When Black Soldiers and Immigrant Officers Built a School for the Orphans of Slavery

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Harper's Weekly depicted the Freedmen's Bureau agent as standing between the Black and White communities.

In 1866, Irish immigrant Henry Sweeney was a man who had to constantly balance the interests of tens of thousands of white and black Arkansans as he entered his second year as the head of the Freedmen’s Bureau in the port city of Helena, Arkansas.1

Sweeney was expected to make sure the local agricultural economy did not collapse because of a labor shortage at the same time that he was enjoined to protect black workers from being re-enslaved by white plantation owners who saw them as inherently inferior and lacking any rights a white man was bound to respect. He had to coordinate African American community groups, Northern abolitionist missionaries, and tired military men to provide protection, education, medical and social services to former slaves, while lacking the resources or rank to command any of them. Much of his job was persuasion of those who did not want to be persuaded.2

Many elderly former slaves were left with no resources after the Civil War. Their former owners, who had profited from their work for decades, simply abandoned them when they were emancipated. The Freedmen’s Bureau issued rations to the elderly and infirm as well as supporting the care of Black orphans.

In a July 11, 1866 letter Sweeney wrote that he had performed “arduous duties.”  A month later, he described his work with the bureau as “delicate.” He had to thread a sharp needle in an increasingly violent state where he was expected to protect the interests of all parties.3

With most Southern courts excluding African Americans as judges, jurors, and lawyers, Blacks turned to the Freedmen’s Bureau agent to arbitrate disputes over labor contracts and pay with white employers.

The verdict from Sweeney’s commander was clear.  On July 30, 1866, Brvt. Major General J.W. Sprague wrote of Sweeney in his role with the Freedmen’s Bureau: “This officer has shown marked ability and fidelity in the discharge of his duties, by his good management he has secured the respect and confidence of all classes in his district.” Considering that those conflicting “classes” had been killing one another 14 months earlier, that was remarkable.4

The Clarks were a Quaker couple who moved to Helena to establish educational facilities for African American children.

One of the projects that Sweeney had supported was an orphanage founded by a Quaker couple, dedicated abolitionists who had worked with Helena’s African Americans even before the Civil War had ended. This orphanage for children who had been enslaved faced the loss of the land it sat on. The government of President Andrew Johnson, no friend to black people, was set on returning the property to its pre-war owner. This meant there would be no home, or school, for these children who had often been separated from their parents through slave sales or death.5

Locally stationed black soldiers worked with the Quaker couple who ran the school to secure a new location. In March 1866, the Freedmen’s Journal reported that the Quakers were “encouraged by the spirit which the officers in charge have shown, as well as the colored people. They are trying to buy a lot and erect suitable buildings on it for a permanent asylum near by and seem likely to succeed in their undertaking.”6

Charles Bentzoni

Key in supporting the new facility were the African American soldiers of the 56th United States Colored Infantry (USCT) stationed in Helena. These soldiers began raising money for the children as soon as they realized that the orphanage was in danger. They were supported in this by their commander, Col. Charles Bentzoni, a German immigrant who had arrived in the United States just a few years before the outbreak of the Civil War. Unlike many native-born white officers who cared little for black soldiers, Bentzoni wanted to help his men, many former slaves, avoid leading “a life of trial and deprivation with no recognition as worthy and substantial members of society.” Bentzoni did what he could to work as a partner with his men and with Sweeney. A September 1865 report noted that “Col Bentzoni commanding the military district has aided Capt Sweeney much in every respect.”7

The German military man, the black soldiers, and the Quakers were all necessary for the realization of the dream of a residential school for the orphans. The men of the 56th were primarily former slaves from Arkansas themselves. They had few resources besides their meager soldiers’ pay. Still, they donated $2,093 to the school fund, the equivalent of $50,000 in today’s money. The soldiers used their own money to purchase 30 acres of land nine miles outside of Helena. Col. Bentzoni, no doubt acting at his men’s request, assigned them the task of clearing the land, constructing sanitary facilities and building a school house and a residence for the children and their teachers. When the men ran out of money, Quakers in the North sent funds to buy more construction materials.8

