Baptists and the American Civil War: June 28, 1865

freedmens_schoolJohn Henry Yates (1828-1897) was born into slavery in Virginia. Although Virginia law forbade the teaching of slaves to read or write, the children of Yates’ master taught a young Yates how to read. The Bible was his favorite book.

As a young man he “married” (marriage being informal for slaves, due to state laws) Harriet, a slave on a neighboring plantation. The family grew to include eleven children. Today Yates is emancipated. Soon, the family moves to Houston to look for work. John Henry becomes a drayman and a Baptist preacher, ministering to freedpersons moving into the area. In January, 1866 Yates becomes the founding pastor of the Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, the first black Baptist church organized in Houston. Later, he assists in the founding of the first black Baptist college in Texas, Bishop Academy, in 1881 in Marshall. The institution focuses on preparing students for lives of employment, with a focus on trades, business and ministry. Following more than a century of training black students, Bishop College closes its doors in 1988.

In south Georgia, meanwhile, a young white lady, Eliza Frances Andrews, from a slaveowning family near Albany writes in her journal this day of the challenges her family faces as their slaves become freepersons:

Tom Cleveland and Jim Bryan spent the morning with us, and Jim says the young men of the village are trying to contrive some way of getting to the top of the courthouse steeple at night and tearing down the Yankee flag, but there is no possible way save through the building itself, where the garrison is quartered, and they keep such close watch that there is no chance to carry out the design.Arch has “taken freedom” and left us, so we have no man-servant in the dining-room. Sidney, Garnett’s boy, either ran away, or was captured in Virginia. To do Arch justice, he didn’t go without asking father’s permission, but it is a surprise that he, who was so devoted to “Marse Fred,” should be the very first of the house servants to go. Father called up all his servants the other day and told the men that if they would go back to the plantation in Mississippi and work there the rest of the year, he would give them seven dollars a month, besides their food and clothing; but if they chose to remain with him here, he would not be able to pay them wages till after Christmas. They were at liberty, he told them, either to stay with him for the present, on the old terms, or to take their freedom and hire out to somebody else if they preferred; he would give them a home and feed them till they could do better for themselves. In the altered state of his fortunes it will be impossible for him to keep up an establishment of twenty or thirty house servants and children, who are no longer his property. The poor ignorant creatures have such extravagant ideas as to the value of their services that they are sadly discontented with the wages they are able to get. There is going to be great suffering among them, for Southerners will not employ the faithless ones if they can help it, and the Yankees cannot take care of all the idle ones, though they may force us to do it in the end. I feel sorry for the poor negroes. They are not to blame for taking freedom when it is brought to their very doors and almost forced upon them. Anybody would do the same, still when they go I can’t help feeling as if they are deserting us for the enemy, and it seems humiliating to be compelled to bargain and haggle with our own servants about wages. I am really attached to father’s negroes, and even when they leave us, as Alfred, Arch, and Harrison have done, cannot help feeling interested in their welfare and hoping they will find good places. None of ours nave ever shown a disposition to be insolent, like some of those I see on the streets. Arch was perfectly respectful to the last, and did his work faithfully, but then he left us in a sneaky way, slipping off just before dinner-time, without telling us good-by, or saying a word to anybody but father, as if he was ashamed of himself. Mammy says that the real cause of his departure is the fear that his wife will come after him from the plantation, and as he is about to marry Mrs. Pettus’s Betsy, that would be an inconvenience. I wonder if the Yankees will force them to observe the marriage tie any better than they have done in the past. I don’t think it exactly consistent with the honor of freemen to have wives scattered about, all over the country. Isaac refuses to go back to the plantation because he has a new wife here and an old one there that he don’t want. He says he “ain’t a-goin‘ to leave a young ‘oman and go back to an old one.” Mammy tells me all this gossip about the other negroes. She is not going to leave us till she can hear from Jane and Charlotte, who are supposed to be in Philadelphia. She says she will stay with us if she can’t go to them, and more could not be expected of her. It is not in human nature that fidelity to a master should outweigh maternal affection, though mammy has always been more like a member of the white family than a negro. Except Uncle Osborne, Big Henry is the most shining instance of fidelity that has come under my observation. He was hired at the salt works in Alabama, but made his escape with Frank and Abram and Isham, and all of them worked their way back here to father. As soon as he found that father wanted him to go back to the plantation but had no money to pay his way, Henry packed his wallet and marched off, saying he could work his way. The other three went also, and father got some soldiers who were going in that direction to take them along as their servants. “Well done, good and faithful ones.”

