Petition of Committee on Behalf of the Freedmen Of Edisto Island, South Carolina

The Petition of Committee on Behalf of the Freedmen (or the letter from Edisto Island) was written by a committee of freedmen (Henry Bram, Yates Sampson and Ishmael Moultrie) to Oliver Otis Howard, the Commissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land (popularly referred to as the Freedman’s Bureau) and President Andrew Johnson of the United States. The document was prepared on 28th October, 1865 at Edisto Island, South Carolina which was under Union control during the early stages of the American Civil War (1861-65).1 From as early as November 1861, wealthy cotton planters fled to the mainland as a response to the Union occupation of Edisto Island. About 10,000 former slaves stayed behind and were permitted to cultivate the tracts of land in the area under strict supervision of Union Forces.2 The letter was written at a period when the national policy on redistribution of land previously owned by former Confederates was on the rise. Contrary to popular belief, it is evident from the letter that as a community, freedmen were quite capable of articulating what was politically right by petitioning the highest authorities in matters concerning land, to conclusively redress their grievances.

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 had successfully managed to free African American slaves that resided in rebel states. After the Civil War, the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment subsequently freed all slaves in the United States .3 A result of emancipation was that the mass of Southern African Americans would now be faced by the challenges that had confronted Northern African American – free blacks who were surrounded by hostile whites opposed to racial equality. The Reconstruction period (from 1866 to 1877) was implemented by Congress to focus on the reorganization of the Southern states after the Civil War, defining how the whites and blacks would live in a society without the institution of slavery together with the provision of means for readmission of the former Confederate States into the Union.4 The South, however, was not pleased with Reconstruction and saw it as vengeful imposition that was meant to humiliate the former Confederates.

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During General T. Sherman’s famous “March to the Sea” from the plains of Atlanta to the coast of South Carolina, his army was inundated with thousands of liberated slave refugees who had trailed the army’s track. In January 1865, Sherman issued a military order that allocated 40-acre plots to the families of African Americans in the Islands that stretched from northern Florida to South Carolina.5 In a sudden turn of events, Presidents Andrew Johnson started pursuing policies that would create reconciliation between the Union and the white South, pardoning former rebels and restoring their property (which also included land). Such measures meant that freedmen would have to accept eviction or alternatively agree to provide wage labor for the former slave owners, a step that squashed any hopes of comprehensive land reform policies in the American South while at the same time losing the freedom that African Americans had envisioned after being emancipated.

As per the Special field order of 1865, about 40,000 freedmen had been able to settle on “Sherman land” in Georgia and South Carolina.6 That same summer, President Andrew Johnson ordered the return of nearly all land that was in federal hands to their rightful owners. October 19th, 1865 saw one of the most poignant confrontations during the Reconstruction era that pitted the emancipated blacks of Edison Island, South Carolina against the Freedman’s Bureau. Major General Oliver Otis Howard, who had been appointed in May to assist former slave’s transition to freedom, met a group of freed African Americans at Edisto Island to inform of this policy. He wore an empty right sleeve to signify that he had lost the war.7 The Freedman’s Bureau had been empowered by Congress to mediate disputes between white and black southerners, provide immediate relief services to refugees and distribute confiscated land. The independent ownership of land by emancipated slaves would give them the absolute substance to their freedom. Howard’s admission that the government’s promise to the freedmen would not be honored was met with shock and disbelief prompting them to pen a plea to have this fateful decision reconsidered.

The freedmen reacted by writing a letter to both Howard and Johnson because they knew that with their own land they would be economically emancipated from depending on white southerners for wages. The African Americans on this sea island had earlier banded together to buy land that had been confiscated by the federal government.8 The former slaves also wanted to point out that it was the Union government that had encouraged them to occupy the land and wanted to affirm their readiness to purchase it if offered the opportunity. In the analysis of this brief document, it is apparent that it consists of a rich repository of valuable material that can help in the construction of the narrative of both the institution of slavery and emancipation from the perspective of a freedman. One can’t help but empathize fully with these Edisto petitioners who seem to be filled with a palpable sense of betrayal by their liberators.

A crucial point made in the letter is that material resources, land in this case, were imperative preconditions for practicing genuine self-realization or self-determination in the areas found in the postwar South. The petitioners share their anxiety that the “freedom” offered would mean that they would work for their former masters, which was suspect.  It is important to note that no one had raised a contrary argument (popular among liberal and conservative northerners) that there was no entitlement for someone to receive property or land that they had not earned by savings from their own labor. Freedmen were of the opinion that their suffering as slaves had earned them a right to the land.9

…..You only lost your right arm. In war and might forgive them.  The man who tied me to a tree & gave me 39 lashes & who stripped and flogged my mother & my sister & who will not let me stay In His empty Hut except I will do His planting & be Satisfied with His price & who combines with others to keep away land from me well knowing I would not Have anything to do with Him If I Had land of my own…..10

By beginning with information about their memory of slavery and the resultant feelings of entitlement, the petitioner’s letter creates a narrative that is radically different. The unfilled spaces that exist between the facts also make room for an imaginative reconstruction from what is known to the possible. For instance, the freedman declares in the petition that they indeed have property; cattle, horses, carriages and various articles of furniture.11 A statement of this nature provides an opportunity for imaginative reconstruction and reflection. It prompts us to gain a new perspective that these individuals who were essentially belonged to others and who were of the lowliest status in this free society were also in possession of property, nurtured and valued kinship ties together with the aspiration to own land. The influential and powerful nature of the petition helped shape future equality movements such as the Civil Rights Movement in the sixties led by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. who wanted to see affirmative action implemented to end racial discrimination, segregation and racial inequality.

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