Edisto Island is nestled amidst a chain of South Carolina Sea Islands draped with Spanish moss that cloaks the oak trees lining the way to this place that is uniquely part of both Charleston and Colleton Counties. Edisto has the story of bring people of different people together no matter what pages of history or ourstory that you turn to read about the island. However, sometimes those groups were not brought together to celebrate even when they thought that they might have been….
Gullah/Geechees came together with General Oliver O. Howard served as commissioner of the “Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands” which is also called the “Freedmen’s Bureau” that was headquartered on James Island, SC in 1865. After the assassination of United States President Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson took his place and vowed to restore lands that had been auctioned to and homesteaded by the previously enslaved Africans now called “freedmen” to those who had been the enslavers of these plantations. He then mandated that General Oliver O. Howard go to those remaining on the lands on Edisto Island and let them know that they would need to return it.
General Howard did deliver the message to the numerous families that came to the meeting. No doubt those in attendance included those listed on these rolls: http://freedmensbureau.com/georgia/landtitles/landregister2a.htm which document the land distribution done by the Freedmen’s Bureau. The meeting immediately became disrupted and there was no silence until a Gullah/Geechee woman began to sing a spiritual.
The men of Edisto Island formed their own committee to deal with the news that had been brought to them and the unkept promises of the government. The committee wrote to General Howard and the letter also made its way to Capitol Hill:
[Edisto Island, S.C. October 20 or 21, 1865] General It Is with painfull Hearts that we the committe address you, we Have thorougholy considered the order which you wished us to Sighn,
we wish we could do so but cannot feel our rights Safe If we do so, General we want Homesteads; we were promised Homestead’s by the government,
If It does not carry out the promises Its agents made to us, If the government Haveing concluded to befriend Its late enemies and to neglect to observe the principles of common faith between Its self and us Its allies In the war you said was over, now takes away from them all right to the soil they stand upon save such as they can get by again working for your late and thier all time ememies.–If the government does so we are left In a more unpleasant condition than our former we are at the mercy of those who are combined to prevent us from getting land enough to lay our Fathers bones upon. We Have property In Horses, cattle, carriages, & articles of furniture, but we are landless and Homeless, from the Homes we Have lived In In the past we can only do one of three things Step Into the public road or the sea or remain on them working as In former time and subject to thier will as then. We can not resist It In any way without being driven out Homeless upon the road. You will see this Is not the condition of really freemen You ask us to forgive the land owners of our Island, You only lost your right arm. In war and might forgive them. The man who tied me to a tree & gave me 39 lashes & who stripped and flogged my mother & my sister & who will not let me stay In His empty Hut except I will do His planting & be Satisfied with His price & who combines with others to keep away land from me well knowing I would not Have any thing to do with Him If I Had land of my own.–that man, I cannot well forgive. Does It look as If He Has forgiven me, seeing How He tries to keep me In a condition of Helplessness General, we cannot remain Here In such condition and If the government permits them to come back we ask It to Help us to reach land where we shall not be slaves nor compelled to work for those who would treat us as such we Have not been treacherous, we Have not for selfish motives allied to us those who suffered like us from a common enemy & then Haveing gained our purpose left our allies In thier Hands There Is no rights secured to us there Is no law likely to be made which our Hands can reach. The state will make laws that we shall not be able to Hold land even If we pay for It Landless, Homeless. Voteless. we can only pray to god & Hope for His Help, your Infuence & assistance With consideration of esteem your Obt Servts In behalf of the people Henry Bram (or Brown) Committee Ishmael Moultrie HLS yates Sampson
The oak trees of Edisto Island can tell many stories of whose hands have remained on the plow over these decades. Hunnuh chillun gwine hafa keep hunnuh han pun um fa hol de lan fa de chillun wha da cumin lik hunnah ancesta dem be dun dun fa hunnah. Hold on!