The Beginnings of Black Southern Activism – Georgia Freedman’s Convention of 1866

In January of 1866, black Americans in Georgia gathered together to figure out how to deal with the rising violence against their race. They also had to convince the state and federal governments to give them the right to vote. But this was a right that even their white allies viewed as impossible. In coming together, they formed one of the earliest activist organization for black Southerners – the Georgia Freedman’s Convention.

Incredibly racist cartoon that echoes many of the racist sentiments of today.
Incredibly racist cartoon that echoes many of the racist sentiments of today.

Following the capitulation of the Confederacy in the spring of 1865, changes quickly began to appear. Provisional governors were appointed by President Andrew Johnson, and many Southern states held elections that fall. Throughout the autumn, new state constitutions were written and adopted. But by December, Mississippi’s supposedly loyal legislature passed various black codes. The essentially returned their freed black population to de facto slavery, despite the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

There was a mixture of cautious optimism among the black population. Violence against blacks was on the rise. Organizations like the Freedman’s Bureau and various missionary associations were helping black communities to establish themselves. Churches, schools, even entire villages were constructed.

Many whites were fearful that black people would gain political equality. If former slaves were given the right to vote and run for office, it was only a short matter of time before there would be black politicians representing white constituents. If equality was attained, they might even be allowed to serve on juries. The fear that suddenly the tables would be turned – or even the playing field evened – was terrifying to many whites. 1For basic overview information, I’ve found that a well-researched scholarly encyclopedia is a fine way to go. In this case, I used Encyclopedia of the Reconstruction Era edited by Richard Zuczek (Greenwood Press, 2006).

General Davis Tillson
General Davis Tillson

With all of this left undone, President Johnson somehow declared his job complete. Reconstruction, he held, was finished. Everybody could simply go back to the way things were, minus slavery in the strictest sense. But before the year was out, Congress objected. The Southern states were not restored, they declared – there was much work to be done.

In the midst of all of this, forty black delegates from Georgia met to discuss their plight. They formed the Freedman’s Convention of Georgia, and met in Augusta in January of 1866. 2This was not the first such meeting of free African Americans. For the few before and many after, see this. This meeting could not have taken place in such states as Mississippi or Louisiana. There, reintroduced pre-war laws barred any gatherings of black people. In fact, in almost every Southern state, black people gathering together outside of church walls was seen as a conspiracy to rape and murder whites. 3For Mississippi’s Black Codes, see “An Act to amend the vagrant laws of the State”, Section 2. Printed in Index to the Senate Executive Documents 1866-67 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1867) 192. Here. For Louisiana’s, see “An Ordinance relative to the police of negroes….”, Sections 6 and 7. Printed in Index to the Senate Executive Documents 1865-66 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1866) 93. Here.

If Not for Paternalistic Support…

But in Georgia during the early winter of 1866, this began to change. Though state’s laws did not hold strict black codes, assembling without the presence of at least a few whites was asking for trouble. This was likely the reason why, when the Freedman’s Convention assembled, it elected a white president. It’s also why it was opened with a speech by General Davis Tillson, Assistant Commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau.

Tillson spoke of black Americans’ newly acquired rights. He spoke of their perpetual freedom, their right to take any employment they desired, the right to property, wealth, and prosperity. He did not neglect their right to education and care. Tillson blankly noted that certain rights, such as voting, and serving as jurors “have not yet been conferred upon you.”

Taken as a whole, much of his speech was paternalistic and fairly degrading. While his intention was to uplift, to our ears it might seem the opposite. “You are no longer chattels but men,” he insisted. If the black community would only “show that as a people you possess these qualities … you need have but little fear that any rights will long be withheld from you.”

geo-conv

Tillson, however, was able set aside what he viewed as his parental duties. When he did, he spoke about the violence committed against black people by whites in Georgia. “Almost daily I am shamed, mortified and disgusted by hearing men and women of my own race cursing and vilifying the negro,” he spoke. He blamed the whites’ lack of education and ignorance. These violent white people, he continued needed to “do something more manly and womanly than spend their time in trying to injure and degrade a race they vainly imagine to be inferior to themselves….”

