Nesbitt Memorial Library Journal, Volume 5, Number 2, May, 1995 Page: 86
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Nesbitt Memorial Library Journal
percentage (perhaps thirty percent) of black children in Texas were truly orphans; that
is, girls and boys without either a mother or a father. Slavery was responsible for the
aberrant definition of the term in the postwar era. Since parents had been sold away to
other states and communication was non-existent or sporadic at best, the whereabouts
of parents was often unknown. Certainly a giant hunt for separated children began in
the aftermath of war, but black parents had little information to guide them, and when
they did locate their offspring, they often found that they had been bound out because
they had been legally classified as an orphan.
When an individual, white or black, signed an indenture he usually posted
a $500 surety, along with two other signers who vouched for the bond. In return, the
child was bound to the individual until the youngster reached the age of twenty-one.
Although this pattern varied somewhat for girls, who could be released if they married
anytime after age eighteen, such agreements ensured a long period of service for the
apprentice. The person who assumed the guardianship in turn had to agree to perform
specific duties and accept certain responsibilities. These included, among others, to
provide the child with some limited schooling, to teach the him a skill or trade, and to
reward him with some compensation at the termination of the apprenticeship.
Typical of such arrangements was that made by Raper with John T. Harcourt
in Columbus in December 1865. Raper bound a thirteen-year-old black named Harry to
Harcourt, who gave a $500 bond. The agreement required that Harry "labor honestly and
faithfully" until he was twenty-one and obey all lawful orders or demands. In turn,
Harcourt agreed to deal "justly and kindly" with Harry, to guarantee him all rights
conferred by the laws and proclamations of the president, to be "just and honest" in all
transactions, to promote his mental, moral, and physical culture, to provide a reasonable
education, to allow him an opportunity to acquire quarters, and to furnish fuel, food, and
medical attendance. At the indenture's expiration, Harry was to receive a horse, a saddle,
a bridle, and a good suit of clothes.48
Gregory, as assistant commissioner in Texas, condemned the indenture
system and later, as bureau chief in Maryland, reiterated his stand. Gregory might be
criticized for his caution in dealing with the issue, for he allowed whites to retain black
children, but his options were limited. Bureau agents were ordered to make the "best
disposition" of black children they could under the circumstances, knowing that
whatever disposition they made "would be only temporary until some settled policy
could be adopted." When agents confronted planters over the binding issue, the latter
were forced to agree to "retain minor orphans" under bureau supervision until "further
orders." All previous laws were considered obsolete.49
48 Indenture of John T. Harcourt (approved by John T. Raper), December 5, 1865, Assistant
Commissioner, Unregistered Letters, 1865-1866, BRFAL, RG 105, National Archives.
49 Edgar M. Gregory (assistant commissioner, Texas) to Oliver Otis Howard (commissioner),
December 9, 1865, p. 69; Chauncey C. Morse (acting assistant adjutant commissioner) to George C. Abbott
(agent, Hempstead), December 22, 1865, p. 79; Morse to O. H. Swingley (agent, Austin), December 22,
1865, p. 80, all in vol. 4, Assistant Commissioner, Letters Sent. See also Peter W. Bardaglio, "Challenging
Parental Custody Rights: The Legal Reconstruction of Parenthood in the Nineteenth-Century American South,"
Continuity and Change, vol. 4 (August 1989), pp. 259-292.
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Nesbitt Memorial Library. Nesbitt Memorial Library Journal, Volume 5, Number 2, May, 1995, periodical, May 1995; Columbus, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth151394/m1/18/?q=nesbitt%20memorial%20library%20journal: accessed July 23, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Nesbitt Memorial Library.