By Purnell Pinkney
In observance of Black History Month, this article deviates from the customary socio-political commentary and instead describes an historical event which affected the lives of a large number of African Americans at the dawn of their statutory freedom in January 1863. It is intended to animate the lives of our African American ancestors and to document a single occurrence in their valiant struggle for human dignity, family cohesion and constitutional justice in their native land…the United States of America.
A DESPERATE ALLIANCE
As the long, bloody American Civil War entered its most critical phase, President Abraham Lincoln issued a January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. This 5 page handwritten document forever changed the human landscape of the United States and ushered in an era of social chaos and political violence that lasted up through the 1960s.The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “ are, and henceforward shall be free.” Lincoln’s wording of the order indicated that there were states not in rebellion against the Union. Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri and the newly created West Virginia were assigned the status of what came to be known as “border states.” Maryland remained in the Union, albeit barely. To assure Maryland’s continued allegiance to the Union, President Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus and arrested 30% of its state legislature’s members, forcing cancellation of its sessions due to lack of a quorum.
During the Civil War, 60,000 troops from Maryland fought for the Union and 25,000 joined the Confederate army. With this situation and other signs of Southern sympathy evident in the state, Lincoln decided to post a Union Army regiment in the city of Baltimore for the duration of the war. Maryland had to remain in the Union or Washington D.C. would be surrounded by Confederate states and separated from the protection of Union military forces.
With secessionist sentiment in Maryland firmly suppressed, Lincoln turned his attention to more pressing matters. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which in effect, granted freedom to “some” slaves at the time of its enactment …but not to “all” of the slaves in America. That peculiar situation, partial liberation, posed a unique set of circumstances for the state of Maryland. Though slaves were free, according to the law, only the slaves in the Confederate states were actually being released from servitude. Clearly, it was just a matter of time before emancipation arrived in Maryland. Political leaders in the state sensed that the dismantling of the state’s slave-based economic system was in progress and braced for its impact by devising an incredible scheme. The desperate plot required the cooperation of then MD Governor, Augustus W. Bradford, the Maryland State Legislature in Annapolis, local sheriffs in each county of the state and the Maryland Courts; the elements of a state-wide conspiracy quietly gathered behind closed doors.
On September 22, 1862, President Lincoln indicated his intention to abolish slavery issue by announcing his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. Once and for all he was prepared to established that slavery was at the root of Civil War; a conclusion that the slaves had reached from the beginning of the conflict. Lincoln’s announcement sent shockwaves through the slave-owning plantation class in Maryland. With an economy firmly resting upon free labor and unrestrained control of a captive labor force, the state’s aristocracy faced unparalleled financial disaster if radical and sudden changes to that arrangement became law. The impending emancipation of Maryland’s slaves meant that a labor crisis of unprecedented proportion was rapidly bearing down on the suddenly vulnerable plantation class. A way of economic and social life generations in the making now faced unexpected and imminent collapse.
At risk, was the cumulative wealth of generations of inherited and acquired assets produced from an abominable system of chattel slavery. Most people in the commonwealth never knew a different way of life. There was no way that the Maryland aristocracy could stand by and allow the means of their own impoverishment to unfold unresisted and by way of a statute that they considered an illegal intrusion into property rights.
The governing elite of Maryland had slightly more than three months to devise a plan to counter what seemed to be the certain issuance of a general emancipation order by President Lincoln. But how can an entire slave work force be replaced on short notice? The solution to this and other equally important questions strained the ability of the white political/economic ruling class to think rationally and critically. In the face of a threat to the planter-class way of life that was unimaginable in the recent past, Maryland’s elites turned to what they knew held their slavocracy together; brute force. Almost reflexively, a contingency plan was devised to coerce the blacks in the state to submit to the will of the white power elites in the state. This would be a struggle against the Federal government, against the human impulse for freedom and potentially against the armed might of the Union Army.
