Freemen’s Standard, Volume 1, Number 3. Savannah, Ga., February 29, 1868. Newspaper Collection, New-York Historical Society Library

“A Contradiction” was published in the February 29th issue of Freemen’s Standard, an African American-published newspaper. “The statement,” it reads, “in the papers of Wednesday, 26th inst., in regard to Mary Richards, a mulatto, who was arraigned […] on the charge of disorderly conduct, is entirely false.”

An alarming recollection of the abuses of the police against Mary Richards is what follows: an echo resounding into today, in the form of the similar discourse surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement.

The newspaper arose among many others after the Civil War; in its first issue, Freemen’s Standard lauds the power of the press: “As a means of creating a just appreciation now enjoyed by the late emancipation of the millions of the South, and of giving true accounts of all movements, political, educational, or of any class, an organ of this kind can but meet the approval of all who desire the progress of the race.” The issues that survive are rare and few. Only ten are in existence, according to the Library of Congress. The three held at the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library glimpse the black experience in Savannah, Georgia—one tumultuous, fraught, and hopeful—during the Reconstruction Era.

Such attitudes were likely reflective of the editor, James Meriles Simms: a man born enslaved who bought his freedom in 1857 for $740—a staggering $22,000 today. A carpenter and eventually a reverend, Simms often wrote about the educational and business successes of local black people and urged them passionately to vote, but he also wrote about the challenges facing Georgia’s new citizens. Mary Richards’ experience was one such challenge.

Savannah’s The Daily News and Herald, published a “Local Matters” item regarding a Mary Richards “(colored)” who, with “opprobrious language and coarse demeanor, accosted” an officer for attending to a disturbance among a congregation of African Americans. After being arrested for “disorderly conduct” and “abusing and resisting the officer”, Mary Richards “scratched, tore and otherwise injured the hair of the sentinel whose duty it was to search her.”

The recounting of events according to Freemen’s Standard is contradictory indeed: Richards, fearing “a policeman on horseback, surrounded by a lot of colored and white boys” might turn riotous, waited as the crowd dispersed, and as she was consequently walking across the street, a policeman on foot “gave her, what he might have thought, a very gentle push, but she did not think so, as he almost pushed her over.” She remarked to the people she was with that “the police of Savannah were too fond of pushing colored people.” Overhearing her, the policeman on horseback confronted her, and threatened to arrest her; in response she said he had no right. She was brought in and locked up, but not before being searched for pockets; when finding she had none, “they continued to search in such a vulgar and indecent manner that she resisted.”

Detail from Freemen’s Standard, Volume 1, Number 3. Savannah, Ga., February 29, 1868. Newspaper Collection, New-York Historical Society Library

The contradiction was provided by a black school teacher, “Mrs. J.T. Denam.”  A “Mrs. Jno T Denham” appears in the Savannah, Georgia Court Records for February 25th— above Mary Richards’ name. The women are in fact one and the same, Mary Richards being an alias given to the police and the newspapers possibly to protect her reputation and family. In consequence of the insult to her character and the injustice of the event, Denam chose to set the record straight in Freemen’s Standard. (Denam was fined eight dollars; her case was appealed, to no apparent verdict.)

The differences of these accounts are startling, but this was not the only incident of injustice covered within these few issues. In the newspaper’s previous issue, it was reported that a party, held at the residence of “a colored citizen, a policeman called and asked if ‘the Mayor had given permission for the party to assemble.’ ” The April 8th issue is filled to the brim urging black men to register to vote and recounts “The Booby Clift Affair” (as it became known in pro-Democrat presses) where an event in support of a Republican candidate for Congress, Joseph Wales Clift, was bombed by veteran Confederate soldiers and, quite possibly, the Klu Klux Klan.

Harper’s Weekly, March 16, 1867. XS AP2 .H32 Oversize, New-York Historical Society Library

These aggressions, outright attacks, and political terrorism were common at the time—bolstering an effort to intimidate, silence, and halt the progress of Reconstruction and the educational, economical, and political equality of African Americans. In Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi writes that the history of racism in the United States has not been a singular progression, but a “dual and dueling” one. This is none the clearer in Freemen’s Standard and today.

This post is by Crystal Toscano, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections

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