An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle over Equality in Washington, D.C

By Kate Masur | Go to book overview

2
They Feel It Is Their Right
FREEDPEOPLE, REFORMERS, AND
THE DEMANDS OF CITIZENSHIP

In 1867, several months after the Freedmen’s Bureau named John Kimball superintendent of freedpeople’s marriages, freedwoman Caroline Grice came to see him about her daughter, Hannah. Hannah had recently given birth to a “white child,” and Caroline informed the bureau agent that the infant’s father was a guard at the Freedmen’s Bureau barracks where she and her daughter lived. This report was not simply a point of information, however. It was a claim to redress. As Kimball knew, District of Columbia law provided that unwed “free women” could claim from their child’s father $30.00 per year for the first seven years of the child’s life. With the financial stakes of the case in mind, Kimball instructed a subordinate to investigate the allegation.

When questioned by a bureau agent, the alleged father, Silas S. Chamberlain, refused to acknowledge paternity and described Hannah Grice as “a girl of lewd habits and notorious character.” Several witnesses (all recommended by Chamberlain) stated that Hannah Grice had sexual relationships with many men, and some said she had talked of taking money for sex. Two witnesses said Grice had “criminal connection” with a white former watchman at the barracks, the timing of which implied that he might be the child’s father. A lawyer for the Freedmen’s Bureau concluded that the testimony, particularly that concerning Grice’s alleged relationship with the watchman, cast doubt on Chamberlain’s paternity and, more broadly, “that the character of said Hannah Grice has been very bad—that she is unworthy of belief.”

Bureau agents believed that the witnesses’ testimony exonerated Chamberlain, but they were chagrined nonetheless. In setting up barracks housing for freedpeople in the capital, they had hoped to promote what they considered good moral values among freedpeople by renting only to married couples,

-51-

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