Appeal on Behalf of the Freedmen of Washington, D.C., 1865

Document 3: "Appeal on Behalf of the Freedmen of Washington, D.C.," The Liberator, 3 November 1865, 174-175.


Josephine Griffing's appeal, published in newspapers throughout the North, including William Lloyd Garrison's anti-slavery and reform paper, The Liberator, attempted to arouse the sympathy of the North for freedpeople, especially women and children, in Washington, D.C. It was this appeal, however, that aroused the ire of other freedmen's aid reformers (see document 4) and caused the Freedmen's Bureau to remove her from her official bureau position. Why were they so concerned with her efforts on behalf of freedpeople? Griffing's efforts were not under the direct control of the male-dominated Freedmen's Aid Comission and the work threatened the systematic efforts of other aid societies and the bureau to demonstrate that freedpeople were self-supporting and independent.


The Executive Committee of the National Freedmen's Relief Association of the District of Columbia earnestly call the attention of all friends of humanity to the subjoined appeal by Mrs. JOSEPHINE S. GRIFFING, who has been for a considerable period the indefatigable agent of the association.

Having spent many months personally visiting the people in who behalf she speaks, and learning their actual needs in their shanties, her testimony can be accepted as authentic. Many cases of extreme destitution are known to the Committee, and their suffering cannot fail to be increased as the rigor of winter comes on.


I beg leave to make the following statement and appeal to the Northern States in behalf of the destitute Freed People in and around the National Capital.

The population of Washington, at the last census, was, Whites 60,000, Free Colored, 14,000, and from a recent partial census by the War Department it appears that not less than 25,000 have been added. A large proportion of these are women and children, a few of whose husbands and fathers are still in Government service; but most of them are either disabled, dead, or left with the rebels.

A host of miserable women, with large families of children, besides old, crippled, blind and sick persons, have been driven out of Maryland and sought refuge here. Most of these people have exhibited industry and thrift beyond the expectation of their friends, paying, generally by day's labor--often difficult to obtain--for shanties, garrets, cellars and stables--unfit for human beings to live in--an average rent of $5 to $6 per month.

At the commencement of the winter of 1864, upon personal examination, I found nine hundred families, with an average number of five children, without wood or the means to obtain it; half that number without beds or blankets, and as many without bread or the means of subsistence. Upon this report being presented to the Secretary of War, 1050 cords of wood, 3300 blankets, and commissary stores to feed, during the extreme cold weather, 2500 per day, were delivered and paid for from the Freedmen's Fund, held in trust by the War Department.

At the same time it was found that thousands of women and children of the latest arrivals were without a change of clothing, and large numbers had no under clothing at all.

A number of infants, of only a few days old, were found without a garment, and in this condition many perished from the cold.

Hundreds of old persons and children were without shoes and stockings, and being badly frost bitten, several had their limbs amputated in consequence, and are crippled for life.

Very few among the twenty thousand have comfortable beds or household utensils. I find from burying their dead, that the sanitary condition of most of the poorest class conduces much to the fearful mortality among them, as they are compelled to breathe a very impure air within, and a stench without the room, and are often covered with vermin, even after death.

There has been no material change in the condition and wants of these poor people since last winter, except that labor is not so easily found since the close of the war as before. Persons of the above descriptions are almost daily coming in from Virginia and Maryland, clothed, of course, in rags.

I have lately learned from the Quartermaster's Department, where coffins are issued for those Freedmen too poor to buy, that since the commencement of the extreme hot weather, about 80 coffins per week have been called for, most of which were for children.

This mortality is far greater than has before been reported since they came to the city.

"In slavery," the mothers say, "our children never dies, it 'pears like they die here." It is the opinion of physicians practising among them, and of other close observers, that three-fourths of these children die from neglect and want.

In one family of a soldier who lost his life in battle, five out of ten of his children have died since March, 1865, from the above causes. In another, three out of seven children, of a soldier drafted December last, have starved to death within the last three weeks. The mothers, in both cases, were prostrated with sickness, and all their supplies were suddenly and entirely cut off. In the same square, mothers and sons and wives and children, of soldiers still in Goverment service as Regular U.S. Troops, are suffering for the necessities of life. "Knowing nothing more of these men, they say, that that "when the war broke up they didn't come home."

Near these lives another soldier's wife, having four skeleton children, who, as she says, were starved out in Frederick, Md. They have neither bed, table, nor chairs, nor any household utensils, save a frying pan, out of which they all eat with their fingers. When I found her she had obtained two days' work, and with her scanty wages had tried to keep the childen alive; but, said she, "God knows how often we are hungry." These cases might be multiplied to scores and hundreds around the National Capital.

The character and advancement of the schools for Freedmen in the District of Columbia is encouraging, nearly 3000 children being in attendance, but 4000 would be in both day and Sabbath schools, but for the want of proper clothing.

The bureau of Freedmen has no appropriation from Congress to meet the wants of these wretched men, women and childen. Maj. Gen. Howard, in his circular no. 2, distinctly states this, and also invites the benevolent public, and associations already organized for Freedmen's aid, to cooperate in giving the needed relief to these sufferers until compensating labor can be found for them.

We trust this statement of facts will reach the Boards of Christian and Sanitary Commissions and of the various Christian associations for the amelioration and elevation of suffering humanity, and the benevolent societies throughout the North may recognize the claims of these people, and respond to this call.

We want lumber, nails and glass, to put up temporary buildings for houses for the old and crippled--a "rest" for the Freedmen daily coming to their "city of refuge"; buildings for schools, intellectual and industrial, together with an intelligence and business office and store-room. Two large industrial schools are now in successful operation, where classes, numbering over two hundred women without husbands, are, in terms of about a month to each class, learning to make and mend garments.

We need large quantities of cloth for these schools, and also yarn for knitting. Bedding of every description is absolutely needed before the coming winter. Household utensils, and a little cheap furniture, should be supplied to those who have none.

Sleeping on the shanty and stable floors last winter induced colds and pulmonary disease, that terminated the lives of hundreds, who, with beds and bedsteads to sleep on, might now be living.

Provisions of all kinds are needed for these families, whose rent absorbs much of their scanty earnings. Money, and all other contributions should be sent to the address of GEO. E. BAKER, Esq., Treasurer National Freedmen's Relief Association, Washington, D.C.

                    MRS. JOSEPHINE S. GRIFFING