Chapter 1: Freedom Baby CHAPTER 1 Freedom Baby
Into a time of destitution and aspiration, of mayhem and promise, Sarah Breedlove was born two days before Christmas 1867. It was a Yuletide that offered her parents, Owen and Minerva, no other gifts. An open-hearth fireplace provided the only source of warmth and light in their sloped-roof cyprus cabin. No official document recorded Sarah’s birth. No newspaper notice heralded her arrival. No lacy gown enveloped her tiny cocoa body.
To the world beyond her family’s rented plot of ground in Delta, Louisiana, Sarah was just another black baby destined for drudgery and ignorance. But to her parents, she symbolized hope. Unlike her older siblings—Louvenia, Owen, Jr., Alexander and James—Sarah had been born free just a few days shy of the Emancipation Proclamation’s fifth anniversary. Still, her parents’ lives were unlikely to change anytime soon. For the Breedloves, even hope had its limits.
Tethered to this space for more than two decades—first as slaves, then as free people—they knew what to expect from its seasonal patterns. Spring rains almost always split the levees, transforming land to sea until the floods receded from their grassless yard to reveal a soppy stew, flush with annual deposits of soil from the northern banks of the Mississippi River. Summer dry spells sucked the moist dirt until it turned to dust. Steamy autumns filled creamy-white cotton fields with swarms of sweating ebony backs, blistered feet and bloody, cracked cuticles. On a predictable cycle, wind, water and heat, then flies, mosquitoes and gnats, streamed through the slits and gaps of their rickety home.
Beyond the nearby levee, the syrupy mile-wide river formed a liquid highway, bringing news and commerce like blood transfusions from New Orleans and Natchez to the south, St. Louis and Memphis to the north. Three miles upstream and a half-hour ferry ride away in Vicksburg, black stevedores unloaded farm tools and timepieces, china and chifforobes from steamboats, then stacked their decks with honeycombs of cotton bales just hauled in from Jackson and Clinton and Yazoo City.
During the Civil War the river had also become an avenue of invasion, so central to the Confederacy’s east-west supply trains and north-south riverboats that President Abraham Lincoln declared it the “key” to winning the war. Confederate President Jefferson Davis, whose family plantation was located barely thirty river miles south of the city at Davis Bend, was equally aware of its strategic position. From atop Vicksburg’s two-hundred-foot red-clay bluffs, Confederate cannons glowered at Union gunboats and controlled this patch of the Mississippi Valley, frustrating the federal navy for more than two years until the Confederates’ decisive July 4, 1863, surrender.
Having been reduced to eating mule meat and living in caves during a forty-seven-day bombardment and siege, Vicksburg residents, and their Louisiana neighbors on the western side of the river, found their mauling hard to forget or forgive. As General Ulysses S. Grant’s blue-uniformed columns streamed triumphantly toward Vicksburg’s stalwart courthouse, thousands of freedmen cheered. But for many generations after the troops had left, the former slaves and their descendants would suffer from the federal army’s vindictive pillaging and the retaliation inflicted upon them by their former masters.
Life and living arrangements were so scrambled after the war that Owen and Minerva, both
born around 1828, remained on the plantation where they had lived as Robert W. Burney’s slaves since at least 1847. Their African family origins, as well as their faces and voices, are lost to time, silenced by their illiteracy. Because the importation of slaves had been illegal since January 1, 1808—though the law was flouted for years—they had been born in the United States. Whether Burney purchased them from an auction block in Vicksburg, New Orleans or Mobile—places he frequented—will likely never be known.
Before the war, Owen and Minerva’s labor had helped make their owner a wealthy man. In 1860, a
banner year for cotton in Louisiana, Burney’s “real property”—including his land and the sixty people he owned—was
valued at $125,000, his personal property at $15,000. Such holdings secured his place in the top 10 percent of slave-owning Southern planters, and put him among the 30 percent who owned more than 1,000 acres.
But now, with the South defeated, the Burney fields were “
growing up with weeds,” their house and farm buildings—like those of most of their neighbors—destroyed as they fled with their slaves during the first campaign against Vicksburg in 1862. Hoping never to see Union soldiers again, they had found themselves in a rented home
in Morton, Mississippi, and squarely in the path of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s destructive 1864 march across that state, a prelude to his more famous 1865 swath through Georgia.
By the spring of 1865, when the Burneys returned to the peninsula where their plantation sat, the Union commanders at Vicksburg had confiscated the land for a
refugee camp filled with several thousand newly freed men, women and children. “The scenes were appalling,” wrote one Freedmen’s Bureau official. “
The refugees were crowded together, sickly, disheartened, dying on the streets, not a family of them all either well sheltered, clad, or fed.”
