When Freedom Came, Part 3
Elvatrice Belsches | 4/9/2015, 4:22 p.m. | Updated on 4/10/2015, 4:56 p.m.
The Free Press presents a three-part installment chronicling the African-American experience during the liberation of Richmond in April 1865 and the final days of the Civil War.
Once Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant forced the surrender of Confederates under Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, Richmond was nearly overrun by men and women flocking to its borders.
Former soldiers — both black and white — swept into the city looking for their families. Thousands of other black people also arrived, trying to locate loved ones from whom they were separated and sold in Richmond’s massive and nefarious slave trade.
Richmond’s pre-Civil War population of roughly 12,000 enslaved people, as counted by the 1860 Census, swelled to include at least 20,000 black people in Richmond and the separate town of Manchester on the south bank of the James River by summer 1865.
Directly after Richmond’s liberation by Union troops on April 3, 1865, a provost marshal’s office was set up downtown to establish order, protect residents and oversee the administration of the city. The Richmond headquarters for the federal Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, more commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, also was set up near what is 10th and Broad streets today.
According to the National Archives, the Freedmen’s Bureau was established nationally on March 3, 1865, under the auspices of the U.S. War Department, with the intent of assisting white and black people with clothing, food rations, labor contracts and educational opportunities.
Freedmen’s courts were set up in various jurisdictions throughout the South to hear cases involving newly freed black people. The bureau also undertook the task of legalizing and recording thousands of marriages entered into by enslaved men and women prior to the end of the Civil War.
The widespread elation and joy accompanying the arrival of Union troops in Richmond and the subsequent Confederate surrender at Appomattox was soon supplanted by sorrow at the news of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Thomas Morris Chester, the only known black reporter to cover the Civil War for a major daily newspaper, the Philadelphia Press, chronicled the scene in Richmond.
“The dreadful intelligence from Washington was received in this city yesterday about noon. The first report came that he [President Lincoln] was dead, which smote the hearts of the loyal people with deep sadness, but they resolved not to credit it. But soon the official confirmation removed all doubts, and the people were overwhelmed with profound grief…” Thomas Morris Chester, April 17, 1865
Black Richmonders’ hopes of brighter days in freedom dissipated. They also were confronted with new harsh realities, including the implementation of a new system requiring them to show special passes to move around the city and a provost marshal’s office that was indifferent at times to their complaints.
African-Americans walking the streets without a pass were subject to arrest. More than 800 black men, women and children were arrested and put in jails and former slave pens in Richmond during the first two weeks of the pass requirements, according to one record.