In black contrast to Big Henry’s shining example, is the rascality of Aunty’s fallen saint, old Uncle Lewis. He is an old gray-haired darkey who has done nothing for years but live at his ease, petted and coddled and believed in by the whole family. The children called him, not “Uncle Lewis,” but simply “Uncle,” as if he had really been kin to them. Uncle Alex had such faith in him that during his last illness he would often send for the old darkey to talk and pray with him, and as Uncle Lewis is a great Baptist, and his master was an equally stanch Methodist, they used to have some high old religious discussions together. A special place was always reserved for him at family prayer, which Uncle Alex was very particular that all the servants should attend, and “brother Lewis” was often called on to lead the devotions. I have often listened to his prayers when staying at Aunty’s, and was brought up with as firm a belief in him as in the Bible itself. He was an honored institution of the townscarcely less so than old Uncle Jarret, the old shouting sexton of the Methodist church. But now see the debasing effects of the new regime in destroying all that was most good and beautiful in these simple-hearted folk. Uncle Lewis, the pious, the honored, the venerated, gets his poor old head turned with false notions of freedom and independence, runs off to the Yankees with a pack of lies against his mistress, and sets up a claim to part of her land! Aunty found him out and turned him off in disgrace. She says that he shall never put his foot on her lot again. She knows, however, that he is in no danger of suffering for anything, because his sons have excellent trades and can take good care of him. One of them, our Uncle Osborne, is as fine a carpenter as there is in the county. He was one of the most valuable servants father owned. He, too, has taken freedom now, but he is not to blame for that. He stood by us when we most needed him, and now he has a right to look out for himself. Father says he shall never suffer for anything as long as he lives and has a roof over his own head.

I don’t know what is to become of the free negroes. Every vacant house in town is packed full of them, and in the country they are living in brush arbors in the woods, stealing corn from the fields and killing the planters’ stock to feed on. The mongrel population on the green in front of our street gate has increased until all the tents and hovels are teeming like a pile of maggots. They are very noisy, especially at night, when they disturb the whole neighborhood with their orgies. They are growing more discontented every day, as freedom fails to bring them all the great things they expected, and are getting all manner of insolent notions into their heads. Last Sunday a Yankee soldier, with two black creatures on his arms, tried to push Mr. and Mrs.-(name illegible) off the sidewalk as they were coming home from church. Mr. E. raised his cane, but happily for him, a Yankee officer stepped up before he had time to use it and reproved the soldier for his insolence.

As John Henry Yates celebrates his freedom and Eliza Andrews pens her thoughts and observations on the changed status of black southerners, friends of newspaper editor and influential Baptist minister J. R. Graves petition Andrew Johnson, the president of the United States, for Graves’ amnesty.

Now living in Mississippi, Graves recently visited his home in Nashville, Tennessee, having fled in February 1862 as Union forces occupied the city. Of his return, Graves wrote:

I returned to look upon the sad wreck of property and business. Scarce anything was left of the entire stock of books and type of the publishing-house. What had not been carried off was destroyed, and the house itself and the resident of one of the partners had been sold for a paltry sum due a Northern creditor. No alternative was left, but to sell property at heavy sacrifice and pay off indebtedness, and give up all thoughts of business until Providence should provide means for its re-establishment.

In order to move back to Tennessee, he must be granted amnesty. From Memphis this day four of Graves’ friends, including the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Memphis, write to Johnson:

The Rev. J. R. Graves, formerly of Nashville, Tennessee, but now of Summit, Mississippi, having expressed earnest desire to return to the state and establish his publishing interests, to exert whatever influence he may be able to bring to bear to and in the pacification of the country; and knowing that perhaps no one man can reach so many minds in the south or exert to controlling an influence over them. We make this earnest petition that you will _____, or signify your willingness for him to return, assuring you that no one will render you a more ardent support in the great work of restoring peace, order, and harmony to our country.

In the days to come other Baptist leaders also petition Johnson, including Richard Fuller of Baltimore, Maryland.

The petitions are heeded, and Graves is granted amnesty. Moving to Memphis, for 28 more years he serves as a Baptist editor and pastor.

Sources: “Yates, John Henry (Jack),” Texas State Historical Association (link); Eliza Frances Andrews, The war-time journal of a Georgia girl, 1864-1865, Perseus Digital Library Project(link); David E. Gregg, “Amnesty for J. R. Graves,” Oxford Baptist Institute Bulletin, Mississippi, July-August (link)