmen's own support, the Texas schools were multiplied. Griffin, shortly before his last illness, wrote: “If the associations which have done so much for freedmen will send me 100 good teachers I will furnish them schoolhouses and aid besides to carry on 200 primary schools.” He thus hoped to reach 40,--000 children by day schools and 50,000 adults by night schools. Planters were now favoring schools and applying to Griffin for teachers. Of course there were drawbacks. In parts, as I intimated, where desperadoes had the mastery, public opinion was intensely hostile to any project for the improvement of negroes. The poverty of the white people of Texas was never so great as elsewhere in the South, and they had sufficient [344] pride to take care of their own poor. This of itself was a great boon to the assistant commissioner.

General W. P. Carlin had become district commander and assistant commissioner for Tennessee. His account of the conduct of employers after the freedmen had cast their first ballot, which happened this year, was not very reassuring. They drove away and persecuted laborers who had voted for candidates that the planters did not approve. From June to October there were recorded at his headquarters 25 murders, 35 assaults with intent to kill, 83 cases of assault and battery, 4 of rape, and 4 of arson; all these were perpetrated against the freed people of Tennessee. Military courts had been relaxed and the civil law was again in full control. But not one murderer anywhere in the State had been punished, and the majority of other criminals had escaped every penalty of the law; while the few brought to trial had been very leniently dealt with. A large number of additional outrages were committed here and there which were not officially reported to our agents, and so were never properly recorded.

Near the close of 1867 in Tennessee the status of schools was better than that of justice, there being an enrollment of 9,451 pupils. The greater part were carried on by the Northern societies, but the freedmen, out of their small possessions, had in one month contributed nearly $2,000. The Tennessee legislature had, in addition to white schools, provided for colored schools, putting one in any district or town where there were upward of 25 scholars, and also had established a permanent tax of 10 mills upon taxable property for school support. Just as soon in 1868 as this fund should become available, the State superintendent [345] promised to cooperate with our Bureau officers and earnestly push the educational work. So there was hope ahead for Tennessee.

General Sidney Burbank had relieved General Davis about the middle of February in Kentucky. This State was slow to modify objectionable laws in spite of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and the clear-cut Civil-Rights-Law, which necessitated the eventual repeal of every cruel and unjust measure. The State Court of Appeals had in fact retarded progress by giving a decision against the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act, that is, within the State jurisdiction.

Kentucky in its criminal calendar for the year had kept abreast of Tennessee. The record for the year was: Murders, 20; shootings, 18; rape, 11; other maltreatments, 270. Total outrages of whites perpetrated upon the freedmen, 319 recorded cases.

But a little light dawned upon the State. United States Judges Swayne and Ballard had heard cases in the District Court in Kentucky, and strongly sustained the Civil-Rights-Law. This was auspicious for the negroes. The testimony, however, that came to me from Kentucky, to my surprise and comfort, showed that the schools had more than held their own, and had done so in spite of the contentions and hatreds due to the State's action in all things that affected the courts or politics. Yet I found that a large number of white citizens had manifested a bitter opposition to education of all colored children, and their opposition had tended to dishearten freedmen and thwart the efforts of our workers. Threats had been made in neighborhoods, and oft repeated to destroy the school buildings. [346] The opposers of education were, of course, deterred in many places by the presence of our soldiers. In one place a teacher, an upright and educated clergyman, having been mobbed, was, with his family, driven out of town. Such conduct made our Northern societies desirous to go elsewhere, where they could receive protection and better treatment. The freedmen freely offered their churches for the schools, and the assistant commissioner endeavored to protect the buildings against that most unreasonable public sentiment which incessantly sought their destruction. Notwithstanding the favorable showing of numbers in the schools it was but a nucleus. Against the nearly 6,000 at school upward of 30,000 children in Kentucky had yet no school advantages whatever. Not yet in this State could my representative, the assistant commissioner, find one prominent man, though he might admit in private the reasonableness of education, who dared openly to avow his conviction.

