“Mr. PRESIDENT: We have been appointed a committee by a public meeting of the colored people of Richmond, Va., to make known to your Excellency, as our best friend, the wrongs as we conceive them to be, by which we are sorely oppressed.”
These are the opening lines of a petition delivered to Andrew Johnson, dated June 10, 1865. The African American petitioners were living in a new and rapidly changing world: the Freedmen’s Bureau had been established in March; the Confederacy surrendered Richmond in early April, and Lee gave up his army a few days later; President Lincoln was killed and mourned; President Johnson took the oath of office and in May, recognized a provisional Virginia government under Francis Pierpont, who was largely conciliatory towards the defeated Confederates. The world that the Civil War and emancipation had created demanded that this group of black men issue their petition. Their words offer an illuminating portrait of black freedom and of the possibilities and boundaries of Reconstruction.
The petitioners—seven men, including Fields Cook, a Richmond barber and minister, and Thomas Morris Chester, a recruiter of black Union soldiers in Pennsylvania—worked to construct a relationship between African Americans and the federal government. Johnson, they said, was their “best friend,” and they encouraged him to accept their friendship by showing themselves as the best kind of Americans. The communities they represented, 20,000 free and freedpeople in Richmond and Manchester, had “ever been distinguished for their good behavior. . . as well as for their high moral and Christian character.” Many were literate and owned property, and all, the petitioners wrote, had been participants in the human drama of the war. They rejoiced at the arrival of Union troops and continued to mourn, inwardly and outwardly, the death of President Lincoln. All of these claims were about making their freedom meaningful by forging bonds with the government, ensuring that their concerns would be heard, and that they would be fully recognized as people worthy of Johnson’s concern. Black Virginians had taken part in the military, the economy, and the culture of the nation. Reconstruction allowed black and white people to change the government by broadening the population about whom Congress, the President, and other American people should care. Emancipation allowed for the redefinition of personhood in law and culture.
But the community could be narrowed just as easily as it was broadened. The petitioners noted that local authorities “will not allow us to walk the streets by day or night . . . without a pass,” and staying in private dwellings was not a guarantee of safety. The process of Emancipation had positioned the federal government as a protector of black Americans, but that required an active engagement in Southern cities and towns. Black Virginians hit upon a central paradox of freedom: “Under the old system, we had the protection of our masters, who were financially invested in our physical welfare.” African Americans needed the government to recognize that they were valuable as free men and women.
This petition highlights the fact that Reconstruction was about changing minds at least as much as it was about changing laws. If we were to organize sesquicentennial commemorations of moments in the post-emancipation period, this would be a critical landmark to observe. The June 1865 petition sketches out the opportunities of Reconstruction and the various factors that stood in its way. Violent manifestations of racism in the United States are drawing more public attention to our past. Remembering Reconstruction allows us to talk about the conflicts that engulfed the nation as a result of the long history of racism. This reflection also points us to failures to transform American laws, economies, and cultures in ways that might have helped prevent the persistence of inequality and hatred.
The Richmond petitioners closed confidently with what was a not-so-subtle threat and a plea to authorities on earth and in Heaven. “Let us respectfully remind your excellency of that sublime motto once inscribed over the portals of an Egyptian temple, “Know all ye who exercise power, that God hates injustice!”