After Slavery: Educator Resources

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8. The Difficulty of Obtaining Justice from Local Authorities

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.

In the scattered agricultural communities and market towns that made up so much of the rural South, federal attempts at breaking the legacy of slavery ran up against deeply established customs and pervasive white hostility. In their daily lives, freedpeople often experienced this profound gap between aspirations and results through their dealings with local officials. Those charged with protecting their rights and dispensing justice—sheriffs and policemen; trial justices, lawyers and local magistrates—had been trained in the planter-dominated 'system' of legal arrangements that grew up alongside slavery, and were often bitterly opposed to black equality. Usually attached to the conservatives, these local authorities did what they could to defy the directives emanating from federal authorities, reverting instead to antebellum custom. Beyond that, as this report from a Freedmen's Bureau agent stationed near Charleston makes clear, justice was often simply priced beyond the reach of destitute blacks (and many whites).

The Difficulty of Obtaining Justice from Local Authorities

...Most of the civil Magistrates have either declined or been unable to take the required oath,a and to my knowledge there are but two officiating Magistrates in Berkeley District.
[T. J. Browning, the magistrate at Grahamville, rejected the case of Cuffy Glover, a freedman against Nathan Guyton, for wages due, on grounds of that case is] far above the jurisdiction of a Magistrate, which is exclusive to twenty dollars...

Cuffy Glover is, like all other freedmen, very poor and needy, and dependent on his days labor for his base support. He claims to be entitled to more than $100 wages from Mr. Guyton, for whom he has been working nearly the whole year, but to get it he has now to sue in the Court of Sessions in Charleston; or, if he is unable to go to the expense of engaging a Lawyer and laying idle about Charleston until the case is brought before the Court and tried, he is forced to give it up. None of the plantation freedmen in my District have anything to spare, their earnings are often withheld from them on some slight pretense and they are unable to sue for their rights because of their inability to meet the expenses necessarily to be incurred in Lawsuits. Even some Magistrates refuse to listen to complaints of freedmen, unless the freedmen pay costs in advance... Freedmen are murdered and burried [sic] without notice being given to the authorities, colored soldiers sent out as Guards, are waylaid, freedmen are deprived of their earnings etc. etc. - all this because there is nobody in power to whom a poor helpless freedman can appeal. I hope that as soon as the civil courts have been fully established and Magistrates with proper power are within reach of all people, black as well as white and poor as well as rich, then a freedman might expect justice, but even then it will be uncertain, as a Magistrate, once a Slaveowner, will not very likely receive a freedman and a planter before him, without being prejudiced against the freedmen, especially when, as it often is the case, the planters for thirty and more miles around are all blood relatives, and the Magistrate perhaps one of the family. [Leidtke advocates that military courts be reopened]

aA reference to the "Ironclad Oath," which required local and state officials to pledge that they had "never voluntarily borne arms against the United States" or "voluntarily" given "aid, countenance, counsel or encouragement" to the Confederacy.

Source: F. W. Leidtke [St. Stephen's Parish] to 'Major,' December 31, 1866; RG 105: Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, Records of the Assistant Commissioner for South Carolina.


Questions to Consider

  1. Leidtke identifies three major problems in relation to the magistrates: there are too few of them to allow citizens easy access to the legal system; they charge fees beyond the ability of many freedpeople to pay; and they are likely to be more favorably disposed to planters than former slaves. How do each of these problems affect the delivery of justice? What is their combined effect?

  2. How might the difficulties experienced by freedpeople in bringing cases against their employers affect labor relations generally?

  3. In some cases the flagrant denial of justice to freedpeople led federal authorities to establish military courts. How might whites react to this development? How might freedpeople respond?

  4. In general terms, how does the disparity in wealth and influence shape the possibilities for establishing a just society in the aftermath of emancipation?

Return to Exhibition: Unit Six