The prejudice is illustrated by a single instance: At the Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville, one of our white teachers during a revival applied for admission to fellowship. The pastor and other officers found her qualified in every way, sent her the baptismal robe, and made all arrangements for her reception. But as soon as they heard that she taught a freedmen's school, and lived at the house of a clergyman who was pastor of a colored church, they forbade her admission. Even religious zeal could not break the adamantine shell of unreasoning prejudice.

Nearer Washington, matters in all respects touching Bureau operations during the year gave assurance that at the end of the term fixed by law, July 16, 1868, I could lay down my heavy burden of responsibility [347] with good hope of the future if not with positive satisfaction.

I remember that I found the subdistrict of Lynchburg, of which General N. M. Curtis had charge, especially satisfactory. He not only successfully encouraged the school work but afforded a good example in harmonizing the labor interest and promoting goodwill between the white people and the freedmen.

In Virginia Colonel Brown had, by the action of his district commander, passed from the staff back to the office of full assistant commissioner, and all the State of Virginia had again been put under his supervision.

General S. C. Armstrong, who had been sent to Virginia and had been placed in charge of a district of fifteen or more counties, withdrew from them and began work at Hampton during the year 1867.

A few words from his pen will show the fairness of his mind and account somewhat for his subsequent and successful career at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. He wrote:

I cannot refrain from expressing my satisfaction and surprise at the proficiency of the pupils in the Hampton schools as manifested in the examination of the 28th ultimo. ...

I believe that the finest intellectual achievements are possible to colored children; no one who listened to the prompt answers or perceived the “snap” of the pupils during the exercises can doubt it. What I was most gratified with was the enthusiasm for and pride in knowledge, which is a motive power that, if given play, will carry them up to noble attainments.

Armstrong thus studied the situation at Hampton; came to the true conclusions, and made them the steppingstone to his own great achievements in the line of Christian training. [348]

General C. H. Gregory was made assistant commissioner for Maryland and Delaware, and General C. H. Howard continued in charge of the District of Columbia and West Virginia. Under the latter educational work was cooperative and supplemental and the District of Columbia the principal field. Benevolent associations and freedmen's contributions sustained the schools to the extent of paying the salaries of the teachers and incidental expenses. But our Bureau furnished the buildings by rental or by construction, and aided the societies as elsewhere by transportation of their teachers to places where the schools were; also their agents and considerable of their furnishing material were so forwarded.

West Virginia, which was from its birth always a loyal State, was really ahead even of the border States in its arrangement for free education. It had in 1867 an impartial system; it was careful to keep the colored and white children separate; the levying of taxes, the building of schoolhouses, and the employing of teachers were entirely in the hands of white men. This was a fact not at all to be wondered at nor deplored, considering the short period since emancipation came; there were, in general, honest and conscientious dealings.

Under the new Bureau law approved July 16, 1866, which extended its provisions and care to all loyal refugees and freedmen, Missouri and Kansas constituted a nominal district over which Lieutenant Colonel F. A. Seeley was placed and acted especially as superintendent of education. The educational law of Missouri was quite as good as that of West Virginia. It did the legislation of that State great credit in its liberal provisions; and could the dispositions of the peopie [349] have been as good as that of the legislators at least two thirds of the children of the freedmen would this year (1867) have been at school.

Outside of St. Louis, however, they had not yet the advantages of a single public educational institution; although along the line of the railroads there was springing up a favorable feeling; in other portions of the State the hostility to negro schools was very pronounced and the teachers of freedmen were stoutly opposed by the white residents.

In Kansas, whither large numbers of negroes who had escaped from the calamities of war or from slavery had fled, attention was at once given by the citizens to the children's education. Nearly 2,000 colored pupils were this year enrolled, though there was in this State but a fraction of colored population compared with the neighboring State of Missouri.

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