By Manie Chemin
On the eve of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, James McHatton and family sat comfortably finalizing plans to sell their Baton Rouge landholdings to Major General Lawler of the United States Army. Five months later, the land was converted into one of four safe havens in Louisiana, which housed and represented freed slaves. These four sites were called, ‘Home Colonies’, and were managed by a subdivision of the U.S. War Department-colloquially known as, The Freedmen’s Bureau. Located on the future site of Louisiana State University, the McHatton Home Colony stood briefly as a beacon of hope and a place of repose for men, women and children who had endured the terrorism of chattel slavery. While hundreds of destitute and ailing Freedmen made their exodus to the McHatton Home Colony, James McHatton and family settled into the relative ease and comfort of their lives on a new sugar plantation in Cuba. Such was the stark disparity between the white landowning gentry and freed people. This is an account of how the free people of Baton Rouge endured the hardships of living, working and negotiating their freedom, against the vulgar tide of white resentment during reconstruction.
In Baton Rouge, directly south of Magnolia Mound Plantation, bordered on the west by the Mississippi River, to the east by (what is now) Lee Drive and on the south by Brightside drive, lies the former site of the McHatton Home colony. Current residents of Baton Rouge know the site as the campus of Louisiana State University. In 1865, 623 freed people arrived in the colony.
One fifth of those registered in the colony were gravely ill. In a telling exchange of letters exchange of letters between the sub commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau and resident doctors on the colony, the sub commissioner expresses exasperation at the refusal of the doctors to treat sick people in the colony. Though doctors had been present on the colony for three months and had yet to treat a single patient. After five exchanges, the head doctor admits that “I have the honor to inform you that I learned no refugees have received medical treatment in this colony” (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 9/15.)
The doctor’s correspondence with the bureau ends and the home colony is disbanded within months of the correspondence. Through this correspondence, one might be tempted to believe that the McHatton colony was understaffed. Yet, ample provision for medical supplies and doctors were included in the dispatches of the War Department. Why then, was medical treatment not offered to any of the residents? Furthermore, why was the home colony dissolved? No such explanation is given in the Freedmen’s bureau papers. However, the National Archives provide a description of the dissolution of the Rost Home Colony, and one can be sure that the pattern does not exist in isolation. The article reads:
This quote emphasizes the conclusion that the real primacy and right of place, still rested with white landowners. Though white supremacy pervaded the entire United States; the particularities of Southern white supremacy had not evolved much, since the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. Moreover, to understand the failure of the Home Colonies, one must discern the root causes of the arrogance and disinterest of whites toward ex-slaves. Furthermore, to understand the subsequent labor struggles amongst Free people in the colony, one must examine the prevailing attitudes of Baton Rouge whites, during reconstruction.
The intensity of black suffering after the civil war, is often overlooked in favor of a broad and euphemistic emphasis on, the triumph of abolition. In order to conceive of the abject degradation and destitution of Freedmen in post-war Baton Rouge, one must reimagine the circumstances in which Freedmen found themselves, after the war. Firstly, most newly freed slaves found themselves landless, homeless, alienated from their families, illiterate, traumatized by endless physical and emotional abuse and above all, without legal protections. Freed people existed in a society which had carefully crafted a caste system, in which dark skin connoted moral and intellectual depravity. Emancipation may have freed slaves at the national level, but the ground-level acceptance and integration of free black laborers into the market, did not exist for over one hundred years after the civil war. Through analyzing Freedmen’s bureau papers and court records, one may notice a terrible pattern. Namely, that there are as many complaints against white employers, as there are freedmen. Even if some of the claims were construed as, gratuitous; the majority of complaints were grounded. According to the court records of East Baton Rouge Parish, freedmen were regularly denied fair compensation for labor. In a host of cases, the courts decided in favor of white landowners. In a most egregious case, the mother of a small boy was denied legal guardianship over her son
Though the Freedmen’s Bureau represented many free people in the parish courthouse, the verdicts consistently favored white landowners. Imagining the trauma of being denied rights to your own children, is nearly inconceivable. However, understanding the pervasive society bent toward injustice, requires a detailed historical analysis.
The history of the United States is marred by the stains of hypocrisy, political intrigue and unrestrained capitalism. The so-called enlightenment -with its dogmatic exaltation of reason, scientific inquiry (pseudo-scientism with respect to 19th century racial theories), personal sovereignty and equality, ironically produced some of the largest disparities in wealth that the world has yet know. The glorification of the self-reliant individual, though laudable in some respects, gave way to systemic approbation of extreme greed and apathy towards others. Worse still, unrestrained capitalism, devoid of moral sentiments, contributed to a thorough subversion of black human worth. Furthermore, those who were willing to exploit others for economic gain, believed themselves to be, according to Thomas Jefferson, “The Natural aristocracy”. One can see how southern plantation owners would be unwilling to be right sized during reconstruction. Since the first disembarkation of transatlantic slave ships; their hulls swollen with human merchandise; groaning within and without, on the open sea- America has failed to tell the stories of and commemorate the vast majority of enslaved people. The dissonance, in turn, spawned a philosophy of racism, so disreputable, as to merit the contempt of every generation to follow. Thus, the story of reconstruction in Baton Rouge, its freedmen’s struggle to survive and the former plantation aristocracy’s unwillingness to accept defeat, remained an untreated pathology in the American conscience, during the Home Colony period. In the years 1865-1872, Baton Rouge whites, defiantly upheld each of the aforementioned presuppositions.
