First Days Amongst the Contraands

Author: Elizabeth Hyde Botume  | Date: 1893

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Among the Freedmen (1864)


"THE poor ye have always with you." This was impressed upon me all the time. It was necessary to inspect my district, now crowded with new-comers, to find out the condition and needs of these people.

I went first to the negro quarters at the "Battery Plantation," a mile and a half away. A large number of Georgia refugees who had followed Sherman’s army were quartered here. Around the old plantation house was a small army of black children, who swarmed like bees around a hive. There were six rooms in the house, occupied by thirty-one persons, big and little. In one room was a man whom I had seen before. He was very light, with straight red hair and a sandy complexion, and I mistook him for an Irishman. He had been to me at one time grieving deeply for the loss of his wife, but he had now consoled himself with a buxom girl as black as ink. His sister, a splendidly developed creature, was with them. He had also four sons. Two were as light as himself, and two were very black. These seven persons occupied this one room. A

rough box bedstead, with a layer of moss and a few old rags in it, a hominy pot, two or three earthen plates, and a broken-backed chair, comprised all the furniture of the room. I had previously given one of the women a needle and some thread, and she now sat on the edge of the rough bedstead trying to sew the dress she ought, in decency, to have had on.

In the old kitchen, not far from the house, more refugees had been placed. Two women were very ill, lying on the floor with only moss and corn-husks under them. It was a most pitiful sight. One of these women begged for a blanket, but the other asked for better food.

"I cannot eat only dry hominy, ma’am," she said. "I lived in massa’s house, and used to have white bread and coffee, and I want something sweet in my mouth."

She had belonged to kind and careful owners in Georgia, and suffered severely from all these changes. . . .

Both of these women died. Feeling they could not live, to my surprise and consternation, they willed me their children. In one family there were five children, and in the other but one boy. The old feeling, born of slavery, that the white race had a right of possession over the blacks, still clung to them. They not only gave me their children, but tried to exact from me a promise to keep them and take good care of them. When I hesitated, they implored me most piteously not to desert them. . . .

The plantation people lived in "the nigger houses." Most of these people had been carried "up country" by their old owners, but had now got back, delighted to see again the familiar places and the cabins where they were born. They seemed to me, as I talked with them, a superior class; more tidy and self-respecting than most of the new-comers,—owing, doubtless, to the care and good management of their former owners.

On the next plantation was a curious collection of the original people and new-comers. All might be called refugees, for they had recently returned "from the main," where they had been carried—not fled to.

In one cabin I found a man in a most wretched condition. Years before he had fallen from a building and broken his back. . . . He was only able to use his hands, and he looked like a human ball rolling over the floor.

I had his cabin cleaned and whitewashed, and fresh, clean clothes put on the poor fellow. He tried in vain to find words to express his gratitude.

In all my interviews with him I never heard a word of complaint, although his sufferings must have been extreme.

"Bless the Lord, missis!" he said, "’tain’t no use to fret about it, for it can’t be helpt; an’ I ain’t all the tune so racket about wid pain as I used to bin. Sometimes at night I’se so painful I can’t shet my eye, an’ den I look out de doah, up at the stars, an’ t’ink dem de eyes of de Lord looking straight down at me one. An’ I ’member what de white folks tell me, ’De Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want;’ for in course I is His little sheep, an’ I is so glad! It ’pears like the pain don’t hurt me no more. I done forget it altogedder." . . .

In my district there were over five hundred contrabands, men, women, and children. All expressed a desire to have their children learn something, if they themselves knew nothing. But all, from the oldest to the youngest, were eager to "come fur larn too."

I found but one person, a young soldier, who disdained to attempt anything, saying, almost with insolence, that he had a right to learn when young, like other boys; this was denied him then, and he was not allowed to touch a book, and now it was too late. This man had indomitable will, with boldness, unceasing activity, and great physical strength. He was a power with his race. I wished to gain his influence for the school, as well as his own good, but could never do it.

One contraband said to me, "Liberty is as good for us as for the birds of the air. Slavery is not so bad, but liberty is so good."

He spoke with great affection of his master, who he said had gone to live in Delaware. . . .

Seeing so much destitution around us made our own lives, meagre as they were, seem luxurious by comparison. But we were not posing as "saints without bodies," and it was sometimes a desperate struggle to keep ourselves comfortable. At first there was nothing by which to note time; no clocks nor bells nor steam-whistles. There were two watches belonging to our "mess." When one was at the schoolhouse there was nothing to guide the cook at home.

The dial of the contrabands was: "When the first fowl crow"—"At crack o’ day"—"W’en de sun stan’ straight ober head"—"At frog peep"—"When fust star shine"—"At flood tide," or "ebb tide," or "young flood"—"On las’ moon," or "new moon." Now they add to this list "quarterly meeting."

But these data did not help our cook to work, nor us to regular meals. . . .

In some places the first people who were freed were treated with injudicious consideration. They were told they were by right the owners of the land upon which they had worked so long, etc.

Whatever sentiment there was in this, we had to remember we were dealing with people just born into a new life, who had to learn the meanings of their new conditions. Like children, they were to be given what they could assimilate.

For instance, I was advised not to ask the old house servants to work for me; for they were in fact the masters and mistresses of the place,—of the situation they were for a time, if they only knew it, but of nothing else. Said my adviser, "I have no more right to ask Cornelia, the old laundress, to wash for me, than she has to ask me to do her washing."

I replied that laundry work had not been my business: I came to teach the freed people to help themselves.

Whatever they could do better than I, in so far they were my superiors. In consideration of their "previous condition," I gave them my time and instruction, whilst I should pay regular wages for their labor. But I should expect good work, and no make-believe.

Elizabeth Hyde Botume, (Boston, Lee & Shepard, 1893), 82–129 passim.


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Chicago: Elizabeth Hyde Botume, "Among the Freedmen (1864)," First Days Amongst the Contraands in American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. Albert Bushnell Hart (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1903), Original Sources, accessed December 3, 2022,

MLA: Botume, Elizabeth Hyde. "Among the Freedmen (1864)." First Days Amongst the Contraands, in American History Told by Contemporaries, edited by Albert Bushnell Hart, Vol. 4, New York, The Macmillan Company, 1903, Original Sources. 3 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Botume, EH, 'Among the Freedmen (1864)' in First Days Amongst the Contraands. cited in 1903, American History Told by Contemporaries, ed. , The Macmillan Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 3 December 2022, from