Poor whites, who were generally held in disdain by the plantation class, watched the dilemma unfold in bewilderment. Many of them were convinced that rich whites who had for so long viewed them with contempt, were now being forced out of their lofty positions at the top of the economic ladder. This underclass of poor whites lacked the skills, the will and the numbers to replace the labor of the black slave class. Free blacks, who for various reasons had been manumitted by their owner, had long been marginalized within the slave system. Their movement was proscribed and they were routinely forced to work at jobs that did not compete with whites. They too were wary of the idea of a general emancipation; uncertain of how they would be situated in a wage-based, free market economy.
Maryland’s primary cash crop in the 1800’s was tobacco. This plant required manual labor-intensive cultivation to get to market. An unpaid workforce, bound to the land was the ideal situation for the plantation owners. The only way to acquire and maintain such a group of workers was by chattel slavery; an institution already in place in the state, but facing inevitable dismantling by a Republican president, Abraham Lincoln. To salvage some remnant of the reprehensible, but lucrative, slave system—an alternative arrangement needed to be hastily constructed. Under the pressure of time constraints, the Maryland State Legislature, Governor Augustus W. Bradford, County Sheriffs and State Judges conspired to counter any potential federal prohibitions against slavery by corrupting the purpose and authority of the State of Maryland’s Orphans Court. The plan these “border-state” conspirators agreed upon was cunning, but ill-conceived; yet also revealing in that it exposed the level of desperation that the slave-owning class had reached in their effort to maintain power.
A MOST DESPICABLE ACT
With statutory slavery in the final stages of dissolution and a bloody civil war raging, former masters in many instances thought that former slaves would remain loyal to “old master and old mistress.” Slavery had held together the parts of the old society, but all of that was now dissolving. Former slave owners vainly searched for ways to salvage the essence of the old chattel system. All the while slaves were abandoning plantations in droves. Those too old to leave were sometimes being forced off of the plantations and forced to fend for themselves as they faced an uncertain future thrust upon them by spiteful former owners. These unfortunate souls faced starvation, declining health, disorientation and a lingering death. The white plantation class, nonetheless, held to the view that the customs and rituals of slavery still prevailed and they intended to demonstrate their commitment to that conviction. The inevitable showdown between the abolitionists of the Republican Party and the slave owning class of the Democratic Party careened toward a critical mass.
“For on the very first day of emancipation (January 1, 1863), all over the state, they (former slave owners) began seizing freedmen’s children and whisking them off to the county seats, sometimes by the wagonloads, to be bound as apprentices to the county orphan courts. Slaveholders who had opposed emancipation with the prediction that ex-slave children would be thrown into destitution hastened to make liars of themselves by apprenticing even infants…though they generally preferred children old enough to work. The old apprenticeship laws allowed binding to suitable masters and mistresses with the parents’ consent, while giving the orphans’ court discretion to act without the consent of parents adjudged vagrant or thought not to be inculcating proper ‘habits of industry.’ Whatever scant protection black parents and children might have expected from such an open-ended law, conceived in the first instance as a means of subordinating free black people in a slave society, went by the board in the scramble that followed emancipation. Judges did not even bother to hear testimony concerning the parents’ ability to care for the children; and the fact that the children; and the fact that masters and mistresses frequently hired the apprentices out and appropriated their wages sufficiently contradicted the argument that the children were without means of support. In fact, some of the children at the time of their seizure had already entered agreements, approved by their parents, to work for wages. Parents attempting to reclaim from apprenticeship children from whom they had been separated in slavery were apt to be confronted with the contention that, as they had not cared for the children before, they had no claim to them now.” Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century – Barbara Jeanne Fields, Yale University Press, 1985.
As late as 1873, some black ex-slave parents were still trying to regain custody of their own children. As word of this outrageous perversion of the legal system in Maryland made its way into Washington D.C., the Freedmen’s Bureau began to file suits against former slave owners asking the courts to reverse rulings based on Writs of Replevin; demands by slave owners for the return of their human property. Parents who summoned the courage to appear in court in defense of their children were sometimes physically attacked with impunity by former owners or constables in the court room, in full view of sitting judges. These county judges became the main obstacles to productive, meaningful lives of ex-slaves through a concerted effort to as much as possible create a system of semi-servitude that mirrored the pre-emancipation era. As the influence and authority of the federal Freedmen’s Bureau waned, oppression of Maryland’s emancipated slaves increased. Even an October 1867 United States Circuit Court ruling with Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presiding, which established that any distinctions between white and black apprentices was illegal, failed to liberate illegally indentured black children.
