Baptists and the American Civil War: June 16, 1865

Freedmen in Richmond, Virginia.

Freedmen in Richmond, Virginia.

Following a meeting of Richmond-area black citizens at the First African Baptist Church of Richmond on June 10, five representatives from that meeting visit with U.S. President Andrew Johnson this day to voice their complaints of how Richmond’s white citizens are yet denying freedoms to blacks. Making matters worse, Federal military authorities were collaborating in denying freedoms to blacks. Leading the delegation is Fields Cook (1817-1897), a black Baptist layman who had purchased his freedom prior to the war.

Among the offenses listed are denial of freedom of movement about town, racial discrimination in the distribution of food to the needy, and police brutality.

The persecution is in large part under the direction of Richmond’s long time mayor, Joseph Mayo. Although technically temporarily suspended by U.S. authorities, the occupying Federals have in effect allowed him to retain his mayoral functions, despite his acts in defiance of U.S. Reconstruction efforts. As the black delegation tells Johnson:

For a long series of years he has been the Mayor of Richmond, and his administration has always been marked by cruelty and injustice to us; and the old rebel police, now again in power, have been our greatest enemies. It was Mayor Mayo who, in former days, ordered us to be scourged for trifling offences against slave laws and usages, and his present police, who are now hunting us through the streets, are the men who relentlessly applied the lash to our quivering flesh, and now they appear to take special pleasure in persecuting and oppressing us.

Richmond’s black citizens also tell Johnson that the city’s white ministers are preventing blacks from autonomous control of their own churches, including several churches that have been black-owned for decades.

Now, in the reconstruction of our church matters”we wish to employ clergymen of our choice and faith, and to hold our own property. The obnoxious clergy we may gradually get rid of, but how to get possession of our church property, passeth our understanding.

Johnson responds noncommittally. Race relations in Richmond remain strained throughout the year as white citizens insist on restricting the rights and freedoms of black citizens. Black Baptists thus face great challenges in exercising their autonomy.

In August Fields Cook is elected vice president of the state’s first African American convention. Throughout the remainder of the decade he remains involved in politics, and in the 1870s becomes a Baptist minister in Alexandria.

Sources: Elsa Barkley Brown, “Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: African American Political Life in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom,” pp. 113-115 (link); “Fields Cook, 1817-1897,” Encyclopedia Virginia (link); Bratton, Mary J., ed. “Fields’s Observation: The Slave Narrative of a Nineteenth-Century Virginian.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 88, no. 1 (January 1980), 75–93 (link)