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A First-Hand Account of the Devastating Condition of the South During Reconstruction

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A First-Hand Account of the Devastating Condition of the South During Reconstruction

By Arthur Brown, a soldier in the Freedmen's Bureau

My name is Arthur Brown, a soldier assigned to aid the post war transition process in Mississippi and North Carolina as part of the Freedmen's Bureau, and I'm writing this account to bring attention to the devastating condition in which I find the south. It has now been two and a half years that I have been restlessly trying to calm the general public and bring this society back to order. Unfortunately regardless of all the efforts of my colleague's and me, it's a much slower progress than expected, due to many different reasons, the strongest of which are the still ever-present strong racial prejudice and feel of defeat that the whites of the South are experiencing.

First I would like to address the devastating atmosphere in which I found myself when I first came to North Carolina. Hundreds of white refugees and thousands of blacks were found in the different towns we were visiting, occupying every hotel and shanty, living on the rations which we provided, without employment and any comfort. My army general, Oliver Otis Howard, saw many people die without proper food and medical supplies. We both witnessed many people crammed in every depot to receive their rations. The street in front of our office was often blocked with vehicles on which people had come from all around the country to receive their rations. Many were whites but the majority was the freedmen who got here either by wagons or on foot. The rations we gave barely lasted until they reached home. This was just the beginning. From here on my account only gets worse.

One of the problems that both Commander Carl Schurz and I have noticed from the very beginning is the terrible situation that the southern soldier's found themselves in after the war. Unlike the northern soldiers, which were welcomed to a prosperous community with jobs awaiting them, the soldiers of the south came to destroyed homesteads, devastated farms, and families in distress. Overall, the exhausted community had little to offer them. It hurts us to see fellow soldiers in such a struggle.

Another struggle I constantly witness is the transition into the free labor system. One issue is that African American's associate work with slavery and freedom with rest because they have been slaves all their life and witnessed free people doing nothing and they ask the question "What have we gained by freedom if we are to work, work, work!" This topic has been addressed by Clinton B. Fisk who counseled the freedmen in the benefits of the free labor system and how it actually gave the worker a choice in their job and paid them for their work. The second part of the issue was that the whites don't want to hire the freedmen partly because of prejudice and partly because they don't have money to pay them for their work.

Another very strong barrier that gets in the way of the transition process is the emergence of the "Black Codes." Just recently here in Mississippi there were 11 Sections to the so called "Civil Rights of Freedmen" which actually restricted many civil rights of the freedmen. For instance, Section 7 states that any freedman that quits his place of employment before the expiration of his term (without a good cause) can be arrested and forced back to the employer and the runaway must pay the officer for every mile from place of arrest to the place of employment. This is absolutely ridiculous! What kind of freedom is it when people don't have a right to choose if they want to change the place of employment at any given moment? What makes it worse is that the employee forfeits his wages for that year. Another example can be found in the Mississippi Vagrancy Law section 2 which states ". . . All freedmen free negroes, and mulattoes in this State, over the age of eighteen years, found . . . with no lawful employment or business or found unlawfully assembling themselves together either in the day or nighttime, shall be deemed vagrants, and, on conviction thereof shall be fined . . . and imprisoned."

I would also like to mention the terrible rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the devastating effects it has had on the general public. It instilled a strong sense of fear in the hearts of both whites and freedmen. As I heard from Albion Tourgee, a judge in Tennessee, the KKK use violence as their method to try to bring a stop to the reconstruction process and the improvement of conditions for African Americans. Tourgee recalls many men and women coming to him and saying "the Ku Klux Klan came to my house last night and beat me almost to death, and my old woman right smart, and shot into the house, 'bust' the door down, and told me they would kill me if I made complaint." This is one

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