Reports are not the only information preserved in the Freedmen's Bureau records, which we began examining in detail during Week 33: Bitter Prejudice. The Freedmen's Bureau, according to The Library of Virginia, focused on "establishing hospitals and schools, providing rations, supervising the creation of labor contracts between freedmen and planters, and ensuring justice." There are a mass of letters - some brief, others verbose; some in neat cursive as if deliberated and others scrawled a little too quickly for full intelligence from the script. All of them reveal the kinds of cases the commanding officers had to investigate in lands as yet still hostile to the US government. The letters cover everything from reimbursement of funds to firsthand accounts by residents of injustice.
The commissioner reports we just read (Week 33: Bitter Prejudice and Week 34: Need for Radical Change) noted the confirmation of marriages as another activity of the Freedmen's Bureau, but what they didn't mention were requests for reuniting parents with children that had been sold before the eradication of slavery, as noted by the following letters.
"Information is desired of Jeff Donnavay, colored, aged 14, bought in December 1863 by... of Richmond, Va... His mother... is very desirous of learning his whereabouts, and this application for information is made at her request" (Letter from McDonnell, Winchester, VA, April 22, 1868).
"Information is desired of Robert Donnavay, colored, aged 16, bought in December 1863 by... of Farmville, Prince Edward County, Va... He is the son of ..., at whose request this application for information is made" (Letter from McDonnell, Winchester, VA, April 22, 1868).
Another letter captures the enigmatic nature of communication in Shenandoah County, not only between Freedmen's Bureau commissioners, but also between civilians and the commissions.
"A colored woman named Emily (a very large woman) left this place last week, and in defiance of my order, took with her... a minor (a girl) named Alice. Please have the said girl sent to me. The woman must be made of course to pay expenses" (Letter from Hall, Woodstock, VA, October 30, 1866).
From Donnell to Hall, stationed in Woodstock, VA: "In reply to your communication... in which you ask if you are authorized to issue an order to the employer of a colored person, (who hired him from his other owner) to pay said colored man for his services since January 1, 1863, instead of to the heirs of his former owner - you are respectfully informed that you have no authority to issue such an order" (Letter from Donnell, Winchester, VA, January 10, 1868).
Helping African Americans living in Shenandoah County, VA, as well as throughout the state, was a balancing act. The Freedmen's Bureau aimed to do what they could to help people become more than mere property, whose purpose was to serve the needs of wealthier white families. When families are dispersed, when the memory of enslavement still tarnishes the hope of paid work, when people own no land from which they can grow food or a cash crop, and when educational opportunities are limited, a handful of people can only do so much. If a community is not willing to work together to create opportunities of equality and commitment to one another's welfare, even through charitable organizations, then it's not a community. Community is more than just people living in the same location. Community also includes commonality of culture, ethos, or other shared goals. Community means common unity. People don't have to look the same, but they should promote fairness in matters of justice. As we have seen and will continue to see, this was not happening in Shenandoah County, Virginia, after the Civil War. And that understanding is imperative to know when a community is naming public spaces together.
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.
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