- The Bitter Fruit of Freedom: Struggles over Land, Labor, and Citizenship in the Age of Emancipation
Richard Parker and Henry Black refused to leave their home. Since early 1863, the freedmen had been farming a five-acre plot on the “Taylor farm” just outside of the city of Norfolk, Virginia, alongside Willoughby Point, the site of a landing of Union forces that led to the surrender of the city. Beginning in 1865, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands had administered the property, paying the former Confederate William E. Taylor a generous rental income, covering the cost of material, including lumber, as well as fish that were caught off the coast. In 1867, the farm was “restored” to Taylor, and the freedpeople living on the property were ordered to leave. Taylor’s pledge of loyalty to the United States enabled him to regain his lost land, but Parker and Black saw things differently.
In February 1869, Parker and Black were ordered to appear before the Norfolk County Court on a trespass complaint. They had repeatedly ignored removal orders. The following month, former Union General Benjamin Butler, now a Congressman from Massachusetts and strong advocate for civil rights, wrote a letter to the general in charge of the vicinity around Norfolk informing him of the history of the Taylor farm. Despite a considerable cloud of controversy dealing with his actions while in charge of New Orleans, Butler had been given command of the district that included Norfolk in November 1863. While Taylor was “absent shooting our soldiers, I took possession of his farm on behalf of the United States,” wrote Butler. Taylor, an unrepentant secessionist, had served at one time in the Confederate Army and later clerked in the Confederate War Office in Richmond. I “put on that farm a number of men and women whose fathers and brothers were off fighting our battles,” [End Page 118] maintained Butler. They “built up their little cabins and cultivated their little patches of ground and became honest and good citizens, which Taylor [would] never become.” Butler argued that the freedmen’s cultivation of the land gave them a right of ownership or, at the very least, a right to strike up a fair contract with Taylor to continue to farm. What was important to Butler was “loyalty.” However, with the “devilish spirit which animates all Rebels against the negroes,” Taylor refused to sell and “brought suits before the Rebel courts of Virginia to aid him in his work of vengeance.”1 The Massachusetts Congressman called for the case to be removed to U.S. District Court under the 1866 Civil Rights Act. The local commander in Norfolk, James Remington, received a letter a few days later expressing similar sentiments, urging a swift removal to the federal courts because it was impossible for the “colored men” to get a “fair trial” in Virginia. The “moment their suits are removed to the United States Courts,” a “compromise will be offered by the returned Rebel.”2 The Bureau, fearful of a backlash, failed to act. The arrival of the Freedmen’s Bureau may have helped to save lives, but as Jonathan Bryant argues in his essay in Bruce Baker and Brian Kelly’s pathbreaking After Slavery, “it also reestablished civil authorities, reinforcing the powers of the landowners and their managers” (p. 72).
The plight of Richard Parker and Henry Black is representative of the precarious situation millions of freedmen and women found themselves in during the aftermath of the Civil War. Their pledge of “loyalty” was not worth as much as that of a former Confederate looking to regain his land. Violence was a daily fact of life, and the federal laws that were enacted to help make the transition from bondage to freedom were often unenforceable. The path to freedom was often hampered by...