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Why Is America Afraid of Black History?


© Photo-illustration by Khaleelah I. L. Harris. Sources: The Freedmen’s Bureau Archives; Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve Collection / Florida State Archives; University of Virginia Library Online Exhibits.


Story by Lonnie G. Bunch III The Atlantic

Editor’s Note: This article is part of “On Reconstruction,” a project about America’s most radical experiment.


In all my years doing research at the National Archives, I had never cried. That day in fall 2012, I had simply planned to examine documentary material that might help determine how the yet-to-be-built National Museum of African American History and Culture would explore and present the complicated history of American slavery and freedom.


As I read through the papers of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands—the Freedmen’s Bureau, as it’s usually called—I decided to see if I could find records from Wake County, North Carolina, where I knew some of my own enslaved ancestors had lived. I had few expectations because I knew so little about my family’s history. From a surviving wedding certificate for my paternal great-grandparents, I’d gotten the name of my earliest-known family member, an enslaved woman named Candis Bunch, my great-great-grandmother. But scrolling through rolls of microfilmed documents from the Raleigh office of the Freedmen’s Bureau, I realized the chances were remote that I would find my ancestor.


But when I turned my attention to a series of labor contracts—designed to give the newly freed some legal protections as they negotiated working relationships with their former enslavers—I found a single page documenting a contract between Fabius H. Perry, who owned the plantation next to the one where my ancestors had been enslaved, and Candis Bunch. That page not only filled a void in my knowledge of my family’s history, but also enriched my understanding of myself.


I was amazed at what a single piece of paper could reveal. For two days of farm work in 1866, Candis received $1, and for 44 days of work in 1867, she received $11. The contract also revealed that her daughter Dolly was paid $3 for housework. As I read further, the contract delineated what Candis owed Perry for the purchase of cotton and soap.


What reduced me to tears was the fact that, out of her meager earnings, Candis had spent 60 cents on two “baker tins,” more than the payment she received for an entire day’s work. I remembered how my paternal grandmother, Leanna Bunch, who resided in Belleville, New Jersey, and died two weeks before my fifth birthday, used to bake cookies in the shape of hearts and crescent moons to cajole me into napping. Did she use the very same tins that Candis had labored to buy? Had that been the beginning of a family tradition: No matter how difficult times may be, always help the children find some joy?



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