After Slavery: Educator Resources

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5. John T. Costin Reports on the Difficulties of Organizing

The following educational document corresponds with Unit Two: Freed Slaves Mobilize in the After Slavery exhibition. Note the "Questions to Consider" section included at the end of each document.

One final document from the Robert C. Schenck Papers: a report from John T. Costin on his travels through northeastern Georgia in the summer of 1867. Costin, a preacher and a barber from Washington, D.C., was active in the black freemasonry movement in that city, and his father had been involved in assisting runaway slaves before the war. Here he reflects on the daunting challenges facing him while organizing in the face of deep-seated white hostility (and the threat of violence), but also on freedpeoples' impressive enthusiasm and determination. Both the bitterness among whites and the fervor that he found among freedpeople were evident just across the Savannah River, in the border counties of southwestern South Carolina, where conflict and violence remained endemic throughout Reconstruction.

John T. Costin Reports on the Difficulties of Organizing

John T. Costin of Washington D.C., a colored speaker now in Georgia writes from Macon under date of July 25th [1867] as follows:

I herewith transmit a report of my last canvassing tour. Left Macon, June 6 and proceeded to Jefferson County and held a republican mass meeting at Louisville June 8. It was a grand affair, largely attended by the people of Jefferson as well as surrounding counties. Organized a republican club and a loyal league. Went from there to the help of our friends in Green county. Here again the mass meeting was a tremendous success. I was met at the depot by about six hundred persons, having reached Greensboro about 11 o'clock. We proceeded to the grove where there was assembled a vast audience amongst which there were a number of rebels. I felt a little shy to begin with, but when I got warmed up, I forgot all about rebs. and everything else except my duty. I have done good service in Green county.a From there I returned to Augusta and after consultation decided to make Burke county the next field of operation. Having heard so much about the rebels of Burke county, I confess I had some fears when I entered the county. The first sight that met my eye on arriving at Waynesboro, was a Johnny in a one horse buggy, driving at a fast rate with a freedman chained behind him and manacled with an iron collar round his neck.

I said to myself this looks rough. But nothing daunted, I applied to the bureau agentb and informed him of my business. In two hours after I had my posters in the hands of the number of teamsters who had come to the place after corn and provisions, announcing a Republican Mass Meeting at Waynesboro on the following Saturday. It was Tuesday when I arrived. I started out at night with a teamster and went twenty-four miles to a village by the name of Alexander. Here I remained all the next day and had quite a respectable gathering at night. After reading to them the registration and civil rights acts, I explained and commented upon each section and impressed upon the people the importance of registering as well as furnishing all the information I could. On my return I stopped at another town called Red Hills where I performed the same duty and organized clubs in each. I arrived in Waynesboro Friday evening. Our mass meeting was largely attended, all classes being present. To my surprise, I was offered the use of the Court House, but in consequence of the excessive heat and the large number of people, we took the grove. There were people at the meeting from a distance of 25 miles. It was a great success. Everything went off peaceable and pleasant. The freedmen declared it to be the first time since their emancipation that they had ever had explained to them their rights before the law. The rebs. cursed me terribly, some threatening to shoot me, but the only thing that occurred was being spit upon by a rebel while passing the street. I took no notice of the insult, because they were nearly 2000 colored persons in the place and nearly every one had fire-arms.

I will add a few words about my Crawfordville meeting as it is the residence of my old friend the Hon. Alexander H. Stevens.c I was offered the Court House here and it looked so much like rain, I accepted it. The house was packed from top to bottom. Col. Bryantd sent a number of letters complimenting me upon my effort, one from our staunch Republican friend, Judge Baldwin. Mr. Stevens invited me to quarter at his residence. I accepted the invitation and was treated with great distinction. We had some pleasant and agreeable conversations. I have hardly told you a fourth part of my campaign but it is too lengthy to go into full details. I set out trusting in the Lord and I know he has been with me. I have organized loyal leagues, Union Republican clubs, Educational and Temperance societies in nearly every place of any prominence where I have been. I have addressed sixty-four meetings during the campaign, my traveling expenses having been $142.40. I have traveled incessantly. I am under many obligations to you [. ]
With great respect I am
Yours etc.

P. S. I have had great success and have held large county meetings in the following places: Penfield, Woodville, Lexington Crawfordville and Sandersville. Besides this I have instructed the people in smaller ones, sometimes in the cabins, sometimes on the plantations and wherever the chance occurred, in the churches after preaching. I have never failed to preach political sermons wherever I thought I could enlighten the minds of my people. I conceive I have the right to do so.

a Presently Greene County.
b An agent of the Bureau of Freedmen, Refugees and Abandoned Lands, or Freedmen's Bureau. Scattered across the South, together with military officials these agents were the most accessible representatives of federal authority in the Reconstruction South.
c Alexander H. Stephens (misspelled here by Costin) was the former Vice President of the Confederacy. Just over a year before Costin filed this report, and before freedpeople had won the franchise, Stephens had been elected to serve in the Johnson-era [white] state legislature, but was unable to assume the seat after Congressional Radicals disbanded these governments as illegitimate.
d Col. John Emory Bryant was a white, Maine-born Union army veteran who became prominent in the Freedmen's Bureau and in Republican politics in Georgia. He had previously seen military action during the Union military's liberation of the South Carolina sea islands.

SourceRobert C. Schenck PapersMiami University Archives, Ohio University.


Questions to Consider

  1. Why might Costin be "shy" about speaking before the "vast audience" attending the outdoor meeting at Greensboro? Stage fright? Unfamiliarity with his listeners?

  2. What is the impression made on Costin during his visit to Burke County? What practical steps does he undertake to ensure a safe and well-attended meeting there?

  3. Costin remarks that freedpeople came from up to twenty-five miles away to hear him speak. How might they have known about the meeting, and by what means of transport did they make their way there? Aside from their political hostility and racial animosity, why might the region's planters object to meetings like this?

  4. Does the portrait of freedpeople that Costin presents us conform to or call into question the image of former slaves as passive, apathetic, timid? In what ways?

  5. Imagine yourself sitting among the congregation as Costin preaches one of his "political sermons." What is he saying from the pulpit? How are his words received by those around you? Do any of your fellow worshippers object to this combining of politics and religion?

Return to Exhibition: Unit Two