Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Freedmen, Crime and the Courts in the Summer of 1866

Jackson County during the Reconstruction era
The railroad was merely projected at that time.
Continuing with my discussion of the Reconstruction era in Jackson County, the summer of 1866 was a time of growing discontent among the people of all classes.
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
According to what the girls told their father when they finally made it home, the two men grabbed the older of the two and dragged her off the road into an adjacent field. Then they took turns raping her as the younger girl watched in fear nearby. By the time the girls made it home, the 9 year old was badly frightened and the 14 year old was badly injured.

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 freedmen identified only as "Robin" was arrested on a warrant issued by Benjamin Harrison Neel, a Justice of the Peace in eastern Jackson County. The alleged crime involved default of bail in another case and Sheriff W.H. Kimbell placed Robin in the Jackson County Jail. On August 11th, however, the freedman petitioned Circuit Judge Allen H. Bush for a writ of habeas corpus.

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.

Emanuel Fortune
Freedman and State Representative from Jackson County
This ability by the freedmen to obtain justice in the local courts was demonstrated by other cases that summer. A freedman named William Beedy, for example, was indicted on charges of Assault & Battery and Carrying Secret Arms. Two of the men sitting on the grand jury that returned the indictment against him were not citizens of Jackson County and the case against Beedy was dismissed.

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.


Terry Sirmans said...

Fascinating! Thanks Dale.

Dale Cox said...

Thanks Terry!

Anonymous said...

Let us be honest about this, Emmanuel Fortune was the first black elected official in Jackson County and foremost the father of Timothy Thomas Fortune. This family was ran out of Marianna during the Reconstruction Era as the violent Ku Klux Klan wreaked havoc and unthinkable violence upon blacks during this period of political and social conscious. We talk about these white political figures in Jackson County as if they were moral and just when this is far from the truth if the story of the Jackson County War were told truthfully. Telling the truth in regards to history is not always pleasant, but with the resources that are available today to do quality research on topics like this why try to cover up the truth. After all, those people that perpetuated this violence are the ones that have to answer to these sins in the end, and I am sure many are now burning in hell for this.

Dale Cox said...

No one is trying to cover up the truth. I understand your point of view, but feel that it is unrealistic because you automatically assume one side was good and the other side was bad. The documentation indicates otherwise. There was good and bad on both side. Emanuel Fortune, contrary to your statement, was more at odds with Purman and Hamilton by the time he left Jackson County than he was with local whites. You should dig a little deeper into the situation that developed when the Republican Party began to fracture. The truth is out there.

Anonymous said...

I just read Daniel Weinfeld's excellent book on the Jackson County War. Apparently, there were two distinct events, the one Mr. Weinfeld described in his book, and the fictional one described in this blog.

Dale Cox said...

The information provided in this post is fully documented from court records. I can't speak to Mr. Weinfeld's book, but I can definitely speak to the documentation used in this writing. I'm sure the deputy clerks would be happy to allow you to review the original documents at your convenience. I consider them to be an accurate representation of what happened since the courts during Reconstruction were under the control of judges and clerks appointed by the occupation government. (P.S. You don't have to hide your name when you post. I will always be polite and cordial in my responses).