Friday, March 16, 2012

The Attack on Sarah Jane Bryant (July 8, 1866)

The road along which the Bryant girls were walking.
It was dirt at the time. The attack scene is just north of Cottondale.
The event considered by many Jackson County residents to have been the first unprovoked sign of tension between the races during the Reconstruction era was an alleged attack on Sarah Bryant by two freedmen, Henderson and Lewis White. (Note: The family name is spelled Bryan on some documents, Bryant on others).
Although she was described by one recent writer simply as a "white woman," Sarah Jane Bryant in reality was still a young girl. The teenage daughter of a poor laborer named James Bryant, she was one of at least nine children raised by a man credited on the 1860 census with a personal worth of only 75 cents.

These were not wealthy people. They were not politically involved. They had not owned slaves. They worked hard and struggled to survive. There is no indication in the county's records that they were anything other than law abiding people. And in the hard times immediately after the War Between the States, they undoubtedly were suffering far more than they had during the years before the war.

Sarah and her nine year old sister had gone to visit her brother, who lived nearby. It was a Sunday afternoon and the two girls stayed until an hour before dark and then started walking the two miles back their home along the old Campbellton Road. When they were within one-quarter mile of their own house, they saw two black teenagers approaching them. They had never seen them before.

Old tree near the scene of the attack.
In her testimony given in open court on October 31, 1866, Sarah described what happened next. The testimony was written out by hand as the girl spoke:

...It took place a quarter of a mile from home in an old field. They was very close when she first saw them. Prisoner [i.e. Henderson White] first stood and begged, then caught hold of her. They were black and ragged. He exposed part of his person, came in contact. She tried to keep from it. Prisoner didn't do any thing till the other threw her down.

Sarah identified both Henderson and Lewis White in court and pointed out Lewis as the one that had thrown her down. Both, she said, then raped her. Her mother, Margaret, testified that she heard Sarah "crying and moaning before she entered the yard." She also told the jurors that her daughter had been "in delicate health for two years past and sickly."

Word of the attack spread through the community and an immediate search was launched for the assailants. The victim's brother, John H. Bryant, found the suspects at a nearby farm. He tried to question them, but Henderson White refused to say anything. John then went to the Justice of the Peace with his father, who signed an affidavit swearing that his "daughter, 14 years, was caught on the 8th day of this month and ravished and that he has good evidence that Henderson White and Luis White... did commit the offence there."

With a warrant in hand, the two men went back to try to arrest Henderson and Lewis, but the former refused to go with them. According to John's testimony, Henderson told him that, "They had no body to prove he had done the act." They then summoned Captain Alexander R. Godwin, who lived nearby. He had commanded the Campbellton Cavalry, a home guard unit, during the war and was generally regarded as the leading man in the community. Godwin examined Henderson himself and testified against him before the Jackson County Grand Jury a few days later.

Before the grand jury could act and he could be taken into custody, Henderson White was accused of raping another teenage girl.
George S. Hawkins
Defense Attorney for Henderson and Lewis White

The trial of the two teenaged freedmen was held in Marianna on October 31, 1866. They were defended by one of the most prominent attorneys in Florida, former U.S. Congressman George S. Hawkins. Testimony was heard from three prosecution and three defense witnesses and the case then went to the jury.

Henderson White was found guilty of rape and sentenced to hang, but Hawkins had been able to create reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors with regard to Lewis White and he was acquitted.

The testimony from the case was included in thousands of lost documents from the Reconstruction era recently discovered in Jackson County. It reveals that despite the heinous crime committed against their daughter, the Bryants tried to follow the law and allow the judicial system to function. The suspects were provided with an attorney. In fact, they were provided with the services of one of Florida's most notable attorneys and the testimony reveals that he waged a strong defense on their behalf.

Although they were tried by an all white jury, it is significant that the testimony of the three black witnesses was carefully considered and Lewis White, who like Henderson had been charged with raping a white victim, was acquitted. He was still living in Jackson County years after the trial.

Sentenced to hang, Henderson White was granted a temporary reprieve by Florida's federally-appointed governor. That reprieve expired in March of 1867 and he was executed by hanging in Marianna.

The Bryant family left Jackson County after the trial and moved to to Clarke County, Alabama, where by 1870 James Bryant was farming and still trying to provide for his large family.

The trial itself is especially significant because it was the first time freedmen faced a post-war jury in Jackson County. The trial took place while local residents still had control of the judicial system and the outcome clearly demonstrates that they tried very hard to be fair and that the testimony of black witnesses was heard with the same consideration as that of white witnesses.

Control of the local courts soon would be ripped from the hands of the people of Jackson County and the Federal government would seize control of affairs in Florida and the county with an iron grip. The newly discovered records, however, raise serious questions as to what might have happened and, more importantly, what might have been avoided had Florida's citizens been allowed to continue their peaceful efforts to adapt their society to the new order of things in the years after the Civil War.

I will continue to post on the Reconstruction era in Jackson County soon, so be sure to check back often.


Anonymous said...

I think if people were hanged today for these type of crimes, the crime rate would fall.

Anonymous said...

I think if more people were hanged for these type of crimes, then there would be less of these type of crimes. It is amazing to me that there is so much history in our area.