Taking Advantage of the Freedmen
John Wallace

Early in 1866 it was reported that the freedmen would be enfranchised, and many of them thinking the right had already accrued, called a secret meeting for the election of a Member of Congress. The meeting was held at the A. M. E. Church in Tallahassee, and Joseph Oats, formerly a slave of Governor Walker, was unanimously elected. The next step was to raise money to send the newly-elected Congressman to Washington. The money was forthcoming, as plenty of old men and women gave their last dollar to send one of their race to the National Congress. Several hundred dollars were thus raised and given to Oats, who shortly afterwards was "off to Congress." He remained away from Tallahassee until his money was gone, when he wrote back designating the time when he would return. The freedmen prepared a picnic at Houstoun's spring, about a mile from Tallahassee. Oats notified them that if they desired to know what he had done for them while in Congress, they must preapre to protect him, as the whites would kill him when they should learn what he had accomplished against them. The 20th of May, the day on which General McCook marched his troops into Tallahassee, and declared all the inhabitants to be free, was the day set apart for Oats to tell the freedmen the great work he had accomplished in Congress. At nine o'clock on that memorable 20th of May, the drums commenced beating and the freedmen to the number of two or three thousand formed in line and marched to Oats' dwelling and sent a committee armed with old cavalry swords and pistols to escort Oats to the place of destination. He was escorted to Houstoun's spring, when the committee, at his request, arranged that he should be surrounded by the freedmen and the whites kept from harming him or hearing what he said. The whites, however, did not know what was going on other than a celebration and picnic, and were not present. Oats' speech was, that he had seen the President, and they had true friends at Washington, etc. It was believed, however, that Oats did not go further than Savannah, where he had a good time, spent the freedmens' money, and returned home. After Oats had finished his story about the President, and his great labors in Congress, the crowd sent up their huzzahs for half an hour and then sat down to a sumptuous dinner. Whisky was plentiful on the ground and was freely imbibed by the freedmen. A dispute arose among them as to where Oats had been, and the affair ended in a general knock down and drag out. Oats was a carpenter by trade, and before being set free had hired himself from his master; could read and write, and was therefore capable of hoodwinking the average freedman. He was a fine looking mulatto whose mother was said to be white.

During the years 1865-67 there was much speculation among the freedmen as to what the government intended to do for them in regard to farms; and as most of them had to work for a portion of the crop it induced them to seek homes of their own. One Stonelake, United States Land Register at Tallahassee, appointed soon after the surrender, knowing this fact, and taking advantage of the ignorance of the freedmen, issued to them thousands of land certificates purporting to convey thousands of acres of land. For each certificate the freedman was required to pay not less than five dollars, and as much more as Stonelake could extort from the more ignorant. He induced the most influential to make the first purchases, and, it was generally believed, gave them a portion of his fees to secure purchasers. The former masters warned our people against this fraud, but as Stonelake was one of the representatives of the paternal government, he was supposed by the freedmen to be incapable of fraud or deception. Many of them were led to believe that these lands consisted of their former masters' plantations, and that the certificates alone would oust the latter from possession. After showing the certificates around among his neighbors and exulting over the purchase of a plantation, he would eventually show it to his former master, who would explain the fraud, when he would rush back to Stonelake for his money, who would invent some new deception to quiet him, and explain that upon further examination of his books he found the lands were located further south. These explanations did not fully satisfy the freedmen, and they called a meeting and appointed several of their number to go down south and spy out the Promised Land. This committee expended the money raised by their confiding friends, and after an absence of several weeks in a pretended survey, reported that they saw some good lands, as well as bad, and advised the freedmen to occupy them, but as they were unable to locate the Promised Land, their advice was not followed, and the victims were left to vent their curses upon the swindler, Stonelake.

The Freedman's Bureau, an institution devised by Congress under the influence of the very best people of the Northern States, and intended as a means of protection of the freedmen, and preparing them for the new responsibilities and privileges conferred, in the hands of bad men proved, instead of a blessing, to be the worst curse of the race, as under it he was misled, debased and betrayed. The agents of this Bureau were stationed in all the cities and principal towns in the State. They overruled the local authorities with the arbitrary force of military power. Before it was definitely known that the Congress of the United States could confer the right of suffrage upon the negro the great majority of the agents were more oppressive of the freedmen than the local authorities, their former masters. The State having been impoverished by the war, the national government, realizing the condition of the people, and especially of the freedmen, who were set free with nothing but the scant clothing on their backs, sent provisions to the State to be distributed to such of the freedmen as were struggling, without means of subsistence, to make a crop. This meat and flour was placed in the hands of these agents for distribution, who appropriated it at their discretion, and frequently more largely for their own benefit than that of their wards.


Carpetbag Rule in Florida by John Wallace
Da Costa Printing and Publishing House, Jacksonville, Florida, 1888, pages 38-41.