When, finally, the first buildings were completed, the African American soldiers celebrated in style. They “came out in military style, marched nine miles to our front yard, and hoisted the flag on the staff previously planted precisely in the center of the walk,” Quaker Alida Clark reported. Soldiers, staff, children, and local white visitors then paraded to the grove where the quartermaster had spread a table. There, the colonel announced the amount of money that had been raised by each black company. The immigrant colonel then handed the deed to the property to Clark on behalf of his men.9

The orphanage would later become Southland College, one of the first collages for the training of black teachers in Arkansas.

Sweeney visited the schools his Freedmen’s Bureau office was supporting and was encouraged by what he saw. He wrote in one report that “The teachers in these schools are deserving of all praise, and the progress made by the scholars, surprising, it is extraordinary to see with what avidity the little ones pursue knowledge, and how rapidly they learn.”10

In many states slaves had been barred from marrying. Freedmen’s Bureau agents became the recorders of the hundreds of thousands of wedding that took place in Black communities after the Civil War. In this illustration of a wedding in Vicksburg, the minister is also the local Freedmen’s Bureau agent.

While there were many encouraging signs that black education and empowerment were moving forward, there were regular reminders that many whites still thought of African Americans as slaves. While the orphanage campaign was underway Sweeney wrote to his superior that “it is the practice of planters in Coahoma and Bolivar Cointies[in Mississippi] to systematically tie up and whip the hands [of freedmen] employed by them for any and all causes… Numbers of them have reported that they are worse off now than when they were slaves.”11

The new laws against the buying and selling of slaves did not stop some whites from continuing to traffic  black children stolen from their families. On June 10, 1867, Sweeney wrote to a doctor living near Helena: “You will please deliver to the bearer [of this order]…a colored girl named…Boyd. I have orders to send for the child and have her returned to her parents in N.C from whom she was kidnapped. I have orders…to send a detail of soldiers to get the child…” Sweeney demanded from the doctor “a written statement as to how this girl came on to your place.”12

Besides enforcing the laws against kidnapping young African Americans and beating black workers, Sweeney spent a lot of effort trying to convince whites that they needed to accept the inevitability of black civil rights. In his first months in office, Sweeney told whites that blacks must be allowed to serve on juries. The Arkansas Weekly Gazette of June 18, 1867 reported that at a public meeting, Sweeney said that he “favored the bill of [Radical Senator Charles] Sumner extending universal manhood suffrage all over the country. If Congress could do this in one section, why not in all…he favored reconstruction as a means of improving…the state.”13

Thomas Hindman had been a leading advocate of secession in Arkansas and servedad a Confederate general. At the end of the war he had immigrated to Mexico. When he returned to Arkansas in 1867 and, unique among former Confederates, he advocated extending the vote to Black men. He was assassinated in 1868 by an unknown person for unknown reasons. Having enemies among both Democrats and Republicans, the perpetrator was never identified.

Sweeney even joined a county committee with former Confederate General Thomas Hindman that drafted a resolution for local whites recommending that the people of Helena and nearby communities accept the Civil Rights and Reconstruction Acts passed by Congress and carry them out as “a full and final settlement of the issues growing out of the late war.” The resolution pledged that whites would secure for blacks “every right that belongs to them” under the new Congressional acts. It also denounced those who tried to foment racial violence in the community and advocated for the reduction in sectional strife.14

When Sweeney finally requested a return to the army in 1867, it was noted in both the Arkansas and Tennessee newspapers.15

“This gentleman, so long in the service of the Freedmen’s Bureau…, recently tendered his resignation…, having been assigned to the Nineteenth Regiment United States Regualars at Mobile,” observed the Memphis Daily Post. The editor of the local Helena paper, The Shield, published this editorial on Sweeney’s departure:

