The Origins of African-American Politics in Southwest Georgia: A Case Study of Black Political Organization during Presidential Reconstruction, 1865-1867

Article excerpt

Recent scholarship on the post-Civil War period indicates that African-Americans did not wait for Radical Republicans to implement legislation in 1867 to claim the rights and privileges that went along with freedom. Rather, from the moment of emancipation, freedmen played an active role in shaping their future. It is difficult, however, to discern the nature of black activities during Presidential Reconstruction because the oppression of unreconstructed Southern whites dominates the immediate postwar period and the records that have survived. The violence and abuse so characteristic of the period leaves very bold images of white vigilantes and black victims that are hard to erase. In Georgia, Presidential or Self-Reconstruction allowed no political role for freedmen or white Republicans (whether transplanted Yankees or native Southerners). Pardoned Confederates qualified for elections, dominated the 1865 constitutional convention, and filled the legislature chosen under the new constitution. Begrudgingly, ex-Confederates passed new laws recognizing the end of slavery, but as one historian has concluded, the new legislation consigned Afro-Georgians to "political oblivion, social inferiority, and superficial legal equality."(1)

The Freedmen's Bureau, established to help ease the difficult transition from slavery to freedom, did not provide the kind of assistance many Georgia blacks desired during Presidential Reconstruction. The assistant commissioner for Georgia, Davis Tillson, an exponent of Republican free labor ideology, had fought to end slavery. Yet Tillson was determined not to give handouts to ex-slaves fearing the creation of a state of dependency. Freedmen must work for their livelihood and when they saved enough from their wages, they could purchase their own land to farm, but land should not be given to the ex-slaves. In the meantime, Afro-Georgians were to sign written contracts with former slaveholders and work and live under the continued supervision of white landowners.(2)

A careful examination of the evidence, however, reveals that African-Americans did not willingly submit to a continuation of control by whites as it had been exercised under slavery. Instead, they took charge of their own lives from the first days of freedom. In the heart of the southwest Georgia black belt, Dougherty County freedmen exercised their liberty in numerous ways. Some abandoned the plantations for the freer urban environment of Albany, the county seat. Others negotiated with their former owners the terms of their agricultural labor contracts. Within months of emancipation, African-Americans began establishing independent churches and schools in Dougherty County staffed by black clergy and educators. Black political organization was not far behind.(3)

The earliest center of black political activity in postwar Dougherty County was a 500-acre plantation about six miles southeast of Albany. Today as one drives by the hundreds of acres of pecan trees along Antioch Road in east Dougherty, it is hard to imagine that, 125 years earlier, these were cotton and corn fields and that this was the southwest Georgia headquarters of the state's first black political action group.

The story of the Georgia Equal Rights Association (GERA) in Dougherty County began in the fall of 1865 with the efforts of a group of Wilkes County freedmen to buy or rent a plantation in southwest Georgia. Organized and led by Lawrence Speed and Wallace Sherman, the Wilkes County blacks turned to Freedmen's Bureau Assistant Commissioner Davis Tillson who was willing to assist blacks who wished to buy land and had the means to do so. Speed and Sherman had collected $7,000 from the Wilkes County blacks they represented to purchase their farm. After exhausting several possibilities in Wilkes and Thomas counties, bureau officials finally arranged for the Wilkes colony to rent the 500-acre Whitlock Place in east Dougherty County.(4)

Shortly before the 150 Wilkes County freedmen set out for southwest Georgia, a black state convention was held in Augusta where the delegates established the Georgia Equal Rights Association. …