Negotiating Labor Contracts in Post-War Baton Rouge
In the immediate aftermath of the civil war, reeling from the shock of defeat; the South doubled down on its racial separations. Most southerners believed that owning slaves was in no way a violation of the constitution. Whites believed that their rights to private property had been trampled by a rogue President and a hostile brood of Union generals. Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the confederacy, enumerated the typical elite southern perspective on racial disparities in his personal diary. In no way did the South intend on granting full rights to newly freed slaves. Instead, Louisiana whites changed their tactics, to include outright deception and extortion. One should remember that civil rights and access to fair court proceedings weren’t fully “granted” to African Americans until the 1960’s. Moreover, racial equality in protections under the law were unthinkable, to most Baton Rouge landowning whites of 1865. The Freedmen’s bureau ‘Complaints’ papers offer a glimpse into typical labor disputes between Freedmen and former plantation masters. A typical labor dispute followed a typical transactional pattern. Firstly, Freedmen would contract their own labor (often with their former masters). Secondly, a reasonable and mutually beneficial verbal contract would yield the acceptance of terms. Thirdly, after the contract was fulfilled and all labor performed; the plantation owner would undercut the pay of the freedman and a court dispute would ensue. The Freedman’s Bureau charter required agents of the Bureau to make provision for the legal defense of free people. However, the racist cultural backdrop would win-out, and in most instances, left the freeperson to fend for himself. A clear example of the extortive practices of whites is enumerated in the story of Mr. Moncrieff, a former slave working on the plantation of his former master. Montcrief’s complaint reads, thusly.
The Freedmen’s Bureau complaint records provide a litany of other allegations, like Mr. Montcrief’s. Sadly, no record of a settlement was ever produced, and the McHatton Home Colony was dissolved before any of complaint settlements could be reached. Moreover, the dissolution of the Home Colony eroded the only legal protections offered to free people. And once the bureau dissolved, so did adequate legal representation for free people.
The McHatton Home Colony’s failure, and the dissolution of the Freedmen’s Bureau, eroded the protections provided by the Bureau’s mandates. Moreover, many ex-enslaved people had extremely marketable skills, yet lacked the regulatory support to yield satisfactory labor contracts. 1865 McHatton Colony arrival data suggests that many laborers had already secured contracts with landowners, upon arrival in the colony. The diligence and skill of Free people is indisputable. A list of registration papers from the McHatton Colony provides a detailed list of free people’s marketable skills. One such registration lists; bricklayers, blacksmiths, carpenters and several experienced field hands. Given the nature of industry in Baton Rouge, one would assume that having experienced laborers, who were familiar with the mechanics of agricultural production, would entice war ravaged plantation owners to negotiate with the available labor force. However, stubbornness and a pathological dependance on free labor destroyed equitable negotiations between free people and plantation owners. Sadly, those affected most harshly by the prevailing racist ethos, were free people. The lists of complaints without adequate resolution permeate an entire catalogue of court documents from 1865-1872.
The diary of Eliza McHatton distills the pervading ethos of southern whites. Prejudice, hatred, and subversion were all tactics used by Baton Rouge whites, well into the twentieth century. Furthermore, until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s (even later in Baton Rouge), black Americans frequently went through great difficulty and strife, in order to provide security and stability for their families. The McHatton Colony’s history should compel one to ask, why there aren’t any commemorative statues or plaques which denote its existence on Louisiana State University’s campus? In a wider process of atonement and healing of Baton Rouge’s collective consciousness, I submit that memorializing the struggle of freed people is the first step.
- Eliza Moore Chinn McHatten Ripley. New York; London: D. Appleton and Company
- “Louisiana Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872,” images, FamilySearch, McHatton Home Colony > Roll 83, Letters sent and received, Aug-Dec 1865 > image 9 of 15; citing NARA microfilm publications M1905 and M1483 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).
- McHatton-Ripley From Flag to Flag: a Woman’s Adventures and Experiences in the South during the War, in Mexico, and in Cuba, by Eliza, Dodo Press, 1888, pp. 149–165.
- Persac, Marie Adrien, Benjamin Moore Norman, and J.H. Colton & Co. Norman’s chart of the lower Mississippi River. New Orleans, B. M. Norman, 1858. Map.
- Smith, Adam. Essay. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 203–. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.
- Stephens, Alexander H., and Myrta Lockett Avary. Essay. In Recollections of Alexander H. Stephens, His Diary Kept When a Prisoner at Fort Warren, Boston Harbour, 1865; Giving Incidents and Reflections of His Prison Life and Some Letters and Reminiscences., 172–73. Miami, FL: HardPress Publishing, 2014.
- “The Rost Home Colony, St. Charles Parish, Louisiana.” National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed May 2, 2021.