Isabella and Eddy Harris: American Women in the Freedmen’s Bureau Records

By Madeleine Roberts-Ganim, STC Because Of Her Story Intern

Exploring the Stories of American Women in the Freedmen’s Bureau Records 

 

As a 2022 Because of Her Story intern with the American Women’s History Initiative, I had the privilege to work with Smithsonian’s Transcription Center and the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project. During this internship, my fellow intern and I created a comprehensive instructional resource to assist the dedicated community of Transcription Center volunpeers in deciphering challenging transcriptions. In addition, we endeavored to find, research, and broadcast the stories of women found within these records.  


Although the name may sound deceiving, the Freedmen’s Bureau Records contain a multitude of profound stories about Freedwomen. These records are invaluable primary sources that not only open a window into daily life for southern Black people during Reconstruction, but they also offer insight into the often-erased history of African American women. The stories of Isabella and Eddy Harris, Elizabeth Grant, and Harriet Smith are just a few examples of the ordinary women found within the records who advocated for themselves, their families, and their communities in a world that actively worked to prevent them from succeeding.  

 

Isabella and Eddy Harris  

 

In the Reconstruction South, Black families still faced the threat of separation even after emancipation from slavery. Isabella and Eddy Harris, a mother and daughter found in the Freedmen’s Bureau records, experienced this reality. 

 

In February 1867, Isabella Harris, a Black woman living in Wilkes County, Georgia, asked the Freedmen’s Bureau to help find her missing teenage daughter. Harris’s fifteen — or sixteen-year-old daughter — Edna (affectionately nicknamed Eddy), was taken away from her mother in early February of that year. Isabella reported that three men “did entice, persuade and decoy” Eddy into signing an exploitative labor contract, without her mother’s consent, that took Eddy away from Georgia to work on a plantation in Monticello, Florida. The plantation was owned by a white man named H. S. Linton, who claimed that Eddy voluntarily signed a contract to work for him. Given that Eddy was a fifteen-year-old child and did not have the guidance of her mother, it is reasonable to assume that Eddy was coerced into leaving Georgia.  

 

Harris initially went to the courts to demand that her daughter be brought home and the men who took her arrested. Harris could not read or write, so she dictated her claim to James Alexander, the County Solicitor, who helped her get an arrest warrant for kidnapping. 

 

 

A graphic displaying a section of a Freedmen's Bureau handwritten letter dated 20 February 1867. A caption on the right side of the letter, reads: "A portion of the letter from James Alexander, the County Solicitor, to the Assistant Commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau in Savannah, Georgia. At the time, Savannah was the largest city in the state and the headquarters for the Freedmen's Bureau in Georgia.   Alexander explained Isabella's request that the Bureau secure the kidnappers' arrest and return Edna home."

 

Harris initially went to the courts to demand that her daughter be brought home and the men who took her arrested. Harris could not read or write, so she dictated her claim to James Alexander, the County Solicitor, who helped her get an arrest warrant for kidnapping. 

 

However, since the men who took Eddy crossed state lines into Florida and were outside the jurisdiction of Georgia law enforcement, the Wilkes County Sheriff could not (or would not) aid in securing the arrest. Because local law enforcement would not help, Harris and Alexander had to enlist the Freedmen’s Bureau to ensure that Eddy would be brought back and her kidnappers caught.  

 

 

An illustrated 1874 map of the southeastern part of the United States by Warner and Beers. Includes highlighted areas in Wilkes County, GA and Monticello, FL.  Also includes part of the Bahamas.  Detailed to the county level with roads, railroads, towns, forts, and geographical features noted.  Surrounded by decorative border.  Published in by Warner and Beers in 1874 as plate no. 71 in H.H. Lloyd’s  Atlas of the United States .

 

The southern courts were not a place where African Americans could easily obtain justice. In fact, the “justice” system, including the police, often actively worked to curb new rights afforded to freedmen and women during Reconstruction. As a result, freedpeople often turned to the Freedmen’s Bureau to seek justice for the wrongs committed against them, as Isabella Harris did when her daughter was taken against her will.

 

It was not until the end of April, nearly three whole months after Eddy had been taken, that the arrest warrant was finally sent to Florida, where H.S. Linton resided. On May 24th, Harris received word that Linton agreed to send her daughter home, but Eddy had not yet returned. Alexander wrote in this final letter that he and Harris “look for her now daily.” Harris had to wait almost four months for any indication of her daughter’s whereabouts, and we do not know how much longer she had to wait for her daughter’s return. 

 

 

A portion of the last transcribed letter from James Alexander. He noted on May 24th that Harris had received word of Linton's agreement to send Edna home, but she had not yet returned. From the Georgia Assistant Commissioner, Letters Received, Freedmen's Bureau Records.

 

Unfortunately, this is where the current paper trail ends. We have not yet transcribed any documents that indicate that Linton or the other men who took Eddy were arrested, nor have we found any records that suggest Eddy was reunited with her mother.  

 

Isabella and Eddy Harris’s story is not an anomaly. It is indicative of a larger predatory practice common during Reconstruction known as “binding out.” Many white southerners, to maintain control over African American labor and perpetuate slavery after emancipation, would enter Black children into exploitative labor contracts, typically without the consent of the children's parents. Contracts would dictate that children, often even younger than Eddy, would need to work for an employer until a certain time limit. Throughout the Freedmen’s Bureau records, we can find many letters from Black parents who appealed to the Bureau to annul these contracts and have their children returned to them. 

 

 

Sketch of a large crowd of African American adults and children in a room, many speaking white, uniformed officers and Freedmen's Bureau agents. An annotation to the right of the sketch reads: "An 1866 artist's sketch of Freedmen's Bureau Offices, where freedpeople sought assitance during the early years of Reconstruction. From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, August 25, 1866. Courtesy of Dickinson College.

 

African Americans faced separation from their families, labor exploitation, and unjust legal systems during the Reconstruction period. The story of Isabella and Eddy Harris is just one example of how Black people in the Reconstruction South dealt with this violent reality. 

 

You can help ensure that the stories of women like Isabella and Eddy Harris are not lost by transcribing the Freedmen’s Bureau records.  

 

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Because of Her Story Smithsonian Transcription Center intern Madeleine Roberts-Ganim appears in a black, long-sleeved shirt and jeans, she has long, dark hair and is smiling at the camera. Madeleine's quote on her experience as an intern for the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Transcription Center Freedmen's Bureau Transcription Project reads: "This summer, I had the incredible opportunity to explore, transcribe, and share the stories of American women in the Freedmen’s Bureau records. The invaluable primary sources found on Transcription Center make learning about the past exciting and experiential. They provide an intimate window into the daily lives of freedwomen during Reconstruction — essential knowledge that I never could have learned just by reading a textbook." Head to www.transcription.si.edu/freedmensbureau to learn more about the Freedmen's Bureau records.

        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 Isabella and Eddy Harris is the first 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.