Following the Civil War, America's primary goal was rebuilding on the principles of a unified America. The University of Virginia provides a great overview, especially from the perspective of Richmond and Virginia, of this time period, known as Reconstruction: https://reconstructingvirginia.richmond.edu/overview. The U.S. government intervened in Southern states through Reconstruction, attempting to alleviate asperities associated with integrating emancipated African Americans into a more equal way of life.
To help, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was formed on March 3, 1865, with work in Virginia beginning early June of that year. It was also known as the Freedmen's Bureau (which I first mentioned in Week 9: Freedom from Fear). As we dive into the Freedmen's Bureau records, I'm starting with the subdivision reports for Shenandoah County. These are broken up into two letters, due to their length.
According to General Order #1 in June 1866, the Shenandoah Division included four sub-divisions: a) Jefferson and Berkeley Counties, West Virginia, b) Frederick and Clarke Counties, Virginia, c) Warren and Page Counties, Virginia, d) Shenandoah and Rockingham Counties, Virginia. Reports were sent to the assistant commissioner in Baltimore, Maryland. Woodstock, Virginia, housed one of the field offices for the Freedmen's Bureau. The Freedmen's Bureau issued rations and medical relief to both recently emancipated African American and white refugees, supervised labor contracts, administered justice, and worked with benevolent societies to establish schools. Currently, these records are accessible via microfilm at The Library of Virginia, reel Misc 5526. I'm going to share those that give a picture of life in Shenandoah County, Virginia, and nearby areas. Today, we focus on reports from 1866 and 1867. Next week, we will look at those from 1868, which are a little lengthier than these.
The assistant commissioner's report from 1867 reveals the "total number of the colored population of the counties of Shenandoah and Page (included):
- Woodstock: 196
- Mount Jackson: 67
- Strasburg & Murraytown: 74
- Edinburg: 17
- New Market: 55"
In June 1866, Remington in Winchester, VA, wrote a report that includes the following Shenandoah County updates:
"Sub-district C, comprises the Counties of Shenandoah and Page. Lt. J.T.H. Hall V.R.C. Asst. Supt. with office at Woodstock, Shenandoah Co. The feeling towards the freedmen, and towards the Bureau in this sub-district is quite better. The records of the office of the Asst. Supt. are in a fair condition.
"1st The condition of the freedmen is fair.
"2d No cases in which the freedmen are concerned have been tried before the Civil Courts, the freedmen showing a great disinclination to bring their cases before tribunals from which the state of feeling in the community renders it hardly probable that full and impartial justice would be meted out to them.
"3d The record of marriages has been commenced in proper form, and certificates of marriages are given...
"4t The authorities intend to provide for the indigent freedmen, but their means are at present very inadequate. The poor house buildings were burned during the war, and have not yet been rebuilt.
"5t The supply of labor is equal to the demand, and the able bodied freedmen are generally at work.
"6t There is one school in the sub district at Massanutten which is thriving. There is a demand for schools at Woodstock, New Market, Mount Jackson and other points in the sub district.
"Lieut. Hall considering the many annoyances to which he is subjected arising from the strong feeling of hostility to the Bureau in this Sub district has conducted affairs with a good degree of energy and success, and seems to show a determination to do for the benefit of the freedmen whatever is in his power" (June 18, 1966:4-5).
A report from McDonnell in Winchester, VA, dated April 30, 1867 shares:
Shenandoah & Rockingham Cos.
"1st General condition improving, but not as rapidly as could be desired. The disposition to fulfill contracts is much better on the part of Freedpeople than on that of the whites, and a bitter prejudice towards the former & Bureau, as well as the government generally manifests itself very frequently.
"2d The prejudice against Freedpeople is so great that in my opinion justice is not given them in cases where there are jury trials. The Magistrates show a bitter disposition except in a few cases.
"3d A Register of Marriages has been made in both Counties, but not on the Bureau blanks, which have not been furnished...
"4t The intention of the County authorities to provide for their own indigent poor is good, but the means at both Counties is altogether inadequate, and had it not been for the assistance rendered by the Bureau, much suffering would exist.
"5t The supply of labor is equal to the demand, and the wages vary from $6 to $12 per month, according to the quality of the help.
"6t The School at Harrisonburg is in a very flourishing condition, and reports 221 pupils. The School at Woodstock temporarily closed for a few days, is also in excellent condition, and the improvement in both places is such as to meet the approval of the most sanguine. Schools should also be established at Mount Jackson and New Market in Shenandoah County. In the former place, a room could be provided by the Freedpeople.
"Lieut J. H. Hall, the officer in charge experiences some difficulty in performing his duty in this sub district, and a very bitter feeling towards him and the Bureau exists there. His books and papers are properly kept, and the affairs at his office are satisfactory" (April 1867:4-6).
Six months later, a report from McDonnell in Winchester, VA, dated October 1, 1867, reveals that conditions are especially negative toward the Freedmen's Bureau in Shenandoah County:
"3rd Division: Shenandoah and Rockingham Cos.
"1st The condition of freedpeople in these Counties does not improve in any perceptible degree, owing to the intensely bitter feelings of the whites, especially in Shenandoah County, where a decided aversion is exhibited towards Lieut. Hall, the officer in charge.
"2d Full and complete justice is not given in cases between white and colored people. In newer cases fines are never imposed, and in many cases where white men can obtain bail, colored men are committed for want of it.
