The Death of a Freedman: Violence and Race in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom

By Vikki Bynum

During the Reconstruction Era of 1865-1872, the social fabric of  Orange County, North Carolina, was shredded by violence. This region was one of many in the post-Civil War South in which the Ku Klux Klan terrorized Republicans and freed people in the wake of Confederate defeat. The following story is not about the KKK per se. It does, however, reflect a common belief among white southerners, in the wake of slavery’s end, that the only means by which civilization would survive was through vigilant policing of freed people’s movements. Because of that attitude, it wasn’t necessary that murder be premeditated for the following death to have occurred. All that was required was that a critical mass of white people believe that people of African American descent were dangerous to their well-being and to the general good order of society.

The story I tell here,  which speaks to the changing nature of power in the post-slavery South, is excerpted from my 2010 book, The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies:

In Civil War Orange County’s class-bound and racially divided society, not all violence was perpetrated by the Klan or was necessarily premeditated. Violence often resulted from the assumption of many whites that it was their duty and right to police blacks. The 1867 killing of Bill Fuller, a freedman, is a case in point. On the day he died, Fuller attended a corn shucking at Bill Faucett’s home, located in the Cedar Grove neighborhood on the land of Catlett C. Tinnin, a sixty-year-old former slaveholder. The friends gathered to work, but also to play music and sing songs together, creating a festive atmosphere that infuriated Tinnin. Perhaps he was irritated by the sounds of blacks enjoying their freedom, or perhaps the noise just got to him. Whatever the case, he angrily entered Faucett’s house and confronted the men, threatening to “blow out their brains.” The black men, who dared not take lightly such threats from white men, quickly scattered. Tinnin then walked to a window and fired his gun. Bill Fuller, who had just exited the same window, took the bullet in his leg.

The injured man, who was not discovered for almost half an hour, died from his wound. During the court’s investigation, witnesses seemed to agree that Tinnin did not intend to kill Fuller but had fired indiscriminately through the window without seeing him. Tinnin, they pointed out, was “very much hurt” when he discovered what he had done and immediately called for a doctor. 

Perhaps Tinnin was innocent of premeditated murder, as he and his witnesses claimed, or perhaps the black men who testified in his defense were too scared to say otherwise. Either way, Bill Fuller died because of the right claimed by white men to patrol black men and regulate their behavior. Significantly, Tinnin told Bill Faucett that had he known Faucett was hosting a corn shucking rather than an ordinary frolic, he would not have interfered. As during slavery, white men would “allow” black men who gathered together to work white men’s land (rather than simply revel in freedom) to engage in a bit of merriment along the way. (Quoted from Bynum, Long Shadow of the Civil War, pp. 65)

plowing in south carolina

A freed family working the land in South Carolina, 1866. Sketch by James E. Taylor (Library of Congress).

A heady mixture of power, fear, and racial assumptions produced the above tragedy.  Although white fears of black men existed under slavery, they had been assuaged by laws that gave slave masters and courts full power of authority over enslaved people. African American men were popularly stereotyped as “Sambos”–inherently childlike, loyal, and superstitious–and perfectly suited for slavery. Now that they were free, those “Sambos” must be made to know their place, by vigilante force if necessary.

A representation of the freedman as “Sambo,” subject to the control of whichever political party was in power. Cartoon by Thomas Nast, Harper’s Bazaar, 1867

Thus, in Bill Fuller’s death we see a glimmer of a changing stereotype of black men that would not reach full expression until the New South Era of lynching and segregation.  Even then, the familiar image of black men as lazy, shuffling, Sambos would co-exist with more violent images. On the one hand, black men were presented as too childlike to warrant equal education and employment alongside whites; on the other hand, they were believed too violent and predatory (especially toward white women) to be allowed to roam at will. Laws that mandated racial segregation, reinforced by violent suppression–especially in the form of lynching–were commonly justified by such stereotypes.

 

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2 replies »

  1. Thank you for this post about Orange County, NC from which some of my maternal ancestors hailed. Some of them “passed”. Now I wonder if this threat of violence influenced that. I knew of bigotry in Central NC, yet never associated this kind of wanton violence with that area.

    • Hello, Maman Jeanne,

      Thanks for your comments here and elsewhere on Renegade South. Yes, throughout the Civil War Era South, including NC, frequent violence and numerous laws and customs restricted the safety and mobility of people of color. Those who were light-skinned enough often dropped the African-American part of their identity in order to protect themselves against violence and to live better lives. For many, this necessitated moving away from their birth home, or from the South altogether. I avoid using the term “passing,” even though it is generally accepted as a description of people of mixed ancestry who identified as white. But since our society generally doesn’t describe people who self-identify as black as “passing,” even when they have white ancestry, it doesn’t make sense to do so to white or Native American people who have African ancestry. Besides, many of us have ethnic ancestries that only a DNA test would reveal, making “race” an illusory cultural and political term.

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