Tennessee Freedmen to the Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner for Kentucky, Tennessee, and Northern Alabama

[Lincoln County, Tenn.]  July 27th 1865

Genl   We the colored People, of Lincoln County, State of Tennessee, would respectfully submit the following representation of our condition, and earnestly entreat that an Agent may be appointed who shall reside in Fayetteville, who may act as our Counsellor, and aid us in obtaining redress for wrongs to which we may be subjected.

By the new Constitution adopted by the loyal people, of the State, on the 22d of February, 1865, we became formally and legally free,1 our prayers were answered, and the secret hopes of our hearts were realized.  When, however, the Legislature of the State subsequently met, they failed, as we think, to pass the necessary laws, to recognize our standing, and secure to us by law, our rights as freemen.  In our former condition as slaves, we had the protection of our masters, and it was to their interest, at least, to consult for, and secure our physical welfare.  As we are now, the old slave laws of the State remaining unrepealed, and the oath of the colored man not being received by our Courts, as against the whites, we have no where to look for protection, save to the United States Authority.  In those authorities, we have the fullest confidence: but we want some way of easily bringing our cases before them.  In the beginning of the year, when our freedom was secured by the Constitution, many of the colored people left their former masters, and made arrangements with others, to labor for a longer or shorter period of time: the employers agreeing to give them a certain fixed compensation for their labor.  A great number, however, remained with their former masters, some of these agreeing to give them a certain amount for their services, others holding out the idea that what was right, should be done, and others making no promises to their former slaves: but still exacting their labor.  Now, whilst we take for granted that employers will do the thing that is honest and just in many, perhaps, the majority of cases, yet, we think, we have just cause for fear, that the cupidity of others will defraud them of their wages, and turn them out of their places, when their services from the condition of the crops is no longer a matter of necessity.  A few cases of the kind have already occurred in which colored persons, having labored until the harvest has been secured and the corn crops laid by, are now, as we think causelessly turned off to seek places for themselves and families, and compensation for their labor refused.  Besides, in several instances recently, colored men, have been, without any process of law, and no crime proved against them, subjected to the lash, and as many as four or five hundred lashes having been inflicted upon them at the will of their masters.  In view of such circumstances, as we cannot appeal to the laws and Courts of the State, for a redress, of grievances felt and feared, and as the only other recourse, besides God, who is the refuge of the oppressed, is the United States Authority, We would most respectfully pray you, as the Representative of that authority, to take order in our behalf, and appoint some one, who may, for the time act as our Patron, by consulting and advising us, and when wronged, securing us redress.

It is scarcely needful for us to say, that during the late Rebellion we have been true and loyal to the United States, Government: and whilst our prayers have gone up for the union, cause, we have, also, to the extent of our power, given aid and comfort to the armies of the United States, and been in many ways helpful to its soldiers.–

During the continuance of the war, we have not been engaged in insurrection, or in any way been insubordinate to constituted authority: and in the future, as in the past, we propose to be a law abiding people.  As in the past, we have by our labors enriched our masters, in many instances, besides supporting ourselves and our families. We now, simply ask that we may be secured as others, in the just fruits of our toil: protected from unjust, and illegal punishments, and we are sure we will keep our families from want, and do our part as good citizens of the United States to add to the wealth and glory of the Country.  We are recognized as men by the Constitution of the land: we only ask to be treated as such, and we will, in the future as in the past, be law abiding men.

and in conclusion we would with deference to your position and authority beg leave to recommend as agent in our behalf the name of William French as the man who has our unbounded confidence.  appoint him, and we will as in duty bound Ever Pray

Signed in behalf of the Freedmen of the County of Lincoln State of Tennessee
Rev Lewis Bright et al. to General. Fisk, 27 July 1865, B-36 1865, Registered Letters Received, series 3379, TN Assistant Commisioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives. Witnessed by Calvin McEwen, formerly a lieutenant in the U.S. army. On the reverse is a notation by General Clinton B. Fisk, the assistant commissioner, instructing an assistant as follows: “Write to French that we have no means at present of compensating him for his labors– but–hope to get the county to do so.” A few weeks later, General Fisk appointed him Freedmen's Bureau agent for Lincoln County. (Special Order No. 36, War Department. Bureau F R. and A Lands, 2 Sept. 1865, vol. 23, pp. 44–46, Special Orders & Circulars Issued, series 3384, TN Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives.)

1. Tennessee had been exempted from President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863; as a result, slavery remained legal in the state until February 22, 1865, when unionist voters ratified an amendment to the state constitution abolishing it. (U.S., Statutes at Large, Treaties, and Proclamations of the United States of America, vol. 12 (Boston, 1863), pp. 1268–69; Francis N. Thorpe, comp., The Federal and State Constitutions, 7 vols. [Washington, 1909], vol. 4, p. 3445.)

Published in Land and Labor, 1865, pp. 262–64.