"Conduct ... Inexcusable and Unjustifiable": Bound Children, Battered Freedwomen, and the Limits of Emancipation in Kentucky's Bluegrass Region

Article excerpt

In mid-1866 Flora Ewing, a "colored girl" living in Oldham County, Kentucky, field a complaint with the Freedmen's Bureau in which she claimed to have been the victim of assault and battery at the hands of a white man named Dorsey Young. According to her affidavit, the events leading up to this assault began when on a Monday morning Ewing asked her employer, Dorsey Young's wife, "for two dollars which she owed me for working for her." Mrs. Young told Ewing that she had no money, and so she went out into the yard to ask Mr. Young for her pay. He allegedly accosted her at that point, demanding to know "what was that I was saying to his wife." She told him that she was owed two dollars, and as she knew for a fact that he had just sold two cows, surely he could pay her. Young picked up a stick, grabbed Ewing by the neck, and hit her "four times over the head." After he released her, she went home and lay down, as her "head [had by that time] commenced to acheing." Though it was still only morning, she fell sound asleep, not waking up until mid-afternoon, at which time she got up and went to sit in the doorway of her family's home. As she was sitting there, Dorsey Young came up, carrying "a broom stick which he was using as a cane," and, upon finding Ewing, struck her over the head with it, despite efforts by Flora's mother to shield her daughter from the white assailant. This blow had inflicted injury such that Flora Ewing could not get out of bed until the following Friday. Her affidavit, along with that of her father, John Ewing, spurred the Bureau to investigate the case. (1)

Incidents of assault and battery such as Ewing's, although "of a serious nature," did not constitute a sufficiently serious offense for federal prosecution in the overburdened United States District Court in Louisville, and attempting to prosecute them in local or state courts was not an option, as most Kentucky judges strictly adhered to state law and thus deemed black testimony against white defendants to be inadmissible. The Freedmen's Bureau, operating in the Commonwealth from late 1865 through 1868, tried to intervene where possible, investigating reports of murder, violent intimidation, house-burning, and more, including cases that did not result in long-term or fatal injuries to the victims. Bureau superintendents established a system of fines whereby to punish white perpetrators in such cases. After a brief inquiry, the Bureau found Dorsey Young guilty of "conduct ... inexcusable and unjustifiable," and fined him twenty dollars for the expenses incurred by the federal government in their investigation, as well as five dollars damages owed to Flora Ewing, along with payment of any "bills as may have been made for medicines and medical attendance." (2) Despite such fines, in Kentucky, as in the former Confederate states, the transition to free labor that the Freedmen's Bureau hoped to facilitate would face violent opposition from former slaveholders and stubborn white employers who, along with self-styled vigilantes, acted out their deep-seated notions of white supremacy. Further, expressions of black freedom, particularly as evidenced by formerly enslaved women who sought to become wage laborers, would often strike dissonant chords both among former slaveholders and white supremacists, as well as with Bureau agents. (3)

Comprising only one fifth of the state's total population, former slaves in Kentucky frequently had little ability to enjoy their hard-won liberty in the first months and years after emancipation became law. In particular, freedwomen and their children faced significant hurdles as they sought to establish autonomous lives. Bands of white supremacists pillaged their homes and imposed a reign of terror in many communities. At the same time, many masters proved reluctant to release their slaves, openly, violently defying federal policy regarding emancipation. Additionally, freed people expressed great frustration with the disruptive, racially biased, and often abusive apprenticeship system in the Commonwealth. …