"What is Sport to You is Death to Us."

In 1867, African-Americans in Virginia stood up for their new political rights in the face of threats from their white neighbors.

The following is an excerpt from the new book "Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America," by Edward L. Ayers (2017). It is posted here with permission from W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

The United States remained unsettled in April 1867, two years after Appomattox.  The healing everyone hoped for had instead festered, the wounds of loss infected with accusations of betrayal.  Northern Republicans attacked white Southerners for refusing to admit sin as well as defeat, while Northern Democrats attacked Republicans for refusing to accept the end of the war as victory enough over the Confederacy.  White Southerners raged at Northern Republicans for supposedly reneging on the terms of reunion that Ulysses S. Grant had offered at Appomattox.  Former masters alternately lectured, patronized, bargained with, threatened, and assaulted the formerly enslaved people among whom they lived.  Black Southerners were hopeful and yet wary of all white people, for they had seen loyalties and priorities shift many times over the years since 1860.

The Repository, the Republican paper of Franklin County, admitted at the beginning of 1867 “that after two years of earnest effort, no common platform for the restoration of the rebellious States has been harmoniously devised.”  Proposals came forward from fellow Pennsylvanian Thaddeus Stevens, but “one portion of the House resisted it because it was too radical, others opposed it with equal earnestness because it was too liberal” to the former Confederates and so the proposals for a coherent reconstruction failed.  The Republicans admitted that “the longer this question is delayed, the more difficult will be its solution.”  If another year passed, “the struggle will be protracted beyond another Presidential election, with treason steadily growing more and more defiant and the breach between the two sections still widening.”  The Republicans had to find a way to enact a plan and Southern whites felt they had to find a way to stop it.[i]

Staunton’s Vindicator warned that the long delays by the Republicans had “driven the nation further and further from the prospect of quick reconciliation.”  With no plan for reconstruction, every action of the Republican-dominated Congress “has tended, if it was not designed to, widen the breach between the North and South, and render final re-construction more hopeless—to foment sectional discord, and especially to intensify the already embittered feelings of the Northern people, against the crushed and desolated South.”  A tremendous opportunity had been lost.  “The readiness and unanimity with which the South surrendered the great cause of our quarrel—African slavery—the great efforts she has made in her extreme poverty, to pay the heavy federal taxes—her ready submission to everything that has been required of her, short of degradation, proves the sincerity of her desire for re-construction.”   If Congress had only followed the example of Andrew Johnson, who in turn was following the example of Abraham Lincoln, “what a glorious nation this then would have been!”

That moment having passed, now white Southerners begged the “honest and virtuous masses of the North to come to our aid, and arrest the wild career of partisan passion and hatred, which seems to bear away in Washington.”  The South appealed to white Northerners’ “ancient affections—to the kindred blood that flows in their veins, and the many bonds of common interest that should bind us together.  We appeal to their magnanimity, as brave conquerors dealing with a brave and but prostrate foe.  We appeal to their self-interest.  We must be one people.”[ii]

In  February 1867, just as its congressional session was running out of time, the Republicans passed the Military Reconstruction Bill and overrode, on the same day it was issued, Andrew Johnson’s veto.  The bill divided the ten states of the former Confederacy (Tennessee had already been readmitted) into five districts under military control until they held elections for delegates to conventions to write new constitutions that ratified the Fourteenth Amendment and provided for black male voting.  African American men would be allowed to vote for those delegates and to serve as delegates; former Confederate leaders would not.  When those conventions had created new constitutions, the states could apply to Congress for readmission under their own civil governments.

The meaning of the new Reconstruction act immediately became clear in Staunton.  Two weeks after its passage, four hundred freedmen and two hundred white men filled the Augusta County Court House for a meeting on a Saturday evening in April.  “For the first time since the war our people fully realized the immense political revolution that has been forced upon the country,” editor W. H. Lynn of the Vindicator—elected secretary of the meeting—noted in his detailed and surprisingly supportive transcription of the proceedings.  The editors of the other two Staunton papers were in attendance as well.  “All classes were represented, and the best order prevailed during the meeting.” A freedman, Philip Roselle, “was unanimously elected chairman and took the Judge's seat, where he presided with a dignity and decorum that seemed, almost, to make the portrait of Chief Justice Marshall, just above him, smile with satisfaction!”

The freedmen had invited General John Echols to speak with them.  A Staunton native and Harvard graduate who had fought with Stonewall Jackson and continued throughout the rest of the war, Echols by 1867 led a successful law practice in town.  An imposing physical figure, Echols did not flatter his black listeners.  He had been disenfranchised for his role with the Confederacy and wanted no office from his audience, so he would tell them the truth.  “The history of the world gives us no record of a change so monstrous and so sudden—a few years ago 4,000,000 colored people had no political rights—now the position is changed, the result of a long, bloody and disastrous war has changed you from slave to freemen,” Echols marveled before the silent audience.  “You stand under the law as free, personally and politically, as the white man of every condition of society!”   Echols explained the provisions of the new law and then lectured his black audience.  He warned that they “would be told that the Northern people emancipated them, and that they should be grateful to them, and should vote with the Radicals.”  This was a lie, for “it was not the purpose of the Northern people to emancipate them—for three years after the war commenced the intention was not to do so, but the natural drifting of the war brought it about whether they desired it or not.”

