North Carolina Free Black Man to the Freedmen's Bureau Superintendent of the Southern District of North Carolina

Duplin Co [N.C.]  Aprl 26 1866

Worthy Cornell   I. Joe Bright col man engaged or leased. 40. Acres of land from Mr Joe Beason in Duplin Co NC to cultivate 2/3 off the crup and both partues ar Satisfied witt this arengement

from ten Children witch i have 6 to attend with me the farm and need them all to do Said labor   Also I am a mason and Plaster and can bring plenty of wittness that i am prfectly cable to Suport my family by my hard laborn work and would do right well if paple in Sampson Co would not interfear with my family matters but thay broak me down three times by taken away my help on the farm (my Children) So that I am not cable to do the work on Said farm acording my promis to Mr Beson   all theas Children is growing and of much use for me   the youngest of the Croud is. 12 years old the other betwen 12 and 18 year and as mutch as I know the law do not alow to bind any Childen of a freed men whare the parents is cable to Support them or thay ar over 14 years old thay can make thare one Support as this is the case hear1   but Still Ashaill Mathees John. Barden and Frank Caroll thought thay had a better right of my Children than I had and took them from the corn feild and plow and carried them off to thair house   I have a trial befere Mager Forster and he gave me order to keep and I took my Children but now it Seemes he take the wite mans part and alow them to Carry them off and bound them out   Is this justice?

You will oblige me very mutch to give me justis in case iff you pleas   I have no confidence in the Mager at all the way he don with me and iff I can not justis I will apeal as long as I can   Yours very respefull obeediend Servind

Joe Bright

Joe Bright to Worthy Cornell, 26 Apr. 1866, filed under “J,” Letters Received, series 2892, Wilmington NC Superintendent, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives. By an endorsement of April 27, the district superintendent, Colonel Allan Rutherford, referred Joe Bright's letter to Captain Henry H. Foster, the bureau agent of whom Bright complained, and asked him to return it “with report of his action in this case.” Captain Foster responded on April 30. The children had been bound to W. A. Matthis by the county court of Sampson County, he explained, but Foster had given Joe Bright an order to take them. Subsequently, however, Matthis had “produced testimony” before Rutherford's predecessor, Colonel William Beadle, “that Bright was not a proper person to have charge of children,” whereupon Beadle had given Foster verbal instructions to “lay all the evidence before him” and, while awaiting his decision, “to turn the children over to Mathis” (who was clerk of the county court). “Every one admits that Joe is smart to work,” Foster maintained, “but that he is very improvident and is now in very bad hands.” (H H Foster to Col. A Rutherford, 30 Apr. 1866, in the same file.) In the same file is a letter of March 4, 1866, written by Joe Bright's wife, Polly, just days after her husband's appearance at the district superintendent's headquarters had failed to obtain their children. “I am Sorry that my husband the Father of my Children cannot get or have his one [own] Children,” she declared. “I do not See that any other person has a better right to them than him or me  we are able to suport and keep them  My husband has too good trads and is a hard working man and is industry drustress.” Explaining that she too would come to Wilmington to plead their case but “have not the money,” she asked the superintendent to “Send me a order to get my childrin” and “iff this letter is not a nouf lit me know and I will try and go next week and See you my Self.” “[T]he law is Sutch that thay cannot keep my Childrin with any Justis at all,” she insisted, adding in a postscript, “pleas give me justis in this mater  I need my Childrin So mutch to work.” (Polly or Mary Bright to Worthy Conel, 4 Mar. 1866.) The couple also tried the civil authorities, swearing before a Duplin County justice of the peace on May 4 that “Abraham Mathews” of Sampson County, Polly's former owner, had seven of their children and claimed two others, all of whom he said had been bound to him. The parents protested “that they are able to mantain them theirselves and that they have never given their assent to have them bound or to be taken from them in any way.” The justice of the peace described Joe Bright as “a free fellow” and his wife as a former slave. (Affidavit of Jo Brite and Polley Mathews, 4 May 1866.) The very next day, in an endorsement on Joe Bright's April 26 letter, Colonel Rutherford issued the following instructions: “The children of Joe Bright will be returned to him immediately as it appears by these papers that he never gave his consent to their being bound apprentices.” On May 14 Captain Foster reported in a final endorsement that he had given Joe Bright a letter authorizing him to take the children and had sent orders to W. A. Matthis to deliver them to their father.

1. A recently enacted state law declared “all persons of color . . . entitled to the same privileges and subject to the same burthen and disabilities as by the laws of the State were conferred on, or were attached to, free persons of color, prior to the ordinance of emancipation, except as the same may be changed by law.” As a result, discriminatory provisions of the old apprenticeship law remained in force. They required the apprenticeship of “the children of free negroes” when the parents were not married or “do not habitually employ their time in some honest, industrious occupation.” The new law added a proviso “[t]hat in the binding out of apprentices of color, the former master of such apprentices . . . shall be entitled to have such apprentices bound to them in preference to other persons.” (An Act Concerning Negroes and Persons of Color or of Mixed Blood, 10 Mar. 1866, Public Laws of the State of North Carolina, Passed by the General Assembly at the Session of 1866 [Raleigh, N.C., 1866], pp. 99–105; Revised Code of North Carolina [Boston, 1855], pp. 77–78.) In a circular issued on February 16, 1866, however, the Freedmen's Bureau assistant commissioner in the state, Colonel Eliphalet Whittlesey, had warned bureau agents that, under state law, the apprentice system was being abused, and he had therefore instructed them “to exercise the utmost care that none except orphans, or children whose parents give their consent, be bound out as apprentices.” “Families should not be separated,” the circular declared. “Parents should not be deprived of the services of their children. Children over fourteen years old should not be apprenticed. They are capable, if orphans, of supporting themselves as hired laborers, if not orphans they may assist in the support of their parents.” (Circular No 1, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen &c, Hd. Qrs. Asst. Comsr. State of N.C., 16 Feb. 1866, vol. 28, General Orders & Circulars Issued, series 2457, NC Assistant Commissioner, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands, Record Group 105, National Archives.)

Published in Land and Labor, 1866–1867, pp. 911–13, and in Families and Freedom, pp. 223–24.