"3d The Register of Marriages is complete for Shenandoah County, and nearly so for Rockingham. As elsewhere, the Civil Authorities render no assistance in enforcing the law in relation to marriage, even where violations are known to exist.
"4t As in Frederick & Clark Counties, out door relief is afforded to such as cannot be accommodated in the poor house, but here only to the amount of ten dollars per year for each person, which is wholly insufficient, and suffering must be endured by all who have no other dependence.
"5t The supply of labor is equal to the demand, and will be during the coming months. The average rate of wages is about $8 per month. No public works in this division, and consequently the mass of the people are unemployed during the winter months.
"6t One self sustaining school has been in operation at Woodstock, during the vacation of the free school but as the means of the people is very limited, it is doubtful whether it can continue for any length of time. A necessity for a school at New Market is apparent, and the people are very desirous to have one" (October 1867:5-6).
By November 4, 1867, a new officer was in place. A report from McDonnell shares the following in regard to Shenandoah County: "I learn that the freedmen are doing very well. All at work for good wages, and that there is generally, no disposition among the citizens to treat them unfairly, as they view fairness. The Whites are an intensely disloyal people, in real sentiment, and were the protection of this Bureau to be withdrawn, the freedmen would be treated pretty much as they used to be."
No one denies Shenandoah County residents the right to celebrate and remember their ancestors - even the ones that fought for the CSA. They should be remembered. But, the ideals of the Confederacy (discussed in Week 2: Confederate Congress and Week 5: The 13th Amendment) should not be celebrated or claimed for community identity in the United States today. The ancestors of African Americans and other Americans who did not have relatives fighting for the CSA should also be remembered and celebrated. When our leaders choose to place the names of some of these ancestors over the names of others, they are assigning weighted worth for one and claiming community identity. It's imperative to make sure that identity is inclusive and not divisive. The previous school board recognized this, weighed the evidence and facts and requests at hand, and made a difficult decision to change Confederate-leader-named public schools out of compassion and conviction that doing so was just and a positive step toward a more inclusive and peaceful community - a goal that mirrors the intent of the Freedmen's Bureau after the Civil War. The previous school board leaders did not become school board members with an agenda to change names. They rose to a challenge and did the best they could in guiding a positive vision for everyone.
James Baldwin (1924-1987), an African American author whose voice was especially poignant during the Civil Rights time period, was the focus of a 2016 documentary, I am Not Your Negro. In it, he shares: "America is white. It's a shock that your country, to which you owe your life and identity, is against you." He continues, "there's a day when you wonder what your role is in this country." When we consider "we, the American people," how do military leaders who broke allegiance with The United States of America and fought against America as a foreign entity earn the right to usurp the identity of a public school today? Especially when children attend that school, whose ancestors were some of the very African Americans that were belittled, deemed inferior, and thwarted in their pursuit of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" during Reconstruction. In the words of Langston Hughes, an African American poet during the Harlem Renaissance, excerpted from his poem Let America Be America Again:
"O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There's never been equality for me,
No freedom in this 'homeland of the free.')...
O, let America be America again -
The land that never has been yet -
And yet must be - the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine - the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME -
Who made America, Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again...
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath -
America will be!"
SENK is an artist and writer in the Shenandoah Valley. The blog, 52 Weeks, is an ethical contemplation on the importance of choosing public school names that are not divisive within a community. Each post is based on over eight years of research by the author. 52 Weeks is a compassionate appeal to community and school board members to not revert to the names of Confederate leaders for Shenandoah County, Va, public schools.
52 / Remembering & Moving On
51 / Integration & Teachers
50 / In Our Own Community
49 / S J H S
48 / Not One Positive Step
47 / Maintaining Public Peace
46 / Brown v. Board
45 / Rebuilding a Pro-Confederate South
44 / An Out-of-area Education
43 / Where's the 'Common Sense Consideration'?
42 / Education Without Heart
41 / Self-Preservation
40 / Free Public Schools
39 / The Mask of Defiance
38 / The Golden Door of Freedom
37 / Prejudicial to our Race
36 / Are We Compassionate?
35 / Community
34 / Need for Radical Change
33 / Bitter Prejudice
32 / Fear of 'Negro Equality'
31 / Rachel, Lashed to Death
30 / The Whim of the Court: A Look at Jacob, Stacy, Lett; March & Peter; Jeffrey & Peter
29 / Ben, Tom, Ned, Clary, & two men from the furnace
28 / The Loss of Fortune
27 / James Scott, A Free Man
26 / The Unremembered, The Unheard
25 / The American Cause
24 / Tithables for the County & Parish
23 / Satisfactory Proof of Being Free
22 / Building Community Takes Trust
21 / Jacob's Case
20 / Whose Control?
19 / Racial Classifications
18 / The Cost of Freedom in 1840
17 / Sale of Children
16 / Bequeathal of Future Increase
15 / The First Annual
14 / From a Descendant of a CSA Soldier
13 / True Americanism
12 / Slavery. A Hot Topic.
11 / Real Character
10 / Real Apologies
9 / Freedom from Fear
8 / 250 Years
7 / The Courage of Christ
6 / Whose Narratives?
5 / The 13th Amendment
4 / Symbolic Act of Justice
3 / Giving Thanks
2 / Confederate Congress
1 / Veteran's Day