Former slaves were not at all reluctant to speak and act in accordance with their own visions of freedom. They had waited too long and sacrificed too much to reach this point and let other Americans determine what their future would hold. Yet, like everyone else who intervened in this lively and sometimes deadly debate, former slaves did not share a single vision or understanding of freedom. This can be seen most clearly among those who had been enslaved on the coastal plantations of the Carolinas and Georgia. Having developed in slavery a robust culture and community life in the relative isolation of sea island plantations, the people of the lowcountry entered into freedom with a very distinctive vision of freedom and what it should mean. The document below was produced in response to a fast-changing national policy on land redistribution (see Unit 3). Yet in protesting Andrew Johnson's policy of returning land to its former owners, black men who wrote this petition also revealed much more: about their new role as citizens, about what it meant to be a free person, and who they believed should lead a post-slavery nation.
A Committee of Freedmen on Edisto Island Reveal their Expectations
[Edisto Island, S.C. October 20 or 21, 1865]
General It Is with painfull Hearts that we the committe address you, we Have thorougholy considered the order which you wished us to Sighn,1 we wish we could do so but cannot feel our rights Safe If we do so, General we want Homesteads; we were promised Homestead's by the government,2 If It does not carry out the promises Its agents made to us, If the government Haveing concluded to befriend Its late enemies and to neglect to observe the principles of common faith between Its self and us Its allies In the war you said was over, now takes away from them all right to the soil they stand upon save such as they can get by again working for your late and thier all time ememies. If the government does so we are left In a more unpleasant condition than our former
we are at the mercy of those who are combined to prevent us from getting land enough to lay our Fathers bones upon. We Have property In Horses, cattle, carriages, & articles of furniture, but we are landless and Homeless, from the Homes we Have lived In In the past we can only do one of three things Step Into the public road or the sea or remain on them working as In former time and subject to thier will as then. We can not resist It In any way without being driven out Homeless upon the road. You will see this Is not the condition of really freemen
You ask us to forgive the land owners of our Island, 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 any thing to do with Him If I Had land of my own. that man, I cannot well forgive. Does It look as If He Has forgiven me, seeing How He tries to keep me In a condition of Helplessness General, we cannot remain Here In such condition and If the government permits them to come back we ask It to Help us to reach land where we shall not be slaves nor compelled to work for those who would treat us as such
we Have not been treacherous, we Have not for selfish motives allied to us those who suffered like us from a common enemy & then Haveing gained our purpose left our allies In thier Hands There Is no rights secured to us there Is no law likely to be made which our Hands can reach. The state will make laws that we shall not be able to Hold land even If we pay for It Landless, Homeless. Voteless. we can only pray to god & Hope for His Help, your Infuence & assistance With consideration of esteem your Obt Servts In behalf of the people
Committe Ishmael Moultrie
Source: Henry Bram et al. to Major General O. O. Howard, [20 or 21 Oct. 1865], B 53 1865, Letters Received, ser. 15, Washington Hdqrs., RG 105.
Questions to Consider
1. What were Henry Bram, Ishmael Moultrie, and Yates Sampson hoping to achieve by writing to General Oliver Otis Howard, the commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau?
2. On what grounds do they rest their right to petition?
3. What does it mean to these men to be "really freemen"? What kind of rights, privileges, and obligations attach to being "really freemen"?
4. What does it mean that only men signed the petition? What do we learn about the gendered dimension of their version of freedom?
5. What is the relationship between the authors' past experiences and their expectations for the future? How do your answers help you think about the larger debate over freedom and its meanings?
6. If David Golightly Harris (Document 1) had read this petition, how do you think he would have responded, and why?