Letter from Minton of Waynesboro, VA to a David R. Goodman, from Charlottesville, VA

By Jacqueline Akunda

In a letter to Charlottesville, VA resident David R. Goodman on February 20, 1868, “Minton” of Waynesboro, VA mentions recent changes he has made to his household: “I drove my cook off last month…She got so much above herself. I could not stand her. I have a very good little black girl around twelve years old. I would try some of those foreigners as soon as I can find out more about them…if I could get a Dutch women.”[1]

Minton’s letter, written in Reconstruction-era Virginia, presents local realities in the face of national conversations after the American Civil War. While federal and state governments negotiated how seceded Southern states would reenter the Union, another existential question threatened unity: how was the United States to restructure a national economy no longer based on the “free” labor of enslaved peoples?[2] Reconstruction was a renegotiation of the American labor system. Sublimated in these national and local conversations between white propertied Virginians, legislators, and national and local authorities were “cooks, very good little black girls, and Dutch women.”[3] Minton’s letter is an entry point to understanding the forces that governed the lives of the most vulnerable peoples at this critical juncture in United States history. Black girls in America’s changing labor system were most vulnerable to exploitation because of their raced, gendered, and aged bodies. It was their labor being discussed.

Historians, the main consumers of Reconstruction history, have just begun to give “gender greater attention in investigation Reconstruction across the American South.”[4] They omit the experiences of Black women and children by “forgetting” to evoke their existence through the archives. Robert Harrison, in his study of Black political organizing in post-war Washington, D.C., notes the “enfranchisement of male African Americans after the Civil War opened up the space for extraordinary efflorescence of political organizing, grassroots, activism, and community development.” Harrison is one of the few historians who clarify their subject, “male African Americans.”[5] Other historians universalize the experiences of Black men by not naming the agents or subjects of postbellum action and experience. Minton’s letter invites us to notice differences within Black experiences of Reconstruction by calling up the subjectivities of the Black woman, Black children, and “white” immigrant women. Black women and children lived underneath it all.

Reconstruction policy makers, like historians, largely ignored the lives Black women and children. Harrison is correct to note that enfranchisement was solely extended to male African Americans. National policies targeted only the freedoms afforded to Black men. Thavolia Glymph argues, in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln linked black men’s service in the war to their freedom.[6] Further, “Lincoln’s administration and Congress increasingly understood the mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of black soldiers and military laborers would have to be offered the same deal.”[7] Jones adds, women and children were “a drain on resources” because they were unproductive and at time liabilities to the war effort.[8] When Congress passed the Reconstruction Act of 1867 on March 2, 1867, it only protected people with expressed rights. The statute made Virginia the United States’ First Military District after 1886 saw “reactionary white Virginians use violence and intimidation to curtail African American freedoms and challenge northern influence.[9]” Black women and children had no enumerated rights in 1868. Women could not vote at this time and children were effectively “owned” by their parents, the result of their dependency status.[10] “Freedom” had a different meaning for Black women and children. A “trifling cook,” could exercise her freedom by “getting above herself,” being run off, and looking to sell her labor to another white household. Black children fared no better than Black women during this period. After years of active attack under slavery, Black families were weak and could not effectively protect their children from exploitation. Furthermore, protecting Black children was only feasible if those children still lived near their families.[11] War displaced many Black women and children, exasperating the problem of weak families.[12] Taken all together, Black female children were vulnerable due to their status first, as people of color in America, “women,” and their dependency status as children. Freedom had different meanings for them.

Minton’s “very good little black girl” is at the root of Reconstruction and U.S. labor history. In mentioning her, he calls up a particular experience of Reconstruction, giving us an opportunity to analyze Black people’s bargaining positions after slavery. What “new” labor relations would follow “freedom”? What bargaining power would Black women and children have? Minton’s letter tells us. Black women, who get above their station, will be run off. Black girls will be good and little. And immigrant ‘white” women—we shall see. The qualities Minton values enough to mention about laborers in his household should concern historians and feminists alike. She is good. She is little. She is black. She is a girl. She is vulnerable. Minton’s possession of this child begs the question: who is this “very good little black girl? What happened to her parents, her only buffer against exploitation? Why is she in his possession? What is the nature of her work, her goodness, and her blackness? Lost in the Reconstruction period were the most marginalized, vulnerable people who did not become full citizens at the end of the Civil War. The South would continue to exploit them until national policy makers saw them.

Locating very good little black girls in the archive is a feminist project that draws attention to historic inequalities and to how asymmetrical power relations would continue to color Black women and children’s engagement with the labor market. Finding her, I found a historical link to current mistreatments of Black girls. She is sent to the back of classrooms because her big hair distracts other students from learning, she goes missing without fanfare, she sterilized without consent, she remains vulnerable and marginalized in 2016. She is here, looking to be found. “Finding” her confronts us all with the question: How do we choose to see the most vulnerable and marginalized among us?

[1] Letter to David R. Goodman of Charlotteville, VA from “Minton,” in Waynesboro VA, February 20, 1868. MSS 16087, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

[2] David P. Currie, “The Reconstruction Congress,” University of Chicago Law Review Vol. 75, Issue 1(2008): 38

[3] Letter to David R. Goodman

[4] Catherine A. Jones, Intimate Reconstructions: Children in Postemancipation Virginia (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015), 7

[5] Robert Harrison, “Race, Radicalism, and Reconstruction: Grassroots Republican Politics in Washington, D.C., 1867-74, American Nineteenth Century History Vol. 3, Issue 3 (2002): 73

[6] Thavolia Glymph, ‘“Invisible Disabilities”: Black Women in War and in Freedom,’ Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 160, Issue 3 (2016): 238

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jones, 7

[9] Catherine A. Jones, “Ties that Bind, Bonds That Break: Children in the Reorganization of Households in Postemancipation Virginia” The Journal of Southern History Vol. 76, Issue 1(2010): 5

[10] Ibid.

[11] Marie Jenkins Schwartz, Born in Bondage: Growing up Enslaved in the Antebellum South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 89

[12] Glymph, 240