Tillson urged his black listeners to “let these people go, they glory in their own shame, they take pride in parading their own hatred and malice, qualities which chiefly distinguish the denizens of the bottomless pit to whose embrace they are hastening, pity, forget, and avoid them; bear with them patiently as you do with all the other necessary and unavoidable evils which surround you in life.” 4Proceedings of the Freedman’s Convention of Georgia (Augusta: Loyal Georgian, 1866) 10-11.

The Hypocrisy of American Freedom

Two days later, Captain J.E. Bryant addressed the Convention’s Equal Rights Association. His speech was prophetic, detailing the problems which the black community would continue to face even in the present. Bryant praised the black people for taking “the initiatory step” toward “equal political rights.” He was certain “that the time will come when equal political rights will be conceded to every man in this country without regard to race, descent or color.”

Bryant, like most thinking people of the time, understood the hypocrisy of America’s freedom. He hearkened back to the very reasons why Europeans came to this western continent. They came, he said, for “civil and religious liberty” until they numbered in the millions.

“Strange as it may seem, these men, who came here to escape from religious persecution, themselves persecuted those who differed from them in religion.

“And, what is yet more strange, men, who sought these shores that they might escape from tyranny, established tyranny more hateful than that which they had endured.

“Such is human nature. Men deny to others what they claim for themselves. The injunction of our Savior, ‘as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise’ is little regarded.”

He pointed out the hypocrisy of fighting a war declaring that “all men were created equal” only to allow “the worst tyranny that ever cursed the earth to exist in their very midst.” 5Ibid, 23-25.

The Demands for the Freedman’s Equality

The main point of the Convention was to establish an organization to help secure the rights of black people in Georgia. To that end, they passed resolutions stating their rights and their desire for full equality. Here they would mince few words. They took what whites like Tillson and Bryant had said, separating the wheat of equality from the chaff of passive paternalism. They then took for themselves a radical position.

They first claimed for themselves “the dignity of manhood in common with all other men of whatever race, that we are endowed by our Creator with all, and the same inalienable rights that are other men’s….” They called upon the government to bring “speedy justice” to the black people who “are daily subjected to the most cruel abuses by men who, in defiance of law and authority, violate and outrage the simplest form of moral justice.”

They demanded the vote. Not only that, they claimed that they could “more rightfully complain of the denial of the right to suffrage than can those lately in arms against the constituted authorities of the land.” For the veterans among them, they wanted “all rights, privileges, and immunities that are all others person’s who served in the army and navy.”

They wanted fair pay, to run for political office, to be tried by juries of their peers. They wanted their own churches, the right to assemble. They wished for “the right to unite in brotherhood with any Christian body that may, in its teachings and sympathies, accord with our feelings.”

They wanted to help the white community as well, but could only do this if they were allies. “[W]e shall support such publications, and patronize such measures and other business men only among the white populations as are our true friends – who sympathize with us in all our difficulties, and who will at all times maintain our rights, not because we are colored, but because the principles of justice are eternal, and are by the God of nature vouchsafed alike to every human creature.” 6Ibid., 28-30.

geo-bureau

Taking More to Give More

Of course, even allies such as Tillson could not understand this. Even he believed that such “agitation” for the right to vote was reaching. He believed that all the black community had to do was make themselves “competent and worthy.” They had to become “peaceful and law abiding, and become useful, prosperous, self-reliant citizens.” Only then would whites deem blacks as fit to vote or serve on juries. He held the mistaken belief that “with the destruction of slavery, all real cause of antagonism between the races disappeared.” 7Ibid., 8-9.

Tillson was wrong, and the Freedmen’s Convention understood this. Unfortunately, too many whites found even Tillson’s views far too progressive. The black community, however, understood that simply behaving and waiting for their former masters to throw them a bone would never suit.

Most importantly, the black community understood that it was “unreasonable to suppose that those who once deprived us of our natural rights will now pursue or advocate and sustain a policy commensurate to our necessities.” 8Ibid., 29.

They were not asking for special treatment. They were not claiming that their rights, justice and lives mattered more than those of any other race. They saw the inequality and wished to raise themselves to the level of a people truly free.

Things would get much worse before getting any better.
Things would get much worse before getting any better.

References   [ + ]

Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.
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