Testimony of R. Tomlinson
Port Royal Experiment

Pennsylvania Freedmen Vol 1 Number 1 - Feb 1865

A Speech delivered at Concert Hall, Pbila., Nov. 21, 1864.

I appear before you this evening at the request of the Pennsylvania Freedmen's Aid Association, for the purpose of
making a brief statement of the progress and present condition of the Freedmen in the Department of the South. Most
of the freedmen in that department are to be found on Port Royal, St. Helena, Hilton Head, Ladies', Paris, and Coosaw
Islands. These Islands are usually described by the general title of Port Royal. At St. Augustine,
Fernandina, and
Jacksonville, Florida, there are also collected a considerable number of freedmen, but, as I have already stated, the
great proportion of those within our lines in that department are to be found at Port Royal.

There are in the department about nineteen thousand freedmen, from four to five thousand of whom are refugees from
the mainland and from adjacent islands once occupied by our troops. When Port royal fell into our hands, about ten
thousand negroes and only one white man were found there. And just here let me say, that one reason of the great
success of the free labor experiment in that department is found in the fact that none of the old masters were left behind
to interfere with the plans adopted for the elevation of the freedmen. Another advantage was this: We were so entirely
cut off from the mainland that there was little or no danger of raids from the enemy, and thus a measure of security, one
of the most important conditions of regular and faithful labor among an ignorant class of people was obtained. But a
better and more substantial reason for our success than either of the foregoing is this; the negroes are men, and being
men, they therefore naturally and inevitably do better under the conditions of freedom than of slavery.

I am speaking of men and women who are just emerging from chattel slavery, the brutalizing and degrading influences of
which are of course to be found in every thought, word, and deed of their lives. And, in order that you may fully
appreciate their their improved condition, you must constantly keep before your minds the loathsome pit from which they
have been dragged; and I would have you also remember that it is we, and not they, who are, in great part, responsible
for the vice, weakness and ignorance that stand in the way of their elevation. They are an ignorant people. When our
troops first occupied those islands, I suppose there was not one person in a thousand---man, woman, or child ---that
knew the alphabet. I want to get clearly before your minds what their condition was, before I say one word as to what is
now is. As we understand the term, there was no such things a domestic circle known among them. They, of course, saw
its operations in the families of their owners, and, as the event proves, as soon as they had the opportunity strove to
realize for themselves its benefits. It is stated by all persons familiar with the facts, that the negroes of the Sea Islands of
South Carolina were the most degraded to be found anywhere in the South. the reason for this was, of course, because
they were so entirely cut off from all contact with the outside world. Hundreds of negroes on those islands knew
absolutely no other world than the plantation or island on which they lived. On some of the plantations, from one year's
end to the other, there was scarcely ever any white man seen, except the overseer. Understand, I am not attemting to
portray the horrors of slavery; I have not the power to do that. i am only trying to show you some of the reasons why
slavery on those islands produced greater degration than elsewhere.

Now let me state some facts showing the progress of these freedmen. In addition to the large crop of cotton found on
these islands when our troops took possession, there were also found, in considerable quantities, corn and potatoes.
These latter, or a great portion of them, were taken for military purposes, and hence the negroes were conpelled to
draw more in the way of "rations" from the government than was best for them, or than under other circumstances would
have been needed by them. The usual pittance of clothing allowed by their masters had not yet been doled out to them,
and really the greater portion of the people left were in an almost naked condition. Only those who have passed through
a winter on the Sea Islands can realize the suffering they felt during that first winter of freedom. I have not time to detail
the various measures adopted and carried out for their benefit during each successive season since we have been
among them. I content myself with saving that, at the end of each season, the mass of the people was in all respects in a
better condition than when the season began.

I went to the Department of the 'South in the Summer of 1862, under the auspices of this Association. At that time nearly
all the freedmen in the department received "rations" from the government; at this time not more than five hudnred
rations are issued, and they are only issued to persons who would be paupers under any circumstances, and in some
instances to the wives of soldiers. When our troops first entered that department, the people were not even decently
clothed; today today they are well clad, and the rare thing is to find any one among those physically able to care for
themselves, who is not comfortably and well clothed. At the sale of land which took place at the opening of the season of
1863, four plantations were bought by the freedmen living on them, and worked by them for their own benefit. One of
these places produced a crop of cotton worth four thousand dollars; another a crop worth fifteen hundred dollars;
another a crop worth one thousand dollars, and the other a crop worth between three and four thousand dollars. At the
sale of land that took place at the opening of this season, a number of tracts of land were bought by other negroes, and
they have been well and faithfully cultivated by them. The crop this year has universally suffered from the ravages of the
caterpillar, and this, in addition to the fact that many of those purchasing this year paid twenty and twenty-five dollars
per acre, will prevent them from realizing as much as was realized by those that bought last year. Besides this, all those
lands reserved to be sold in small lots to the freedmen, but not yet sold, have been worked by them for their own
benefit, with a fair degree of success.

