I made a huge discovery recently courtesy of Familysearch’s newly indexed Freedmen’s Bureau Labor Contracts. Several years ago, I used cluster research to trace my Tennessee ancestor Mike Fendricks back to his Alabama roots. At a standstill with Mike, I traced the roots of a man who Mike was living with in 1920 named Dee Suggs. Mike and Dee, I concluded after reviewing all the evidence, were likely brothers. I eventually found them presumably living with their mother Sophronia Suggs in this 1870 Franklin County, Alabama household (Dee’s name is “Dewitt”):
Well, my new discovery turns that presumption into fact. The January 1866 Freedmen’s Bureau labor contract between Thomas Sugg and “a lot of freed people” included
“Frony, aged thirty-two and her four children, to wit, Frank, 15 years of age, Mike 10 years, Carry, 6 years, Dee, three years of age…”
Thomas Sugg was very likely Sophronia’s former owner. Unfortunately, the Freedmen’s Bureau made a decision to support labor contracts for former slaves instead of giving them parcels of land taken from Confederates. Former slaves needed to support their families and slaveowners still needed people to farm the land. But that decision would lock most former slaves into another half century of economic dependence.
It’s sad to read the lengthy and detailed Sugg agreement. Frony was just signing up for something that was an extension of and as close as possible to actual slavery. One ohrase from the document summarizes the central problem with this arrangement:
“the freed people…may at any time be driven from the farm without any pay for labor they may have performed.”
We know from the Freedmen’s Bureau own records that that is exactly what happened: many families were forced off the land without pay once the crop came in. Feel free to download and read my transcription of Frony’s labor contract:
Freedmen’s Bureau records are an unparalleled resource for understanding the lives of the roughly four million former slaves. They offer a look inside the five years before Notoriously hard to research, I offered a strategy for approaching these records some years ago. If you are new to these records, please refer to that post to get some ideas on how to start. When I searched, I just put the surname “Suggs” in the search box and left everything else blank. Then I looked down the list of results for those in Alabama.
Keep in mind that ALL the Freedmen’s Bureau records available at Familysearch are not yet indexed; there are many that still can only be searched by browsing each page.
I’m so happy to have found confirmation that Sophronia is my 3rd great-grandmother. I have had other successes in these records, so if you haven’t yet, I hope you take a look at this invaluable resource. If you have already found your ancestor in these records, please share it with us in the comments. Good luck!