Fascinating (and heartbreaking) stories from Slave-era Black Americans

August 26, 2015
The handwriting is difficult to decipher. It’s worse than mine!
I read through the four-part Freedmen Bureau Project on Familysearch.org 6-7 times in order to understand the full gist. Each reading brought new insights and more understanding as words became decipherable in context.

Technically, I’m just indexing the 150-year old complaint, searching for the data of the people, places and dates. But I’m also a family history researcher and I know how frustrating is is when the records are not correctly interpreted. It can make the difference between an ancestor being linked to their progeny or remaining in obscurity.
I had to read to the third document to learn that the complaint filer was Louisa M. Harris. She had gone north to bring her last surviving child home from the Civil War. He was wounded in the hospital and she went to nurse him back to health late in March of 1865. She had arranged for a tenant to stay and care for her home and “plantation”, (the common word for a farm.) They returned together three months later in June.

“Upon returning home at the earliest possible date with permission from my son’s commander and provost officer, I was surprised to learn that my home and plantation had been marked “abandoned” by the Department of the Treasury.”
It seems the tenant filed immediately and got some disinterested bureaucrat to label it “abandoned” which was apparently equivalent to “available to be occupied without purchase.”

She cites the fact that no investigation could have been done because it was not marked abandoned the previous year and the (possibly white) original owners had been gone well before that date.
She is requesting that the Freedmen Bureau Officer see to the return of her property to her full ownership and control, and evict the (predatory) tenant. There were apparently papers to prove the occupant had taken possession as a tenant.

A black family is emancipated and given or purchased a farm. When her wounded soldier son requires nursing in a northern hospital, she arranges for a housesitter and goes to tend him and bring him home. When she gets home, the housesitter has gone behind her back and had the property marked “abandoned” so that he can keep the house and farm.
Just imagine what Louisa Harris was going through!

Another story that comes from the Freedmen Bureau Records is the story of a man whose 5 children younger children were “bound into labor” for 18 months in 1867,(after the war). In 1869, the five children returned home never having been paid for their work. They had been fed, but given no clothes or other property.
The claimant is asking the Bureau to find the man who hired them, (he gives the address of the man and the address of the plantation where they had labored.)
He adds that he is blind
He lives by the support of his older children.
But because he’s blind, he doesn’t notice that the FB agent writes the wrong state for the “employers” address. (There is no Auburn in Georgia, but only in Macon LA The letter demanding payment would have been sent to Macon county, Georgia instead of Macon County, Louisiana.
How likely do you think it is that those five people were ever paid for 18 months of their labor on a plantation?

Another story that gives a little peek into post-civil-war situations is a labor contract involving a group of about 15 men. The pay for each man ranged from 10-15 dollars a month. They were contracted to work from sunup to sundown, six days a week, from January 1 to December 31. No holidays, no Saturdays off. If they were sick or injured and could not work, that money would be subtracted from their (very meager) pay.
They were, however to be “given wholesome food”.  From what I gather from reading many slave narratives, wholesome food would have been corn meal, salt pork, and some lard. Since it was to be “wholesome” that would preclude the meat or lard being rancid or the meal being infested with vermin.
Remember, this was AFTER the slaves were free.

There are letters begging the Freedmen Bureau to help find their long-separated families.      

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