“It would be difficult, we think, to find an officer whose duties have been so delicate, and so often so complicated, as those appertaining to the office of the Superintendent of the Freedmen’s Bureau, that has pursued a course so singularly faultless or devoid of criticism. For two years…Major Sweeney has been the arbiter of contracts between the white and the colored people…[and] has had it in his power to be guilty of many questionable…acts, being as it were, that he was, to all intents and purposes the guardian of an inexperienced…people [the freed slaves]; but if there is one case…wherein he has ever proved recreant to the trust reposed in him, we are unadvised of the fact. In leaving, Major S. carries with him the kindest wishes of a very large majority of the influential citizens of Helena and Phillips county, regardless of political opinions and go where he will, they will ever cherish for him feelings of respect and admiration.” 16

The local military commander also congratulated Sweeney on his service. When Sweeney left to enter the regular army Brevet Brig General C.H. Smith issued Special Orders Number 41 on Sept. 10, 1867 at the conclusion of which Sprague, the Assistant Commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau for Arkansas, took the occasion “to express his gratification at the energy, ability and tact with which Lieutenant Sweeney has performed the difficult duties devolving upon him” as an agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau.17

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A year later, Sweeney was still remembered fondly among the African Americans of Arkansas. The Morning Republican, a Radical paper with a large black readership, described Sweeney in its July 17, 1868 issue as “an Irishman by birth and for several years commanded at Helena with decided satisfaction to our people, and although now residing in Alabama still retains his adopted citizenship in Arkansas.” The newspaper published a letter from Sweeney to the African Americans of Arkansas urging them to support a strong voter registration law to protect their newfound rights as United States citizens.18

A few months after Charles Bentzoni died in 1907, his wife filed for a widow’s pension. This card reflects a summary of his military career. His service as colonel of the 56th USCT is recorded under “Additional Services.”

Sweeney also wrote that the African American community and its white allies must continue to fight for “the glorious cause of education” for black children and adults, which he called the “hope of the colored race.”  Only by educating the former slaves, argued Sweeney could Arkansas build a “sure foundation of…wealth and virtue.” He reminded them that “You know how my heart was always in the cause of education in Helena and how I labored for eighteen months to obtain the means to erect a school house in our city. I was proud, I assure you,” he crowed, “when I saw the first school” and black children gathered “within the walls I had worked so hard for.” He felt that reform in Helena alone was not enough. He wrote “I want to see just such [schools] sown broadcast over the state of Arkansas, accompanied by decent, well-built churches.” Without the public school and the black church, the freedmen would be left at the mercy of their exploiters.19

Sweeney ended his letter by praising the representatives in the new Reconstruction assembly of the state. They were revising the laws to eliminate racial inequality. Sweeney wrote that “a proud day has dawned for Arkansas and nobly have her citizens…fought to bring about this day…” The army officer said that while duty had called him to Alabama, “my heart is with you in Arkansas…my interest in your welfare never flags.”20

Sources:

  1. March 26, 1865 report from Major General Alexander McDowell McCook to Rev. Nixon Freedmen’s Bureau Archives State of Arkansas. From Slavery to Uncertain Freedom: The Freedmen’s Bureau in Arkansas, 1865-1869 by Randy Finley published by the University of Arkansas Press (1996); “This Godforsaken Town”: Death and Disease at Helena, Arkansas, 1862 – 63 by Rhonda M. Kohl Civil War History Volume 50, Number 2, June 2004; Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 by Eric Foner; After Appomattox: Military Occupation and the Ends of War by Gregory P. Downs (2015); A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration by Steven Hahn (2005); The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction Edited by Paul Cimbala and Randall Miller published by Fordham University Press (1997); The Impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction on Arkansas by Carl Moneyhon published by University of Arkansas Press (2002); The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era by Douglas R. Egerton published by Bloomsbury Press (2014); The Ordeal of the Reunion: A New History of Reconstruction by Mark Wahlgren Summers published by the University of North Carolina Press (2014); Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom by Heather Andrea Williams  (2005); Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery by Heather Andrea Williams (2012). Archives of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the Pension Files of Sweeney and Bentzoni.