“(Slave) Masters had always claimed the labor of the slaves by right of personal ownership, not as a commodity which, belonging to the slaves themselves, had to be purchased from them and regulated through the impersonal mediation of the market” – Barbara Jeanne Fields, Yale University Press, 1985.
THE AFTERMATH: “STANDIN YERE WONDRIN”
It took several hundred years, horrific bloodshed and the collective prayers of untold numbers of black slaves for the mercy of God to reach out and deliver slaves in America from perpetual bondage. Release from the clutches of slavery was the miracle that slaves in Maryland had plaintively beseeched their creator to grant them. When on January 1, 1863, that “great day of Jubilee” finally came in Maryland, its arrival was accompanied by an outrageous insult from slave owners desperate to maintain vestiges of the old chattel slavery system. The plantation class needed an immediate source of free labor. In an effort to meet that need, a cabal of planters, legislators, judges and law enforcement officers, the powerbrokers of the state of Maryland, secretly mobilized to arbitrarily separate black children from their black parents and relatives. Confused, powerless and overwhelmed by immobilizing sadness, these parents were forced to comply with the demands of the Maryland authorities or face the physical brutality of the enforcement arm of the government in the form of local sheriffs or constables. The elation of emancipation almost immediately gave way to dreaded recollections of the old bondage system. It was the U.S. government that had freed the slaves, so the former slaves naturally looked to the government for protection and intervention when they were abused or mistreated. Clearly, the forced apprenticing of black children qualified as maltreatment of the highest order. These black families appealed to the one agency in the U.S. government they most trusted to represent their interests; the Bureau of Refugees Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau.
In October 1865 the Freedmen’s Bureau was established by the “Radical Republican Congress” to aid, protect and provide for the 4 million ex-slaves in the United States. This federal agency represented freed blacks in legal matters and employment conflicts, as a sort of public defender advocate. As expected, this agency became the first line of defense for beleaguered black families in litigation against unscrupulous plantation owners. The stakes were high, as this was a matter of survival for the former slave owners, and a case of long awaited new beginnings for black Americans.
Black Marylanders braced themselves and settled into long-term legal struggles with their former white masters. But a brutally racist court system generally proved to be an insurmountable legal obstacle to full relief. With the help of the Freedmen’s Bureau, any of these black families seeking custody of their own children had to file cases against the state; an almost medieval process in the 1800’s. Rather soon, the Freedmen’s Bureau lost enthusiasm for the child apprenticing cases. For at the same time, Bureau agents were confronted with the task of feeding, sheltering, providing health care and reviewing labor contracts for hundreds of thousands of ex-slaves; a monumental job. In a few frustrating years, rather than pursue these cases to a legal conclusion, the agency began to recommend that illegally apprenticed black children remain in place so as to avoid lengthy litigation. As a result, criminal complaints of illegal apprenticeships from black parents remained on the Bureau’s books as late as 1870, with the Maryland state legislature still addressing the issue in 1876.
“Apprenticeship in Maryland not only faced opposition from the national state (as represented by the Freedmen’s Bureau) but more importantly, quickly outlived its usefulness to the former (slave) owners who had at first seized eagerly upon it. As a means of helping them (the slave owning class) cope with the reality of emancipation, its function was transitional. As a direct device for the compulsion of (free) labor, its scope had been limited all along.”- B.J. Fields, p.153.
Former slave owners eventually realized that the estimated 2,519 (black) children apprenticed by coercion between November 1864 and April 1867 could never replace the more than 87,000 slaves in Maryland who were freed at the time of emancipation. The ex-slaves had no interest in why their former masters would demand the right to exploit the labor of defenseless minors. The former slaves only knew that their children were being forcefully taken from them.