The Burney farm had also become a
burial ground pocked with mass graves for hundreds of the 3,200 Union soldiers who had died of dysentery, typhoid and malaria as they kept watch over Vicksburg during the scorching summer of 1862 and the soggy winter of 1863. The troops, along with 1,200 slaves confiscated from nearby plantations, had followed a Union general’s order to excavate a canal—a kind of jugular slash through the base of the peninsula’s long neck—intended to circumvent the impenetrable hills of Vicksburg.
By late 1867, as the Breedloves awaited Sarah’s birth, all that remained of a once grand plantation were “one or two little houses or
shanties near the river” and a large ditch marking the failed bypass.
Robert W. Burney was only
twenty-two years old in August 1842 when he arrived with his oxen and farm implements on 167 acres of rented land in Madison Parish, Louisiana, near the Mississippi River north of Vicksburg. By the following February, when he purchased the land for a mere
$1.25 an acre, he already had a small group of enslaved people at work preparing 65 acres for corn and cotton.
His personal good fortune was the result of a nationwide economic crisis that had financially strapped the previous owners. For a young man as ambitious as Burney, the uncultivated soil of the Louisiana frontier held more lucrative promise than the depleted farmland of the more heavily populated eastern United States. Overextended land speculators, ruined in the Panic of 1837, were forced to sell to men like Burney, who, unsaddled by debt, could dictate advantageous deals for modest amounts of cash. A native of Maury County, Tennessee—home of President James Knox Polk—Burney became the recipient of some of the country’s most fertile farmland, its alluvial soil so suited for long-staple cotton that it would soon become one of Louisiana’s wealthiest parishes.
In April 1846 he nearly doubled his holdings with the $300 cash purchase of
160 acres just three and a half miles south of Vicksburg, one of the busiest cotton-trading ports between St. Louis and New Orleans. This time his land abutted the water, providing direct access to passing steamboats. It was situated on a mile-and-a half-wide peninsula that jutted northeastward toward Vicksburg like a finger poised to make a point, and its picturesque panoramas earned it the name Grand View. What Burney did not plant with cotton and vegetables in this dark, fertile turf remained a virgin forest of moss-draped oak, elm and cypress. Eventually a railroad designed to link trade on the Mississippi River with the Atlantic and Pacific oceans would pierce the center of his cotton fields.
With prime property and favorable future prospects, Burney’s relative affluence made him a most eligible bachelor. In
October 1846, he chose for his bride Mary Fredonia Williamson, the educated seventeen-year-old daughter of the late Russell McCord Williamson, a
wealthy Mississippi landowner and delegate to the second Mississippi Constitutional Convention of 1832. Williamson, who like Burney had grown up in Maury County, had been a childhood friend of the Polk boys, their families so close that one of the men he owned had assisted in the funeral of the President’s father.
Williamson also had ties to another President, Andrew Jackson, under whom he had
fought as a teenager in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. In 1834, during the first year of his second term, Jackson
appointed Williamson surveyor general of all public lands south of Tennessee amid the feverish Mississippi land rush for the confiscated ancestral territory of the Choctaws and Chickasaws. At least a second-generation slave owner, Williamson had no reason or incentive to quarrel with the views of President Jackson, one of the South’s largest slaveholders, on the topic of chattel labor.
“Ownership,” Jackson’s biographer Robert Remini wrote, “was as American to these Jacksonians as capitalism, nationalism, or democracy.” What property Williamson possessed, he passed on to his offspring. To Mary Fredonia he bequeathed
at least a dozen enslaved people, nearly doubling her husband’s holdings of human assets.
Independent of his wife’s inheritance, Burney had prospered well enough to attract the attention of Oliver O. Woodman, a
Vicksburg investor who owned several businesses, including a pharmacy and a bookstore. In 1848, the two men agreed to combine their “
negroes, Oxen, Corn, Farming Utensils, horses, etc…. into a copartnership.” Among the
slaves Burney brought to the deal were nineteen-year-old Owen, valued at $700, and nineteen-year-old Minerva, valued at $600. At the time of the January 1, 1848, inventory, Minerva was not yet Owen’s wife and neither of them had any children.
In exchange for co-ownership of 524 additional acres, which Woodman had purchased next to Burney’s existing property, Burney agreed to manage the plantation, the goal being “
to clear up and cultivate the land as fast as the timber is taken off.” The partnership found a ready market for the timber’s by-products, especially the cordwood needed by the ravenous wood-burning boilers of the steamboats and packet boats that lumbered all day and night around the corkscrew twists of the Mississippi and Louisiana shorelines.
All the profits from the enterprise were to “
be invested in negroes” who were to be “kept on the place during the copartnership.” It was a small consolation in the cruel system of slavery. Burney and Woodman agreed that, “should there be
any negro women with children, which are joint property, at the expiration of the copartnership, either party getting them are to take them at valuation, as children under ten years old should not be separated from the mother.”
