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Freedmen's Convention (1866 : Raleigh, N.C.)
Minutes of the Freedmen's Convention, Held in the City of Raleigh on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th of October, 1866
Raleigh: Printed at the Standard Book and Job Office, 1866.


Items summarized here:

North Carolina's use of slaves and its participation in the slave trade have been well documented. Beginning in the late 1600s and early 1700s, North Carolina employed slave labor ("Growth"). Although the difficult-to-navigate Outer Banks kept much of North Carolina from participating fully in the slave trade, Wilmington, North Carolina did become an active trading port, and "blacks in Wilmington outnumbered whites 2 to 1" by the 1800s ("Growth"). The first laws used to control slaves were enacted with the North Carolina Slave Code of 1715 ("Growth"). North Carolina's Slaves and Free Persons of Color. An Act Concerning Slaves and Free Persons of Color, published in 1855, serves as a compilation of laws meant to govern the use, trade, and monitoring of human commodities, ranging from the mid-1700's to the date of publication. Eleven years after this publication, following the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, the Minutes of the Freedmen's Convention, Held in the City of Raleigh, on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th of October, 1866, documents the meeting of freedmen attempting to ameliorate the effects of North Carolina's—and the United States'—participation in human bondage.

The first section of North Carolina's Slaves and Free Persons of Color. An Act Concerning Slaves and Free Persons of Color describes how the state responded, in the early 1800's, to a federal bill Thomas Jefferson signed into law in 1807 (to take effect in 1808). The bill responded to the Constitution of the United States, which "stipulated that Congress would not be able to prohibit the importation of slaves before 1808 [just over twenty years after the signing of the Constitution], although they may tax them" ("Abolition"). Although many abolitionists pushed for a national end to slavery by the 1808 deadline, or at the very least an end to the slave trade (including the manumission of any illegally imported slaves), the resulting federal law was significantly less forceful and not consistently enforced. Any imported slaves were to be seized, but their fate depended on the state and local authorities; in the South, many slaves were simply auctioned off, back into slavery, while the profits went to the state or jurisdiction instead of the importer.

Indeed, as can be seen in this Act, North Carolina required that "each and every negro, mulatto, or person of colour, imported into this state from any foreign port or place, for a slave, or to be held to service of labor" be "sold and disposed of for the use of the State" (p. 1). The county sheriff was responsible for the seizure and "public sale . . . to the highest bidder" of the seized individuals (p. 1). If the "negro, mulatto or person of colour . . . shall abscond or so conceal him or herself that he or she cannot be taken by the sheriff, said sheriff may offer a reward not exceeding one-fifth part of the value" of said person (p. 1). The reward was to be paid to the capturer out of the profits from the upcoming sale. Sheriffs were also allowed to retain "six per centum on the gross proceeds of such sale" for their services, as well any costs for rewards, maintenance, and advertising (p. 1).

The Act also set forth ways to deal with illegally imported slaves from free states, runaways who would not reveal their owners, and the allowable terms for hiring out jailed slaves for State profits. The Act demands that "keepers of ferries within this State . . . give immediate passage to all constables, and their assistants" in pursuit of runaways (p. 3). Recovered runaways could be sold for the profit of the state if they were "confined in any jail for the space of twelve months," and their apprehension was advertised "in the State Gazette, at least six months" (p. 3).

Beyond regulating the treatment of new and runaway slaves, the Act also dictated the day-to-day rules affecting slaves. For example, any slave found "guilty of producing any forged free pass or certificate" was subjected to "as many lashes on his bare back, not exceeding thirty-nine, as the . . . justice may in his discretion direct" (p. 3). Escaped slaves who kill "cattle and hogs" or commit "other injuries" to survive while absconding were to be immediately called out for surrender (p. 3). If they failed to surrender, it became "lawful for any person . . . to kill and destroy such slave or slaves, by such ways and means as he shall think fit, without accusation or impeachment of any crime for the same" (p. 3). Slaves were prohibited from carrying guns or weapons, even for hunting, or both they and their owner faced punishment. Slaves were also prohibited from raising livestock, preaching in public, selling liquor, hiring out their time, teaching or attempting to teach "any other slave to read or write," and playing any "game of cards, dice, nine-pins, or any game of hazard or change, for any money, liquor, or any kind of property" (p. 4).

Any slaves found guilty of conspiracy or insurrection faced death or transport to another state (p. 5). Any free person who participated in "any conspiracy, rebellion or insurrection of the slaves," including the procurement of weapons, "shall be adjudged guilty of a felony and shall suffer death without benefit of clergy" (p. 5). The Act dictated where and when slaves could be tried for other offenses, both large and small. Slaves, however, as well as "all negroes, Indians, mulattoes, and all persons of mixed blood, descended from negro and Indian ancestors, to the fourth generation inclusive . . . whether bond or free, shall be deemed and taken to be incapable in law to be witnesses in any case whatsoever, except against each other" (p. 6).

