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The Freedmen's Bureau Online

Records of the Assistant Commissioner for the State of Virginia
Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865 - 1869.
National Archives Microfilm Publication M1048, Roll 59
"Narrative Reports of Criminal Cases Involving Freedmen, Mar. 1866 - Feb. 1867"

Bureau of R. F. & A. L.
Hd. Qts. Asst. Supt. Sub. Dist. No. 3
7th District, Va.
Rocky Mount, Franklin Co., Va.
October 31st, 1866

Bvt. Brig. Genl. O. Brown
A. A. A. Genl.


In compliance with Par VI Circular No. 10, C. S. Hd. Qts. Asst. Com. State of Va., I have the honor to make the following report of the manner in which said Order, by restoring to the State Authorities jurisdiction in criminal cases over colored persons, has resulted with reference to the interest of the latter in my Sub-District during the past month.

Before the County Court convened on Monday the 1st day of the month, no action to which a colored person was a party arose.

Before the Circuit Court which commenced on the 15th & adjourned on the 24th inst. were tried "Absalom Saunders," "Alexandra Walker," and "Gilpha and Susan Brown," all charged with Larceny. These cases were waiting to go before this court when I came here, but only the second party named, who could not procure bail, was in jail. He was sentenced to two years in the penitentiary. The first party had been tried at a previous term of the same Court, but his case went over in consequence of the jury not appearing. He was sentenced to one year in the penitentiary. The third & fourth parties were acquitted, the evidence against them not being conclusive. Each was well defended by able Counsel & all were treated with impartiality & fairness and the Law respecting their testimony was carried out ably and (illegible). In addition to the usual questions, the following was propounded by the Judge - "Gustavus A. Wingfield" - to each jury man in these trials and a negative reply obtained preparatory to his taking his seat - viz.: "will the fact of the prisoner being a Negro have any influence over your mind to prevent your dealing fairly and impartially with him?" - or words to that affect.

A Mr. Hodges Dillard, however - a notorious Lawyer of this place, employed in addition to the Attorney for the Commonwealth for the prosecution of the first party by John G. Meadows (a white man proved in Court to be of bad character, on whose complaint that the accused had broken into his house at night & stolen there from some meat and cotton the latter was arrested) - took advantage of the occasion in replying to the argument for the Defense, not to vindicate his clients reputation since that was impossible, but to ventilate his own Rebel proclivations & vent his splenetic disrespect and hostility towards the United States. Defendants Counsel - the prisoner had three lawyers - on rather plausible grounds, had set up the plea, that as some of the stuff - the cotton - said to have been stolen, did not belong to Meadows but had merely been left with him in trust; after really disposing of it himself he was now only striving to shift the offense on the shoulders of another in order to clear himself of a responsibility. But they also entreated the jury, should they deem the accused guilty, to take into consideration that he was but a poor ignorant Negro who had just recently emerged from a degrading state of slavery, and therefore should not be held strictly responsible as if he were thoroughly enlightened or had even since had more opportunity for fitting himself to his new sphere of life or changed social condition.

Mr. Dillard, of course applied himself to destroy the theory advanced; & after laboring very hard in that direction ridiculing the Counsel's latter remarks (illegible), he proceeded to announce that this case had, from its nature, attracted considerable attention; that it had been narrowly watched; and he understood that there was an "Emissary" of the Federal Government now present for the purpose of reporting the proceedings. He stated that every possible measure had been resorted to in order to get this Negro off, and admonished the jury that they must not be induced to believe that "Cuffey" was as immaculate & inoffensive a creature as the "Yankees" would have him thought; and that they - " the Yankees" - in breathing this ethereal bubble of freedom in the whole race had but left them the happy alternative to either starve & go naked or steal. When they did the latter it became a solemn duty to make severe examples of every one so offending in order to deter the rest from doing still worse. He said that unless this were done nothing would be safe either in Franklin County or anywhere else. That robbery, arson, rape & murder would become the order of the day throughout the already devastated & oppressed South. He wound up by conjuring the jury to by no means let the accused escape; to not fulfill the will & obey the mandates of their Masters; to not be intimidated but do their whole duty & send the prisoner not for one year only, but for five years to the Penitentiary &c &c.

It is very unfortunate that a presiding Judge tacitly allows such language to find free expression before him in his judicial capacity in a public Court of Justice that a W. P. Officer known to be present in the proper discharge of his proper and incumbent duty has not the right to claim protection from or resent the indignity offered him personally or the Government through him as its (not secret) agent or otherwise.

Several white persons were also tried before the same Court for Larceny & various other minor misdemeanors, but no other coloreds. One white man convicted of Larceny was sent to the Penitentiary for five years; and another charged with a like offense was acquitted.

A colored man and white woman were indicted by the Grand Jury on the 15th inst. for unlawfully cohabiting together, it is said, for the last twenty years; she having had several children by him; I understand she is a woman of property & owned several slaves. There were also some other whites indicted on other charges, but no more colored persons.

There were various cases of offenses committed by white against colored persons, that should have gone before the Grand Jury, but the latter not appearing, although previously instructed to, nothing could be done. In one instance I gave a Freedman "Leonard Jones," who on the day the Court convened complained to me that he had been beaten by his white employer - John H. Wade - who endeavored to first tie his hands together the better to inflict the punishment - a note to the Grand Jury; not naming him but simply stating that the bearer desired to lay his case before them in order to gain him admission; & desired him to find the clerk of the County Court, who would show him into the room. The clerk afterwards informed me that he handed in the note himself & told the Freedman to wait at the door, as he would probably be called - I have heard nothing of the case or the man since. As I have understood though that the white party concerned discovered the course the affair was taking, it is not unlikely that he found means to induce the complainant to forego his purpose.