No matter how it came, freedom had arrived, and now, remarkably, the vote.  Echols spoke as if he was “a colored man and advise you as such.  Don't mingle up with any party as a body, for that will be no profit to you.  Don't go as a class with the radicals for that makes a gulf deep and wide between you and your own people, and don't let it be said that you, as a class, are arrayed against the whites as a class.”  If the black men built up a radical party against the white majority of Virginia, they must acknowledge that the whites would have “every advantage in the contest.”   The general told the black men sitting before him to “let each one think and act for himself as a freeman should.  Every tub should stand on its own bottom.  Don't act like a flock of sheep.”

Echols, like other white Southerners talking to black people, abruptly pivoted to sentimentality when he thought logic might not work.  “Have you no love for those with whom you have been raised?,” he asked.  Echols professed his own “warmest affection for his servant boy and for the old colored woman who nursed him.”   The editor transcribing the speech thought the general “beautifully alluded to the ties which should bind the whites and blacks of the South together, in words that brought tears to many eyes.”

General Echols ended on a sterner note, warning against confiscation of property, “which would be a ruin to all, white and black.”  Asked whether “any honest colored man” would want the forty acres of which some had spoken, the audience heard “a very weak ‘yes’ from a back corner, whereupon a respectable colored man informed the house he was happy to say that man didn't belong to his community.”  The general, after counseling “honesty, sobriety, and purity of life,” encouraged education, work, and saving.  He ended with a strange amalgam of encouragement and apocalyptic warning:  “Take the course I have pointed out and you have it in your power to give an illustration of the regeneration of a race, such as the world never saw, and prosperity, and the highest position may be yours.  Follow any other, allow yourselves to be led astray; give way to feelings of bitterness and hatred and I can see but one fate for you—DESTRUCTION.”

Following General Echols, loud calls echoed in the court house for a number of black speakers.  Each of the four men called upon to speak had been enslaved and had gone before the Freedmen’s Bureau the year before to declare their marriages under slavery.  Benjamin Downey was married to Frances Ware and they had nine children; he had been born in Augusta, she in Washington, D.C.  Henry Davenport was married to Lucynda Lett.  He was a gardener, born in Augusta, and she was from nearby Rockingham; they had no children listed.  James Scott was married to Esther Crawford, both from Augusta County, and they had two children.  Philip Roselle was married to Fanny Jones.  He was a butcher, born in Augusta; she was also a native and they had four children.  All four men lived in Staunton.  Unlike many other counties in Virginia and in the South, previously enslaved men rather than men who had been free before led the campaign for political rights in Augusta.

Henry Davenport, for his part, “was happy to say the day had come for the first time for the colored and white man to meet together upon equal terms.  God help us to live together as brethren!  My brethren, my fellow-citizens, my fellow-travelers to the bar of God, with a warm heart and a welcome hand I greet you.”  Davenport could barely believe that “the day is come, when the white man and the black can meet at the County seat, on such conditions, when we are called up to the mountain top.”

The Reverend James Scott, identified as a “colored local preacher,” politely dissented from General Echols.  The former Confederate had “related pretty fables,” which brought to mind one of Scott’s own, that of the boys and the frogs.  That fable told of boys who threw rocks into a pond, trying to make them skim on the surface, their fun thoughtlessly killing innocent frogs.  One of the oldest and bravest frogs lifted his head out of the water and cried out—“please, boys, stop—what is sport to you is death to us.”  Black people’s very lives, Scott conveyed in the allegory, depended on the political games played by white men.  His analogy was met with “Loud Applause.”

Scott offered another metaphor as well:  he “had always heard it was right to ‘praise the bridge that carried you over safely,’” and that bridge was the Republican party.  Scott pronounced himself completely “for the party that made him free.”  Everyone knew that “actions speak louder than words” and the “Republicans had acted as our friends.”  People knew who their friends were—“even his dog knew his friends.”   Scott had “no hard feelings against the whites—he had been raised up kindly and treated as one of the family, but he was for his rights—his friends politically.”  Scott’s bold endorsement of the Republicans and his clever turns of phrase were met with “Great Applause and Laughter.” 

Benjamin Downey, also a minister, appreciated General Echols’s words, given in the “most beautiful figures.  Nevertheless, we are men, as he says, and we must look at which is best.”  Downey said that “he knew the black man well, but not the white man, though he had lived with him 61 years.”  Those white men did not seem to want to know Downey, for they “never talked politics before him or tried to teach him, more than enough for their own profit.”  Downey had “no prejudice against our white people.  Some are kind, some not,” but he asked a pointed question that must have occurred to many of the African American men present:  “Why did the Southern people wait so long before becoming such good friends?”  Downey wished he had understood the subtleties of General Echols’s argument more clearly, but the “white folks, South, never taught them A. B. C.—the Yankees did.”  The Reverend Downey reminded his listeners, black and white, that “the Radical party has made great sacrifices for us, to give us knowledge of the Living God; by coming from comfortable homes North, to teach us.”

