The Tribulations of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Kentucky

Written by Tim Talbott on. Posted in Uncategorized

Freedmen's BureauBy Rob Knox, Holy Cross High School, Covington, KY

In July of 1868, the local agencies of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Unclaimed Lands ceased operations that were established to help Kentucky’s black population make the transition from slave to free. In an open letter to “the freed people of Kentucky,” the assistant commissioner of the bureau in Kentucky, Benjamin Runkle, celebrated the success of the Bureau and the readiness of Kentucky’s white and black population to coexist in relative harmony without continued federal involvement in the state’s affairs.  The letter states, “[t]he results of the efforts of the Bureau, since its establishment, have been eminently satisfactory…The government has liberated, protected, fed, clothed and educated you.  It is the act of a just and generous people, and the officers of the Bureau are not ashamed of their share in the work.”[1]

After establishing the Bureau’s Kentucky legacy as one of success, the letter continues on to address Kentucky’s preparedness for a fair and just biracial society.  Runkle wrote:

“[t]he Assistant Commissioner hopes that the white people of Kentucky, recognizing the fact that intelligent labor is necessary for their prosperity, will lend you a helping hand…The Assistant Commissioner trusts…that you [blacks] will cultivate friendly relations with the white people of Kentucky…and, in fine that you may continue the work of fitting yourselves to secure and enjoy the rights and privileges of American citizens.”[2]

Seemingly, at the conclusion of the Bureau’s short tenure in Kentucky most of the problems other states were facing in the midst of Reconstruction had been eradicated, but this letter was meant as an encouragement to the people who were largely being left to fend for themselves without federal support.  A closer inspection of the Bureau’s history and success rate in Kentucky reveals a much more difficult situation made worse by Bureau shortages of funds and manpower and amplified by white Kentuckians racism and disdain towards the Bureau and its activities.

Kentucky’s unique position as a Union state that was fighting to retain slavery in the Civil War’s early years draws light on its anti-federal stance during Reconstruction.  Many Kentuckians felt like the federal government was treating them as conquered territory instead of a loyal state, and at the heart of this battle between white Kentuckians and the federal government was the status of blacks and the abolition of slavery.  As blacks earned more rights throughout the Reconstruction years, Kentuckians turned further and further away from their Union identity and started to more closely align themselves with the defeated ex-Confederate states.[3]  Tellingly, it was not until 1891 that Kentucky’s Constitution was amended to recognize the abolition of slavery, and the Civil War Amendments were not ratified until 1976 during the bicentennial festivities.  Amidst the hostility the installation of local Freedmen’s Bureaus was obviously not well received and never accepted by the majority of whites across the state.  Examining the records of the local office of Covington, Kentucky reveals the difficulties for the freedmen and the impotency of the Bureau to alleviate much of the suffering of Kentucky’s newly freed blacks.

Covington, as the northernmost city in Kentucky, was linked to Ohio and the north.  To examine the Bureau’s challenges here, where more people should have seemingly supported the Union and the new federal efforts at Reconstruction, elucidates the difficulty for the Bureau and the freedmen throughout the entire state.  When the Bureau opened its Covington field office, a report of the area was compiled to take stock of the situation by Superintendent John Graham. Graham spoke of his need to move quickly and disguise his purpose as he traveled around.  He wrote that, if it became known that “I was on business connected with the Freedmen’s Bureau, I would certainly have been [sic] and killed.”[4]  Graham continued to explain the situation in the counties: in Boone County, “Rebel soldiers sport their rebel uniforms and talk traitorous talk.”[5]  He discussed the continued existence of slavery in southern Boone County, and finished this troubling report with an assessment of the Bureau’s needs: “I am now well satisfied that the affairs of the Bureau cannot be fully enforced without a military…”[6]

The records of the Covington office of the Freedmen’s Bureau make several mentions of violent mobs known as “regulators.”  The mobs “utilized mock lynchings, beatings, whippings, house wrecking or burning, rape, emasculation, and murder in their efforts to establish social, economic, and political relationships based on white supremacy.”[7]  These regulators were responsible for a significant amount of violence within the area, especially in the more rural locations. 