Whether Minerva, who was a year older than Mary Fredonia, worked primarily in the fields or in the house eludes historians. But with a growing family, eventually numbering six daughters, the mistress of the house surely needed Minerva’s help. Despite having her own children, who were roughly the same age, Minerva was expected to come to Mary Fredonia’s aid whenever she was called.
By 1850, seven years after Burney’s arrival in Madison Parish, his property was valued at
$10,000, a reflection of the increasing wealth of the nation’s
350,000 slaveholding families. As the slave population burgeoned, especially in Madison Parish, where blacks would come to eclipse whites nine to one, planters grew more paranoid, advocating hard-nosed control over their human property. The prospect of a literate slave population was so frightening to some that an 1830 state law had forbidden “
teaching them to read and write on pain of imprisonment for one to twelve months.”
“There is among the slave population throughout the states far
too much information for their own happiness and subordination,” the nearby Richmond Compiler
editorialized. “Without rigid regulations and strict subordination, there is no safety.”
As late as 1860, Delta was an
unincorporated village with only ten households of fewer than sixty whites as well as hundreds of slaves who were scattered over a few thousand acres. By then the Burneys, who had prospered splendidly during the previous decade, had every reason to believe their good fortune would continue. The Breedloves, who had never known freedom, had no reason to believe their luck would ever change. But by the end of the war in April 1865, nothing about their parallel worlds remained a certainty. A year later Robert Burney was dead of a stroke, overwhelmed by the daunting struggle to regain his land and his lost wealth. That November, Mary Fredonia, still nursing an infant, succumbed to cholera. Their six young daughters would spend decades untangling legal disputes over their father’s property.
For Owen, Minerva and their growing family, freedom constructed new hurdles. The scant 1866 cotton harvest was followed by an even more disastrous yield in 1867, when Madison Parish was decimated first by the worst flood in its history, then by army worms that left the cotton fields “
blackened like fire had swept over them.” By winter, thousands of Louisiana farm families, stunned at their meager earnings, were starving and homeless, “having no place to go and no clothing but rags.” With the Burney family in too much disarray to monitor their balance books, at least the Breedloves had their shack. Like thousands of other indigent black families, they placed some faith in the intangible hope of full citizenship for themselves and education for their children that had come with the overthrow of the Confederacy.
During the rainy spring before Sarah Breedlove’s birth, Congress had overridden President Andrew Johnson’s veto and adopted the Reconstruction Act, dividing the postwar South into five military districts and enfranchising more than
700,000 black men—most of them newly freed slaves—throughout the eleven states of the former Confederacy. This Radical Reconstruction would last until 1877, when the Democrats orchestrated the demise of the last Southern Republican government and claimed “redemption” for all they had lost. But in August 1867 almost two-thirds of Louisiana’s
127,639 registered voters were black, and still hopeful that their first efforts at participatory democracy would deliver the dignity and political rights they craved. With emancipation, Madison Parish’s overwhelmingly black workforce also had become an overwhelmingly black electorate.
Owen, now thirty-nine, was eligible to cast the first vote of his life in an election calling for a Louisiana constitutional convention to rewrite state laws. In late September, when the votes were tallied, exactly
half the delegates were black and half were white. Only
two were not Republicans. When the conferees met in New Orleans in late November, a month before Sarah’s birth, the New Orleans Times
derisively labeled their assembly the “
Congo Convention.” President Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, delivered a similar indictment, accusing Radical Republicans of trying to “
Africanize… half of our country” and calling blacks “
utterly so ignorant of public affairs that their voting can consist in nothing more than carrying a ballot to the place where they are directed to deposit it.”
While most of the new voters were, in fact, illiterate, most of the black delegates had
as much or more education than their white counterparts, and in some instances more than President
Johnson, a tailor who had taught himself to read. Some had been enslaved; most were freeborn. Among the large property owners, a few had owned other human beings. At least one, Fortune Riard of Lafayette, had been
educated in France, where he served as a naval officer.
During the final weeks of Minerva’s pregnancy Curtis Pollard—the Breedloves’ family minister and a newly elected delegate to the constitutional convention—talked optimistically of guaranteed suffrage for black adult males and statewide public education for the newly freed slaves. On December 31, eight days after Sarah’s birth, Pinckney B. S. Pinchback, another black delegate who later would serve as acting lieutenant governor of the state, introduced civil rights legislation
outlawing segregation on trains, on ferries and in public places.
The Democrats were outraged, holding fast to a platform advocating
“a government of white people” in which there could, “in no event nor under any circumstance, be any equality between the whites and other races.” Without the votes required to ensure this outcome, the party faithful struck back with terror and intimidation. During the next several months, the vigilante Knights of the
White Camellia, who had organized in southern Louisiana in May 1867, began to gather members and sympathizers from other parts of the state. For a while, at least, Madison’s black population was not subjected to the more flagrant violence, in large part due to its numbers, as well as to the presence of federal troops in nearby Vicksburg. But any sense of personal safety would prove to be illusory and temporary.