|Jackson County during the Reconstruction era|
The railroad was merely projected at that time.
The old establishment, still embittered from the war, reacted with resentment to the arbitrary decisions of Bureau Agent Charles M. Hamilton, particularly his invalidation of all labor contracts in the county. In striking down all existing contracts, Hamilton overruled not just the local courts, but the legislature and governor of Florida. Then by requiring both landowners and freedmen to pay him for document stamps he further infuriated them and speculation grew that he was lining his pockets at the expense of the people.
The middle class and poor whites were desperate. Hard currency had all but disappeared and the number of civil suits filed in the local court soared. Financing for agriculture and small business had dried up. Many of the women of this class were war widows and many of the surviving men had come home from the war either sick or disabled or both. The terrifying spectre of hunger stalked across the land.
|Col W.D. Barnes|
19th century lawyer
Among the freedmen, there was a mixture of sentiments. Some had continued to believe they would be given land by the government. They had been warned against these beliefs by the governor himself, but the dream had continued. As a result, many had not entered into labor contracts and now were hungry and destitute. Others wanted nothing to do with further labor and retreated into the pine woods where they established homes for themselves and barely survived.
These tensions, along with the increasingly heavy hand of the Federal government and the all but total inability to understand what the future might hold, led to increasing violence. The local courts, then still operating as they had during and before the war, tried to deal with the situation.
|Anderson Baker (left)|
A freedman still living in Jackson County in the 1900s
On June 19th, a freedman named Philip Boggs assaulted Mary J. Coley with "force & arms." Initially charged with Assault & Battery, he entered a guilty plea to simple assault and was fined $100. He was found carrying a pistol and pocket knife at the time of his arrest and additionally was charged with secretly carrying weapons. He entered a guilty plea to those crimes as well and was sentenced to spend one hour in the pillory.
Despite the fact that he entered guilty pleas to both crimes, Boggs would be pardoned by the state's Reconstruction governor the next year.
The most brutal crime of the summer, however, came on July 8th.
Two young girls were walking along a road not far from where today's town of Cottondale stands. The oldest was 14 and the youngest was nine. Two freedmen named Henderson White and Lewis White approached from the other direction.
|Dr. Theophilus West|
Jury member during Reconstruction
Their father went immediately to the proper authorities and swore out a complaint against Henderson and Lewis White. Before they could be arrested, however, Henderson was accused of raping another girl, this one 16 years of age.
The two eventually did stand trial and Henderson White was convicted. On October 17th he was sentenced to hang for his crimes, but the governor intervened and gave him a temporary reprieve.
(Note: I will take a closer look at the case against Henderson and Lewis White in my next post).
Many claims have been made about how freedmen were treated while the courts were still in the hands of the local people. Some have asserted that the former slaves could not obtain justice. A case that developed in July of 1866 provides interesting perspective on the matter.
|Benjamin Harrison Neel|
Justice of the Peace, 1866
A former member of the Marianna Home Guard, Judge Bush had been taken prisoner during the Battle of Marianna and carried away to a prison camp in Elmira, New York. He was part of the Confederate leadership of Jackson County and returned from Elmira particularly embittered against Northerners and the North in general.
Robin's petition was prepared and witnessed by Justice of the Peace Jno. F. Hughes:
The petition of Robin a freedman respectfully showith that your petitioner is confined by W.H. Kimbell unjustly (as he apprehends) in the jail of the County of Jackson in the State of Florida for some criminal or supposed criminal matter, which confinement is illegal & wrong.
Judge Bush agreed and on August 14th ruled that "said Robin [is] retained without any charge against him." The freedman was ordered to be released without delay.
The case is interesting in that it proves that freedmen such as Robin could receive fair treatment and beneficial rulings in the courts of Jackson County, where the sitting circuit judge was widely recognized for his pro-Confederate sympathies.
Freedman and State Representative from Jackson County
Boxes of newly discovered case files from the Reconstruction era also show that African American women began receiving justice through the courts during the time when the judicial system in Jackson County was still under local control. For the first time ever, cases were made against suspects on charges of assault, battery, rape and theft in which the victims were women who had once been held in slavery.
Freedmen were not yet allowed to serve on juries, but their testimony regularly was heard in court. In addition, the newly discovered records show that both judges and juries tried to be fair and honorable in their application of the law. Freedman convicted of Assault & Battery, for example, generally were fined between $50 and $100. White men convicted of Assault & Battery were fined the same. There were occasional exceptions, but fines, fees and jail terms were remarkably consistent.
The newly discovered files show that the courts of Jackson County made remarkable progress in the short time that former Confederates were in control during the first two years after the end of the War Between the States. A dark cloud, however, was looming on the horizon.
In my next post, I'll discuss in more detail the case that led to the hanging of Henderson White.