Should a North Carolina resident wish to emancipate his slaves, he must file a petition in one of the Superior Courts; the Courts would grant the request only if the requestor had given public notice of his intentions, provided "bond with two securities . . . payable to the State of North Carolina, in the sum of one thousand dollars for each slave" in order to ensure the slave's proper behavior in the state upon emancipation (p. 7). Regardless of the payment, however, freed slaves had 90 days to "leave the State of North Carolina, and never afterwards come within the same" (p. 7). Failure to leave the state, or any return to the state, would result in the arrest of the freed slave; if found guilty of violating the terms of his or her emancipation, the freed slave could be "ordered to be sold" back into slavery (p. 7). Slaves freed in other states, or any other "free negro, or mulatto" were prohibited from migrating to North Carolina (p. 8). Any "free negro or person of colour who may be a resident of this State" was prohibited from leaving the state for more than 90 days; upon leaving for more than 90 days, that person's residency was revoked and he or she could no longer legally return, provided he or she had not been unable to return due to "sickness or other unavoidable occurrence" (p. 9). Any free "person of colour" was also required to avoid "idleness and dissipation" in order to avoid arrest and a subsequent "term of time to service and labour" (p. 8).

The Act covers almost every element of a slave or freedman's life before emancipation; it is perhaps unsurprising, then, that meetings such as freedmen's conventions were necessary for decades following emancipation as men and women attempted to navigate a difficult political and social climate that was resistant to change. The Minutes of the Freedmen's Convention, Held in the City of Raleigh, on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th of October, 1866 documents the day-to-day operations of a group dedicated to equal rights.

The meeting is called to order by "the officers of the State Equal Rights League" (p. 3). Much of the document includes details surrounding each and every elected or appointed office within the Convention; scholars interested in the positions available and their holders will find the extensive detail useful. The document also includes the names and some details of every speaker at the Convention. For example, a man named Dr. Brown addresses the audience concerning "Education and Equality before the law" (p. 4). The Minutes also contains the rules of the Convention, including meeting times, the establishment of a quorum, and the ways to deal with intoxicated members.

The document contains a list of all members of the "State Equal Rights League Convention of Freedmen" (pp. 6-7). The Minutes also contains the full text of letters sent to the officers in response to speaking invitations. Governor Jonathan Worth, for example, declares his desire to speak at the Convention and calls the meeting "in every way, praiseworthy" (p. 9). His later visit to the Convention is also documented; his talk focuses on "morality education and religion" as he "urges the people to acquire habits of industry, sobriety and honesty" (p. 13). He also speaks "touchingly on the late war" and "urges upon them the importance of acquiring knowledge and wealth" (p. 13). Other invited speakers decline, but offer letters of support in return, which are also included within the minutes.

The Minutes also records the "Constitution of the Educational Association of the Colored People of North-Carolina" (p. 12). The Association works to "aid in the establishment of schools, from which none shall be excluded on account of color or poverty and to encourage unsectarian education in this State especially among the freedmen" (p. 12). Beyond education, the Convention focuses on "outrages . . . being committed" against freedmen, including "killing, shooting, and robbing the unprotected people, for the mosoffence at all" (p. 14). The Convention, in response, urges "auxiliary leagues" for all "colored people in every county," the endorsement of "Freedmen's Bureau bill, Civil Rights bill," and a Constitutional Amendment, and vigorous protest where needed (p. 14).

Much of the document contains reports from various delegates around the State. Reports vary widely as some note "a bright future," while others document that "the (colored) people . . . are most shamefully treated by the whites" (pp. 18, 17). Also included within the text is an "Address of the Freedmen's Convention to the White and Colored citizens of North Carolina," in which the convention implores "fellow citizens" to not ignore the "sufferings and the outrages heaped upon us" (p. 26). The writers call for an end to "taxation without representation," "equal rights," and a "shield" from the "murderous hand" of those who sought to hurt the recently freed men and women (p. 26). In return, the freedmen proclaim "Oh, North-Carolina, the land of our birth, with all they faults we love thee still" (pp. 26-27).

Works Consulted: "Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade in the United States," TED [Trade and Environment Database] Case Studies, 21 November 2010; "The growth of slavery in North Carolina," from "Slavery in North Carolina," Learn NC, UNC Libraries, 14 November 2010.

Pat Horn

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