After Slavery: Educator Resources

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5. Harassment of Freedpeople in the Vicinity of Wilmington

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.

The inability of federal authorities to impose control over local officials or to stem abuses against freedpeople, mentioned in Document 3, continued into 1866 and 1867, and even growing more acute under the lenient approach pursued by President Andrew Johnson. In the city of Wilmington, home to a large population of former slaves, a deep antagonism developed between Freedmen's Bureau officials and the local mayor, who was reported to recruit men to the local police force on the basis of their former service in the Confederate military. As the following documents make clear, this force became widely detested in Wilmington's black community for their frequent outrages against freedmen and women of all ages. The first of these is from testimony by Bureau agent W. H. H. Beadle before the Joint Congressional Committee on Reconstruction; the second is from a field report filed by another agent relative to the same matter.

Harassment of Freedpeople in the Vicinity of Wilmington

[Testimony April 4, 1866]

Question. How do the secessionists receive President Johnson's liberal policy of treatment?
Answer. With rejoicing. Everything favorable from the President is published with capital headings. They receive it with great satisfaction... The laws of the State retain whipping, cropping, branding, and letting or binding to service as punishments for crime.

My assistant heard men say in the street that they would soon get rid of the d--n niggers when the Freedman's Bureau was withdrawn. I believe he used the terms, "would soon kill off the niggers."

Question. Have you had any knowledge of such whipping cases?

Answer. Yes, sir I interfered and stopped the whipping of some freedmen by the sheriff of New Hanover county.

Question. Was the whipping order by the justices of the peace?

Answer. By what is called the county court, the court of pleas and quarter sessions, which consists of the Justices in the county sitting together quarterly, with exciting member.

Question. Has that been a frequent occurrence?

Answer. No, sir; it only occurred once after I went there. I saw it going on, stopped it, requested the court to suspend the lash, and forwarded a report, with a request that such punishment be forbidden. It was referred to the general commanding the department of North Carolina, but no action had been taken when I left . . .

[Respondent asserts under questioning the possibility that, if federal troops are withdrawn, black people "will be ultimately exterminated by bad treatment, the hard mode of life they will be reduced to and consequent disease."]

Question. Will not the perpetual oppression [by] the white race produce something more terrible than gradual dwindling away of black race?

Answer. There is great danger of that now, at times. When the freedmen were publicly whipped the others were very much excited. Freedmen of intelligence and some means of life came to me weeping at the degradation they were subject to. They begged that I should protect their race. They said that at a word from them the colored people would have rescued the prisoner, but they prevented such attempts. I advised quiet, and they said they would keep so if their rights were protected, or if there was reasonable hope they would be. They had no sympathy with crime, but abhorred the brutalizing method of punishment. This law applies to whites and blacks alike; but the practice would be that ninety-nine blacks would be punished in this way to one white man. Such degrading punishments always fall upon the unfortunate and poor race. The whipping, heretofore left by law to masters, and done on the plantations, will now be done at the public whipping-post, if allowed.

Question Have the blacks arms?

Answer. Yes, sir; to some extent. They try to prevent it, (the whites do,) but cannot. Some of the local police have been guilty of great abuses by pretending to have authority to disarm the colored people. They go in squads and search houses and seize arms. These raids are made often by young men who have no particular interest in hired and trusty labor, some of them being members of the police and others not. The tour of pretended duty is often turned into a spree. Houses of colored men have been broken open, beds torn apart and thrown about the floor, and even trunks opened and money taken.

A great variety of such offenses have been committed by the local police or mad young man, members of it... [Thus] there is some slight tendency towards outbreaks [among blacks] in Wilmington, because they think they have suffered greatly there from the police...(270-2)

[Report filed June 30, 1866]
I have the honor to call your attention to the fact that on the afternoon of Sunday the 25th Inst, a party of men, supposed to belong to the Police force of this City, entered the dwelling house of a colored man named George Moore, (aged 85 years) and without any provocation or exhibiting any warrant or authority hit and otherwise maltreated the said George Moore, and finally carried him to the City [Guard] House, and fired their Pistols into and at his house, destroying part of the fence, and stealing several articles of personal property. The Police - supposed to be acting under your orders - proceeded to Moore's house again the next day, and arrested [Wm. H James], a Grandson of said Moore, and placed him in the City Guard House, where he was detained until the afternoon and was then released on giving Bail in One Thousand Dollars for his appearance the next day and on his appearing as ordered he was informed that "the [bail] had been settled" by you. The following named men, said to belong to the Police force can be identified as being with the party that committed the assault on George Moore and who destroyed and stole his property and I request that they be placed in arrest until the matter can be investigated by the authorities.

Viz.: ___ Smith. ___McPherson.
A McClanning and Tim Scullion


  1. Testimony of Brvt. Lieut. Col. W. H. H. Beadle, Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, 270-272;
  2. Lieut. Col. Allan Rutherford [Superintendent, Southern District, Freedmen's Bureau] to A. H. Van Bokkellen [Mayor, City of Wilmington], Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands


Questions to Consider

  1. Do former secessionists see the federal government as an ally or an opponent?

  2. From the transcript, which is worse: the "gradual dwindling away of the black race" or a rising up by freedpeople? Explain.

  3. Aside from taking their cases to the Bureau, how might black citizens in Wilmington respond to such treatment at the hands of white policemen?

  4. Are there any hints in the documents about tensions within the black community at Wilmington? What are they?

  5. What does this document suggest about the potential for antagonism between agents of the Freedmen's Bureau and local authorities in North Carolina? What will it require for federal authorities to bring an end to this kind of abuse?

  6. What might the reaction of whites be to the arrest of the four men identified in Rutherford's communication?

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