Return to Port Royal Experiment
The Pennsylvania Freedmen's Bulletin
The Pennsylvania Freedmen's Aid Association
Testimony of R. Tomlinson

A Speech delivered at Concert Hall, Phila., 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 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 it now is. As we understand the term, there was no such things as 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 attempting 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 degradation 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 compelled 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 saying 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 freed in the department " rations" from the government; at this time not more than
five hundred 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; to-day 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 tho 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 a piece 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 building 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 beneficent 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 my opinion the government did a wise thing 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 tho development of the people. He has not attempted, as some have said, to force them into
a position they were unprepared for, but baa 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

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.