After Slavery: Educator Resources

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3. Report on Conditions in a North Carolina Jail

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Six: Pursuing Citizenship: Justice & Equality in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

Between the end of the war and the inauguration of Radical Reconstruction in 1867, federal authorities and military officials struggled to assert control over local institutions in which ex-Confederates continued to wield considerable power. Often they used this authority in flagrant attempts to resubjugate blacks, now formally emancipated but in many places lacking the power or the support to enforce change. Across the Carolinas, Freedmen's Bureau agents received frequent reports that blacks were being held on trivial charges, or even on the mere whim of influential whites, and confined in horrible conditions. The report below, from northeastern North Carolina, offers poignant evidence that the end of slavery did not necessarily bring immediate change to freedpeople's conditions.

Report on Conditions in a North Carolina Jail

The first thing that came to my notice was the condition of the County Jail which I found to be horrible indeed. I found incarcerated within its walls, eight Colored men half starved and nearly suffocated on account of the lack of air and the stench of accumulated filth. Upon investigation I ascertained that four of them had been in confinement for over six weeks, for language muttered which their former masters termed insulting, the rest were Charged with having been engaged in Cotton stealing.

I took possession of the keys of the jail and discharged them on the following grounds,

1st That mere words uttered constitute no offence...

2nd That the parties were imprisoned without legal proof.

3rd That no right exists to confine [any] human being in so filthy a place.

The building was of brick, and the windows being half shut down, the heat of itself was hardly endurable. And upon opening the door the [putrid] air was [so] dense that one could feel it sensibly. Instead of cleansing the wards in which the prisoners were confined each day as required by law, not even the excrement had been removed for four or five days, and there being no mineral the floor was [wet] and slimy[.] Instead of wholesome food, being furnished them three times a day, they were not even fed once a day, and were then compelled to eat stinking fish, which with the excessive heat made them require much water, drink was not supplied them, and the poor wretches could be heard by the passers by crying for water.

As is the usual case with men who have been guilty of barbarity, no one was responsible. The sheriff it was said was sick and had been Confined to his house for some weeks, and the Jailor, was a "new man", and had had charge for a day or two only, and the responsibility was so shifted from one to the other, that it became a difficult question to determine where the responsibility lay, unless with the Sheriff who has had the assurance to present a bill of Jails Fees, of about [$60.00] for me to [cash]...

There is about Twenty five thousand Colored people in this district a great portion of which have not heard that they were free, except from inauthentic sources, and on some of the Plantations, I find slavery nearly in status quo antebellum.

Source: Excerpt from "Report of Lieutenant Perminan on Sub-District of Weldon, included in Report of Lt. Col. Dexter H. Clapp, 38th USCT" [Freedmen's Bureau Headquarters, Raleigh], October 13, 1865, M1909 The Records of the Field Offices, Miscellaneous Record.


Questions to Consider

  1. What are the charges upon which the men in question have been imprisoned? What are the grounds upon which Lieutenant Perminan has the men released?

  2. Judging from this document, what are the major challenges to be overcome in enforcing emancipation in outlying rural areas?

  3. If you were the local Freedmen's Bureau agent, what measures would you adopt to ensure that injustices like the one described here are not repeated? What kinds of resources would you require to implement these measures?

  4. Who should be held responsible for the situation in the Weldon jail? What would be a suitable punishment?

Return to Exhibition: Unit Six