After emancipation, freedpeople continued to face extreme labor exploitation, sometimes from their former enslavers. Many white Southerners often underpaid or even refused to pay Black people who worked for them. The story of Elizabeth Grant is an example of one woman’s attempt to get justice from her former enslaver.
In 1871, one of the last years of the Freedmen’s Bureau’s existence, Elizabeth Grant appealed to the federal government to ensure that her former enslaver and current employer honor a deal. For nearly six years after emancipation, Elizabeth Grant worked for the man who had enslaved her, E. W. Thrasher, on his plantation in Madison, Georgia. Grant did Thrasher’s cooking, sewing, nursing, washing, cleaning, and worked the land for what was supposed to be $10 a month. However, Thrasher had only paid her $25 in total in those six years.
Despite this, Grant used the funds she acquired and her earnings from selling crops to purchase 80 acres of land from Thrasher. She spent three years working to pay the $500 cost of the land, which she paid in full on January 1, 1871. But, in yet another turn of injustice, when Grant finally paid the full cost of the land, Thrasher refused to give her the deed to the 80 acres and threatened to remove her from her property. For three years, Grant rented out a room on the land to the state government for a school, and because of this, Thrasher argued he no longer had to honor their deal. Grant was unable to secure the deed, nor was she able to enter a settlement with him. So, she wrote to the Secretary of War in January 1871 to try to get justice. After receiving Grant’s letter, the War Department forwarded it to the Freedmen’s Bureau Headquarters.
Grant did not get a response until May 13, 1871, five long months after her claim was made. The Chief Clerk of the Freedmen’s Bureau recommended that Grant find a good lawyer who could sue Thrasher and force him to hand over the deed to her land. The Clerk also noted that her letter had been forwarded to the Commissioner of the Bureau, from where this response came. Unfortunately, no more records have been transcribed that might tell us whether Grant was able to stay on the land that she had paid for.
Further research, however, might give us a window into what happened to Grant. The 1870 Census shows that a Black woman named Betsy Grant, who was born around 1840, lived in Madison, Georgia with what appears to be her five children. Although we can’t confirm that this is the same woman, her real estate value is listed on the census as “500” which aligns perfectly with the $500 in land Elizabeth Grant presumably owned, having bought it from her former enslaver. This indicates that the Betsy Grant recorded in the 1870 Census is likely the Elizabeth Grant found in the Freedmen’s Bureau Records. According to the 1880 and 1900 census data, Grant continued to live in Madison with her family for the next thirty years, but she had no associated real estate value after 1870. This might indicate that Thrasher succeeded in stealing her land.
Elizabeth Grant’s experience was not uncommon. Like Grant, many freedpeople asserted their rights by reporting white employers’ (who were sometimes former enslavers) offenses to the Freedmen’s Bureau, despite the real danger of retaliation. At times, the Freedmen’s Bureau succeeded in helping Southern Black people get recompense. Other times, like in the case of Elizabeth Grant, the Bureau was ineffective, under resourced, and even harmful to African American communities in the South.
Transcription Center digital volunteers can transcribe the records of freedwomen like Elizabeth Grant to help their voices be heard and a more complete history of the Reconstruction era be shared.
Madeleine Roberts-Ganim was a 2022 Because of Her Story Intern with the Smithsonian Transcription Center and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. She is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in History and French at the University of Chicago.
This post on Elizabeth Grant is the second in a larger series by Roberts-Ganim highlighting American women in the Freedmen's Bureau Records. Browse the Transcription Center Blog, Marginalia for additional entries.