Freedmen’s Bureau in the Local Courts

The Freedmen's Bureau -- illustration from 25 July 1868 edition of Harper's Weekly. (Image public domain/Wikipedia)

In the years following the Civil War, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (commonly referred to as simply the Freedmen’s Bureau) provided assistance to former slaves still living in the South, helping them transition from a society based on slavery to one allowing freedom. Established as part of the War Department by an act of Congress on 3 March 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau, operational until 1872, helped introduce a system of free labor, provided food and clothing, helped locate families and legalize marriages, promoted education, supervised labor contracts, and provided legal representation.

14 February 1866 letter from the Freedmen's Bureau found in the Commonwealth vs. Alexander McCray, Highland County Commonwealth Causes.

One of the Bureau’s most important roles was to help safeguard the rights of African Americans and ensure they received justice from the court system. Following the Civil War, several southern states, including Virginia, enacted a series of laws commonly known as “black codes” that restricted the rights and legal status of freedmen. African Americans were often given harsh sentences for petty crimes and were sometimes unable to get their cases heard in the state courts. In September 1865, Freedmen’s Bureau courts were established to adjudicate cases involving freedmen. By February 1866, Virginia had amended her laws and the Bureau courts were discontinued by May of that same year, but because of the failure of many local court officials to administer equal justice, the Bureau courts were reestablished in certain areas of the state.

One instance of the Freedmen’s Bureau interceding to ensure the legal rights of African Americans happened in the Highland County criminal courts. In November 1865, Stephen J. Reynolds accused Alexander McCray, an African American, of feloniously stealing and carrying away his bay horse valued at seventy-five dollars. Alexander McCray successfully postponed his trial until January 1866 by claiming that he had already been tried and acquitted in Staunton before a military court for the crime he now stood accused of again. McCray claimed that he could not safely go to trial without the benefit of a statement from the military court. In January 1866, Lieutenant Colonel Cecil Clay, then stationed in Staunton, wrote a letter stating that McCray had been tried for the alleged offense and further claimed that the horse was proven to be the property of the U.S. government. Clay went on to write that “at the time of trial, civil authority was yet unrestored” and that the provost court was “competent to decide all cases in which the U.S. Government or its soldiers were parties or a party.”

To further ensure that McCray was not tried for his alleged crime a second time, the Freedmen’s Bureau sent a letter by command of Major General A. H. Terry, then Assistant Commissioner for the Bureau in Virginia, on 14 February 1866. The Bureau wrote to James M. Sieg, prosecuting attorney for Highland County, and ordered that all further action in the criminal prosecution against McCray be suspended until further orders were received from the Freedmen’s Bureau. It is unclear why Stephen J. Reynolds was convinced the horse was his property or why the case was brought against McCray for a second time. And, it is also unknown exactly how the Freedmen’s Bureau became aware of McCray’s plight, but they did and the Bureau ensured that the legal rights of this African American were upheld.

The Highland County (Va.) Commonwealth Causes, 1852-1867, are open for research and available at the Library of Virginia. Other Freedmen’s Bureau records can be found at the Library of Virginia in the Free Negro and Slave Records, Court Records, and Cohabitation Registers of various localities.

-Bari Helms, Local Records Archivist

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