In a letter from May 1866, Superintendent Graham reported that he was receiving information about a “band of scoundrels styling themselves Regulators…committing a great many outrages on the Freedmen.”[8]  When these and other crimes were reported to the Bureau, it was difficult for the field agents to act because of the resistance of local governments to blacks and the activity of the Bureau.  In several letters, Graham complained that the Mayor of Covington, Cassius B. Sanford, refused to cooperate in the prosecution of perpetrators accused of crimes against blacks.  In one particular case, brought forth by Graham to the mayor, a black man was assaulted with an axe, but the only available testimony of the incident was from another black man, and the mayor refused to hear the case on those grounds.  Mayor Sanford’s behavior was in violation of the Civil Rights Act passed in 1866 by the federal government.  Graham “produced a copy of the Civil Rights Bill and requested His Honor to read it, which he declined and remarked that the laws of the State forbid colored testimony to be taken against a white man and he therefore refused to take the testimony of the colored men.”[9]  When replying to the question: “[i]f the Civil Rights Law has not been enforced what in your opinion is the reason and who are at fault?”  Graham responded, “[t]he reason the law is not enforced, is that the civil authorities with but few exceptions have refused to comply with the provisions of the law and they are the persons at fault.”[10]  This level of intransigence from the civil authorities made it almost impossible for Graham and his agents to protect blacks from violence.

Without the ability to testify, or any standing in the court, blacks were easy targets for violence because the perpetrators knew it was likely they would not be found guilty or even tried for their crimes.  Conditions for blacks in the area worsened to the point that one of Graham’s reports spoke of the general fear of reenslavement and a “reign of terror” throughout the region.[11]  For blacks in any part of Kentucky, the authorities’ refusal to prosecute violent acts perpetrated against blacks created a very dangerous living situation.  In this atmosphere of racial hatred and violence, education, the other major Freedmen’s Bureau initiative, was always going to be an uphill battle.

Thus, when the evidence from just one local bureau is juxtaposed against the letter about the Bureau’s successful tenure and exit from Kentucky, the two just do not add up. The letter to the freedmen was an attempt to mask the problems that were going to be left behind due to budget restraints and a resistant population. The short-lived operations of the Bureau in Kentucky could not fix the situation caused by extreme poverty, transient black populations, and a white population that resisted any effort to create a society where blacks were viewed as equals or given anything else besides their freedom from the bonds of slavery. In short, the Bureau was too underfunded and undermanned to make much of a difference in the lives of most blacks in Kentucky because, unlike the Reconstruction districts of the deeper South, there were no federal troops to ensure enforcement of the federal government’s efforts to foster a better and more equal status for Kentucky’s black population.

Archival Primary Sources

Kentucky Historical Society: Frankfort, Kentucky

            Rare Documents Archive

                        Kentucky State Records – Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands

National Archives and Records Administration, Washington D.C.

            Record Group 105, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Unclaimed Lands

                        M1904 – Roll 93 – Records of the Covington Field Office

Secondary Sources

Marshall, Anne E. Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Rhyne, Michael J. ” ‘We Are Mobed and Beat’: Regulator Violence Against Free Black Households in Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region, 1865-1867.” Ohio Valley History, 2, 1 (Spring 2002): 30-42.

[1] Benjamin Runkle, “Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands: Circular No. 8.”(Louisville, KY., July 16, 1868) Pg. 1.

[2] Ibid. Pg. 2.

[3] For additional information on Kentucky’s post-war identity see: Anne Marshall, Creating a Confederate Kentucky: The Lost Cause and Civil War Memory in a Border State (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

[4] John Graham, “Letter to Superior,” May 27, 1866.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7]J. Michael Rhyne, “’We are Mobed and Beat: Regulator Violence Against Free Black Households in Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region, 1865-1867”, Ohio Valley History, 2 (Spring 2002): 30.

[8] John Graham, “Letter to Superiors,” May 10, 1866.

[9] John Graham, “Letter to Superiors,” October 19, 1866. Several other letters discuss the intransigence of the mayor on this subject, and illustrate the strained relationship between Graham and the local authorities who were uncooperative at best.  A letter from July 13, 1866 complains that black testimony is refused, and yet again on September 26, 1867 Graham wrote, “The Mayor of Covington KY still persists in refusing to accept Negro testimony whereby great injustice is done the colored people.”

[10] John Graham, “The State of Kenton County,” May 20, 1867.

[11] John Graham, “Letter to Superior,” August 14, 1867.

Trackback from your site.