It has been observed that very rarely do any cases of colored persons against whites come up before either the County or Circuit Courts. This is owing almost entirely to the fact that complaints of that class very seldom meet with that just & impartial consideration before the subordinate magistrates that it is presumed they would were they to succeed in getting any higher. There is where they hitch & just where the great difficulty exists. I am sorry to have it to say that as a general thing, the Justices of the Peace in my Sub District are not over well informed. They betray their lack of knowledge on almost every occasion. When this & the fact that a white person seems to be able to effect whatever he desire through them, is taken into consideration, it will be seen at a glance that at their hands if at no others, the Freedmen stand but a poor chance of obtaining justice.

I have never yet known of an instance where a Justice of the Peace has recognized a white man to appear for indictment for an offense, no matter how grave, committed against a colored person. Complaints by the latter, even where they may have been beaten, are almost invariably slighted. This happened in the instance of the man herein before mentioned who I endeavored to get before the Grand Jury. He before coming to me applied to a Magistrate, but was told by him that he did not know what to do, and he had better come to me. Another serious obstacle in the way of an indictment before a Grand Jury, where the colored complainant has to appear on his own responsibility, is the long period he has to wait before he can (illegible) the first step. And still others are the difficulty he often has to keep the appointed time of meeting in his mind, the probable trouble he may encounter in leaving his employment when the date arrives, and the liability then is of his overlooking the offense itself in the interim. All this is certainly very unfortunate; for I am convinced that it but operates to encourage a perseverance in a course that it is found can be pursued without impunity. To this intent then, it clearly tends to exercise a pernicious & demoralizing influence on the minds of the whites.

We hear nothing of assaults by the Freedmen being committed on white persons. Were one to attempt such a thing, or even to retaliate where he is himself assaulted, he would either be shot dead or unmercifully beaten & very likely afterwards thrown in jail, where it is probable he would remain until brought before the Court for trial. The reverse of such aggressions, however, is of common occurrence; & no matter how inhumanly or unmercifully the poor Freedmen may have been maltreated, he may consider himself lucky if he ever succeeds in getting the aggressor bound over to keep the peace thereafter for a time. To accomplish even this, I say, is most difficult. With or without this, the sole recourse for seeking redress by the advocacy of the Commonwealth is the "Grand Jury." In the absence of an indictment, civil proceeding, conducted by Counsel, involves so much expense & leaves so much in doubt at the same time as to nearly preclude their consideration; while, too, unthinking ignorance on one hand, and systematic intrigue on the other, often intervene to prevent their institution.

In my last report pursuant to Circular No. 10 I also stated an instance in which a colored woman named "Martha Wright" had been chained & hauled up by her hands to a tree with her feet barely touching the ground, by a Mr. "Daniel Padue" - white -- & kept in that condition from about 10 o'clock a.m. till near sun down; and I further explained what action I had taken in the matter. I have since been informed by "Wm. T. Wright," the Constable employed in the affair, that "Wm. Hopkins" the J. P. to whom I referred the complainant, had both the parties brought before him on warrants issued in favor to each against the other, when, on Padue making it appear that the woman had come on his place after she had been three times forbidden to do so &c, she was bound over to keep the peace; & although she proved clearly that she had been treated as alleged her charges against him was dismissed at her cost; and thus that outrage terminated. Of course, this woman should have presented her case before the "Grand Jury" but I presume she ignorantly concluded that having been bound over to keep the peace, she was deprived of all further action. I have heard nothing from her since I sent her to Mr. Hopkins.

In the latter part of last month "Harkless Harris" a freedman who had been at work on verbal contract for "John Foster" - white - from the 10th of the year, (occupying for the time, in part pay as per agreement, a small house & lot on the latter's land) left & went to Roanoke Co. to look for other work because Foster, accusing him of having stolen his supplies, had searched the house he occupied. Upon his leaving, Foster presented a bill of 26$ against him for rent of the House & Lot to a Magistrate who at once issued a "Distress Warrant" against every article of personal property the Freedman had at another place about five miles off from Foster's, at the time occupied by his wife and children. The warrant was placed in the hands of Constable "John A. Whitlow" who notwithstanding that the Freedman did not own anything but what was exempt by Law from levy, carried away every single article off of the premises, leaving not even a bed for the man's wife & children to lie in. She having appeared to me, I saw both the Constable & Foster & succeeded in retarding the sale of the articles, although they still held on to them. Shortly after, I gave a note to the Freedman himself, who had returned, to be given to the Constable, calling his attention to the law bearing on the matter, & stating that all Foster could do justly was to sue for breach of contract. I at the same time told the Freedman that if they sold, he should at once sue for recovery of value & damages. Still, a few days ago after he returned & informed me that the Constable would not give up the things until he had given his "bond" for the amount of the rent charged, which he was forced to do since he could not possibly see his family suffer for the want of a bed, if nothing more. I have advised him not to pay his "bond" & should the case come up for trial again, to appeal it to the County Court; & so we will see how that will come out.

I could multiply examples of injustice similar to the foregoing but will conclude with giving a (illegible) of several illustrations of the paucity of knowledge on the part of the Magistrates.

A short time ago a Freedman handed me a copy of a due bill that had been collected for him by a white man who had returned the money; and also another bill for work done & materials furnished as Blacksmith. I referred the case for action to a Magistrate, who being at the time on town, called on me to know what to do; I found it necessary to explain that unless Defendant could disprove the debt Plaintiff would be entitled to judgement in his favor.

I am General Very Respectfully
Your Obt. Servt.
W. T. DeKnight
1st Lt. VRC & Asst. Supt.
B. R. F. & A. L.