Newspaper Account of a Meeting between Black Religious Leaders and Union Military Authorities
MINUTES OF AN INTERVIEW BETWEEN THE COLORED MINISTERS AND CHURCH OFFICERS AT SAVANNAH WITH THE SECRETARY OF WAR AND MAJOR-GEN. SHERMAN
This interview took place between two federal officials and leaders of the Black community in Savannah, Georgia, where the U.S. Army had recently captured the southern city from the Confederates. The purpose of this interview was to ask the local Black residents their plans and hopes for the future now that slavery no longer existed. Though the war was still going on at the time of this interview, President Lincoln had already issued the Emancipation Proclamation to free enslaved people in the Confederacy, and the U.S. Army was clearly gaining the advantage in the war. General William T. Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton met with twenty local residents, and these residents appointed Garrison Frazier to speak for the local Black community. Frazier was a Christian minister, and some called him “Brother Frazier.” The numbered questions were asked by Sherman and Stanton. Frazier’s answers follow the “Reply.” How does Frazier explain what freedom will mean to Black Americans? What opportunities are necessary for Black Americans, according to Frazier, in order for Black Americans to succeed in a state of freedom?
This interview took place around the same time that Congress voted to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. The nearly four million enslaved were at the very cusp of freedom, and it was not clear how this transition would work. The federal officials in this interview asked pointed questions of local Black leaders in order to learn about their own ideas for freedom. Without hesitation, Frazier asserted the need for land ownership. Right after this meeting, General Sherman set aside roughly 400,000 acres of land along the South Carolina and Georgia coast for Black Americans, where a family could manage forty acres of land and work it for its own profit. Sherman also sent mules from the U.S. Army (too tired for military service) to the settlements, hence the slogan “forty acres and a mule.” These efforts were a start, but far from a sufficient government response for all of the free men, women, and children throughout the South. Moreover, only five months later, after 40,000 freedpeople had moved to these lands set aside by General Sherman, President Andrew Johnson restored these lands to their former Confederate owners. Freedpeople no longer had authority over the land.
Second–State what you understand by Slavery and the freedom that was to be given by the President's proclamation.
Answer–Slavery is, receiving by irresistible power the work of another man, and not by his consent. The freedom, as I understand it, promised by the proclamation, is taking us from under the yoke of bondage, and placing us where we could reap the fruit of our own labor, take care of ourselves and assist the Government in maintaining our freedom.
Third: State in what manner you think you can take care of yourselves, and how can you best assist the Government in maintaining your freedom.
Answer: The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor–that is, by the labor of the women and children and old men; and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare. And to assist the Government, the young men should enlist in the service of the Government, and serve in such manner as they may be wanted. (The Rebels told us that they piled them up and made batteries of them, and sold them to Cuba; but we don't believe that.) We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.
Fourth: State in what manner you would rather live–whether scattered among the whites or in colonies by yourselves.
Answer: I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over; but I do not know that I can answer for my brethren. [Mr. Lynch says he thinks they should not be separated, but live together. All the other persons present, being questioned one by one, answer that they agree with Brother Frazier.]1