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  • "Her Claim for Pension Is Lawful and Just"Representing Black Union Widows in Late-Nineteenth Century North Carolina
  • Brandi C. Brimmer (bio)

On November 4, 1895, a short article appeared in the New York Times about a black Union widow and her "pension attorneys," Frederick C. Douglass, a black claims agent (not related to the famous abolitionist leader), and Edward W. Carpenter, a white probate judge and the leading agent for black Union widows in North Carolina during the 1870s. The article, one of several celebrating the federal government's crackdown on fraud in the U.S. Pension Bureau, briefly summarized the case of Jane Hill, a fifty-five-year-old washerwoman charged with illegally collecting $2,400 from the federal government. Hill was sentenced to a year in prison for swearing she was the widow of a veteran who had served in the U.S. Colored Troops. As it turned out, the soldier was still living in a neighboring county. The article ended by lauding the "Government detectives" who had uncovered a "perfect nest of fraud" dating back several years, purportedly created by Douglass and Carpenter.1

Accusations of fraud in this investigation overshadow a complex network of business negotiations between claims agents and black Union widows that adds valuable insight into the evolving portrait of gender and class relations in late-nineteenth-century southern black communities.2 Pension officials had monitored Douglass's business practices since the 1880s. An influential community leader in New Bern, a port city in Craven County, Douglass was a self-described minister, teacher, barber, and farmer.3 Born a slave in the 1850s, Douglass primarily assisted poor black veterans and their families who lived in the region by filing their petitions for Civil War pensions. In his role as an approved claims agent for the U.S. Pension Bureau, a position that required certification by the Pension Office, Douglass argued for the legitimacy of his clients' marriages, highlighted their economic circumstances, and vindicated the claims of those unjustly removed from the pension rolls. Countering the published reports of fraud, he charged local Bureau examiners with abusing his clientele. To follow up on their suspicions, the Pension Office [End Page 207] dispatched a group of examiners to identify those who may have filed false claims and check up on the pension rolls. Bureau officials suspected that Douglass charged his clients illegal fees, forged documents, and made up "facts" in the applications he completed. Douglass, in turn, claimed that the government targeted him because he reported abuse by examiners in Craven County.

Recovering the networks of exchange between claims agents and black Union widows, begins in 1866, when federal lawmakers recognized the sacrifice of black soldiers who fought for the Union by extending financial support to their dependent families through the U.S. Pension Bureau. This policy opened up a fresh arena for newly freed black women to define and claim rights of citizenship for themselves. But in order to lay claim to widows' benefits, these women would have to navigate a complicated application process filled with evidentiary obstacles. To bolster their chances of securing benefits, black women regularly sought out the assistance of claims agents like Frederick C. Douglass and E. W. Carpenter to represent their cases.

Claims agents were crucial figures in the pension process who worked directly with women filing applications for survivor benefits. They helped disabled veterans and their dependent family members assemble witnesses, affidavits, and other evidence. They corresponded with Bureau officials in Washington. The U.S. Pension office required approved pension attorneys and claims agents to file a certificate authenticated by a judge of a U.S. Court, attesting to their "good moral character, … good repute … to render such claimant valuable service."4

Although often used interchangeably at the time, pension attorneys and claims agents were not synonymous terms. Pension attorneys practiced law and litigated cases as a professional practice; claims agents often represented cases within the Bureau but not outside of it. As a catchall term, "claims agent" obscures a range of tasks, services, and negotiations critical to the pension process but that the Pension Office did not consider part of an agent's "job." While claims agents...


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