The Reverend Downey thought the local white people, who claimed to know black people so well, were “not as thankful as they ought to have been to the nigger for taking care of their families whilst they were in the war.”  If it had been the duty of black people to care for whites during the war, a duty they fulfilled, Downy asked, “was it not the duty, of the whites when they came back to do something for this faithful race; to at least help to educate them?  But they didn't.  They said the nigger didn't know anything—let him go—the Yankees freed him, let them feed him &c.”  Downey admitted that “there had been enough said, more than he could take in at once, and he didn’t believe many white men could either.  Let all think over what they had heard and pray God to give them consciences to act right, in friendship and love to all.”

Philip Roselle, the chairman of the meeting, “being loudly called for,” pronounced that “he did not care who set him free,” for “he believed it was accidentally done anyway, didn’t think either party intended it, and he was for making the best of it.”  The question was who was going to help him now.  Roselle, in slavery, had “belonged to people who knew he would not let him be imposed on, by white or black, and that made him feel himself.”  Now, white “men who never owned a ‘nigger,’ who would not have owned one had slavery lasted 100 years, cursed them on the streets—gentlemen never did.”  White men had threatened “to knock him on the head for going to the Richmond Convention” of freedpeople, but Roselle “reckons they were only fooling, as nobody had hit him yet.”  As for confiscation of Confederate property, Roselle claimed that he did not believe in general confiscation, but slyly offered to take a slice of the land of Mr. Michael Harman, “as he belonged to and worked for him a number of years.”  Roselle was selected as a delegate to a gathering in Richmond to prepare for the constitutional convention, along with the Reverend N. C. Brackett, the Northern-born white superintendent of the freedmen’s schools in the Valley, who rented a house in Staunton.[v]

The Staunton meeting adjourned “amid cheers and much laughter, but a general appearance of good feeling,” the genial reporter of the Valley Virginian concluded.  A reporter from the Spectator admitted that “the drift of the feelings of the freedmen was clearly exhibited, as every Radical sentiment expressed by any of their speakers was applauded to the echo,” but reported that “the meeting was highly enjoyed by all present.  The happy hits made by the colored speakers were greatly enjoyed by the whites.”  The editor noted that “the tone of all the speakers was friendly with the exception of James Scott.  The tone of his voice, which cannot be disguised, betrayed embittered feelings towards the Southern people.”  Another paper praised the “conservative” tone of the remarks of the black people at the meeting, ignoring what the reporters themselves witnessed and transcribed.[vi]

None of the white editors commented on the resolutions passed by the meeting.  Those resolutions told anything but a conservative story.  The African American men in attendance resolved their “grateful thanks” to the “gallant armies of the United States,” and held in “reverent remembrance the memories of those who fell in the cause of freedom, and especially, of Abraham Lincoln.”  The black men of Augusta expressed their “profound gratitude” to the Congress that had forged Reconstruction and declared their desire to “seek affiliation” with the party.  They demanded that all elections employ a secret ballot, “that no man shall be ineligible to office by reason of sect or color,” that they be admitted to jury lists, that whipping and maiming be prohibited, and that taxes be fairly assigned.  The convention called for “extraordinary State provision for the free education of the young of all classes.”[vii] 

To promote and protect these purposes, the black men in Staunton voted to “unite as one man in support of those candidates whose nominations are ratified at mass meetings.”  They deprecated “the attempt, wherever or however made, to deter us from the free and untrammeled exercise of the franchise.”  They would “look with contempt upon any who are willing to sell this dear bought right for ‘a mess of pottage.’”  They would ignore the pleas and threats of their former masters and maintain their solidarity with one another.[viii]

The Spectator printed the demands and resolutions, and warned black men against acting on them.  If, as the white editor doubted, his black neighbors understood and agreed with these pronouncements, they were embarking upon “folly approximating madness.”  The threat was direct:  “The whites have the advantages of numbers, of capital and property, of intelligence and education.  The whites constitute the employing, and the blacks the employed class.”  If the blacks insisted on a unified opposition to the whites, as the resolutions declared, “the whites will unite against them.  Then the weaker party would be pushed to the wall, and the blacks would repent of their mad folly when too late to repair it.”[ix]

[i] Franklin Repository, January 30, 1867.

[ii] Staunton Vindicator, February 2, 1867.

[v]  Staunton Vindicator, May 3, 1867; Valley Virginian, May 1, 1867, with some quotes from  worked in from April 17, 1867.  There was remarkable agreement among the accounts.

[vi]  Staunton Spectator, April 30, 1867; Valley Virginian, April 17, 1867.

[vii]  Michael W. Fitzgerald, The Union League Movement in the Deep South: Politics and Agricultural Change During Reconstruction (Baton Rouge:  Louisiana State University Press, 2000).

[viii]  Staunton Spectator, March 23, 1867.

[ix]  Staunton Spectator, March 23, 1867.