2. From Slavery to Uncertain Freedom: The Freedmen’s Bureau in Arkansas, 1865-1869 by Randy Finley published by the University of Arkansas Press (1996) covers the life of a Freedmen’s Bureau Subassistant Commissioner.

3. Henry Sweeney Pension file; Freedmen’s Bureau Records Helena Arkansas.

4. Henry Sweeney Pension file; Freedmen’s Bureau Records Helena Arkansas.

5. Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture) by Heather Andrea Williams published by The University of North Carolina Press p. 61-65. The operations of the orphanage was described in 1865. In a March 26, 1865 report from Major General Alexander McDowell McCook on the activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau under Sweeney to Rev. Nixon of the Presbyterian Church the general said that an orphanage for “colored children” served those who had been cut off from parents, abandoned, or orphaned through death. It was run by a Quaker couple. “They take great care of the children” who numbered seventy at the time. The children were fed by the Freedmen’s Bureau and were being schooled at the orphanage. An Industrial School had been established to teach trades. According to the report, “there are seven female teachers here who are competent and industrious.”

6. Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture) by Heather Andrea Williams published by The University of North Carolina Press p. 62; Educational Reconstruction African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865–1890 by Hilary Green published by Fordham University Press (2016).

7. Bentzoni would continue commanding Black troops in the Regular Army after the end of his service with the USCT. The Black Infantry in the West, 1869-1891 by Arlen L. Fowler published by University of Oklahoma Press pp. 129-130; Bentzoni, General Order Number 8 March 22, 1865; Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture) by Heather Andrea Williams published by The University of North Carolina Press p. 63. In the Inspector General’s report on Helena of Sept. 18, 1865 the IG states: “Planters 40 & 50 miles away voluntarily come to the Superintendent to file their contracts   Col Bentzoni commanding the military district has aided Capt Sweeney much in every respect.”

8. Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture) by Heather Andrea Williams published by The University of North Carolina Press p. 63-64. The San Francisco Chronicle on October 12, 1894 carried this announcement of Bentzoni’s retirement:

9. Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture) by Heather Andrea Williams published by The University of North Carolina Press p. 64.

10. Freedmen’s Bureau Records Helena Arkansas.

11. Letter of Sweeney to Maj Gen Wood Sept. 3, 1866 found in Enclave: Vicksburg and Her Plantations 1863-1870 by James Currie published by University Press of Mississippi (1980) p. 155

12. Freedmen’s Bureau Records Helena, Ark Roll 11 p. 288. See also Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War by Chandra Manning published by Knopf (2016)

13. The Arkansas Weekly Gazette for June 18, 1867.

14. The Lion of the South: General Thomas C. Hindman By Diane Neal, Thomas W. Kremm published by Mercer University Press (1993). See also The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. Hindman had been a close friend of Irish Confederate Patrick Cleburne during their decade together in Helena before the war.

15. Memphis Daily Post Nov. 6, 1867.

16. Memphis Daily Post Nov. 6, 1867 includes a copy of the encomium to Sweeney from The Shield.

17. Brevet Brig General C.H. Smith issued Special Orders Number 41 Sept. 10, 1867

18. Morning Republican Friday, Jul 17, 1868 Little Rock, AR Vol: 2 Issue: 86 Page: 2

19. Morning Republican Friday, Jul 17, 1868 Little Rock, AR Vol: 2 Issue: 86 Page: 2

20. Morning Republican Friday, Jul 17, 1868 Little Rock, AR Vol: 2 Issue: 86 Page: 2

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