One of the plantations just referred to, owned by Harry MacMillan, who was formerly ploughman on the "Eustis place,"
would to-day, if sold with the stock and improvements, realize for him at least four thousand dollars. It has been a
common thing during the past season for colored men to pay one, two, and three hundred dollars apiece for horses and
mules. This will give you some idea of the amount of money earned by them. In addition to this, large numbers of the
freedmen are buildng for themselves new houses, and at the present price of lumber in that department this is no slight
undertaking. It evinces not only the possession of means, but what is much better, a desire to have for themselves a
home which they can call their own, and which may be made the centre of comforts and joys heretofore unknown to
them. I am sorry that I have not with me the figures that would show the number of laborers employed on the plantations
last year and the amount of money paid them.

I will give you a few individual cases, which will, I think, enable you to form some judgment as to the general prosperity of
those who are employed as laborers for others. And let it be understood that the sums of money I mention as having
been earned by the different parties are in all cases exclusive of their provision crop and of the money received by them
from the sale of melons and vegetables of various kinds. Anthony and Venus, both of whom are over seventy years of
age, received last year as wages $194.30. Both of these people had been "laid by," as it is termed, for several years,
but under the incentive of freedom and wages, a new spirit was put into their hearts, and fresh blood in their veins, and
they worked out the result I have given you. The following amounts were paid to persons on "Coffin's Point Place." To
Aaron and Judy, $130.48 ; Abel and family, $210.57; Amaretta and family, $335.24, etc. etc. I might mention any number
of such instances, but it is scarcely worth while. Let it be remembered, too, that this prosperity is not the result of high
wages. The people get fair wages, but without industry on their part, their present prosperous condition would have been
an impossibility. I will not be understood as giving rose-colored pictures of the condition of these people. I am too deeply
sensible of the faults of their character and condition to do anything of the kind. But whatever may be their faults,
laziness is not among them. Give them fair inducements, and they are not only willing, but they are eager to work. There
was, and still is, some repugnance felt toward the old kinds of labor; but just as soon as they realize that labor on cotton
is as profitable as any other kind of labor, they perform it cheerfully. It seems to me that I need say nothing more to
convince you that, in so far as the freedmen themselves are concerned, their material prosperity at present, and in the
future is secure.

Our duty toward them is another and different question, upon which, though holding decided opinions, I will not enter
this evening, except to make this general remark, that, if there is any class of people in the country who have priority of
claim to the confiscated lands of the South, it certainly is that class who have by years of suffering and unrequited toil
given to those lands any value they may now possess. And further, that no plan for the reorganization of Southern
society will be complete that does not include the division of those immense tracts of land, and their sale in limited
quantities at reasonable prices to the poor whites and the freed blacks of the South. I ought to say a word with regard to
the system of labor adopted under the wise and beneficient authority of
Gen. Saxton, and which, so far as any system
can do it, has, in connection with other regulations established by him for the government of the people, assisted in
developing a healthy and natural social condition. Under this system no other compulsion than the necessities of the
people is resorted to, or needed to secure from them faithful and steady labor. The people work by the job entirely, and
they are thus enabled to choose their own time, and the proprietor is not compelled to watch them. The employers and
laborers enter into written contracts with each other, and then both parties are held rigidly to the bargain. Each laborer
is allowed sufficient land on which to raise provisions for himself, and is thus secured against want of food. Under this
system, simple and requiring but few agents to carry it out, the people have steadily advanced toward independence.


In ray opinion the government did a wise thyig in appointing and continuing General Saxton as military Governor of the
Department of the South. It has been his policy from the outset to interfere as little as possible with the development of
the people. He has not attempted, as some have said, to force them into a position they were unprepared for, but have
been satisfied with throwing around them such protection as was absolutely necessary, trusting to the natural course of
events for the rest. Gen. Saxton is an honest, pure, and capable man, and the friends of the freedmen and of the
country owe him a debt of thanks for the faithfulness with which be has fulfilled the duties of his position in the face of
many obstacles, and for the jealous care with which he has guarded the rights of the poorest and meanest of those
within his jurisdiction.

One word now as to the social order existing among these people. They have many vices and petty weaknesses of
character, but they are all of the kind you would naturally expect to find among a people brought up under the system of
slavery. These vices are, of course, serious obstacles in the way of their elevation, and try seriously the patience and
faith of those who work among them. Petty thieving and lying prevail, of course, to a considerable degree, but as a
setoff to this, let me say they have a sense of honor which, under the circumstances, is very remarkable. My room is
open at all hours to all comers, and there arc often lying around articles that must tempt them, but I have never yet had
anything stolen from me.
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