Conference with President Andrew Johnson (June 16, 1865)


Five prominent African American men from Richmond met with President Andrew Johnson in the White House, in Washington, D.C., on June 16, 1865. Led by Fields Cook, a former slave and a Baptist minister, they complained about “the wrongs, as we conceive them to be, by which we are sorely oppressed.” The men explained that, with the end of the American Civil War (1861–1865) and the abolition of slavery in Virginia, they were now at the mercy of former masters and a law code not equipped to deal with the new circumstances. They articulated several specific grievances: their inability to employ African American ministers in their churches; their lack of full civil rights in Richmond; and the conduct of the U.S. Army and of the civilian government under Governor Francis H. Pierpont and Mayor Joseph Mayo. Although Johnson did not make a formal response to the complaints, he informed the petitioners of changes of civil and military leadership in Richmond that eased their concerns.


President Lincoln Riding Through Richmond

The joy with which the large black population of the capital had greeted the collapse of the Confederacy and the end of slavery in April 1865 had not endured through the remainder of the spring. “Under the old system,” the delegates informed the president, “we had the protection of our masters, who were financially interested in our physical welfare. That protection is now withdrawn, and our old masters have become our enemies, who seek not only to oppress our people, but thwart the designs of the Federal Government and of Northern benevolent associations in our behalf. We cannot appeal to the laws of Virginia for protection, for the old negro laws still prevail; and, besides, the oath of a colored man against a white man will not be received in our State courts, so that we have nowhere to go for protection and justice but to that power which made us free.”


First African Baptist Church

The five Richmonders, whom the correspondent for the New-York Tribune described as “a fine-looking body of men,” first met with General Henry W. Halleck, who commanded the U.S. Army’s Department of Virginia and North Carolina, before meeting the president at eleven o’clock. At the White House, they presented to Johnson on behalf of more than 20,000 African Americans in Richmond and the neighboring town of Manchester a long address that more than 3,000 men had adopted at a mass meeting in Richmond’s First African Baptist Church on June 10.

The first in the delegation’s list of grievances sought independence for black churches. Richmond and Manchester each had a very large black Baptist church that traced its history far back into the decades before the Civil War. Both cities also had several smaller black Methodist and Baptist churches. Since Nat Turner’s Rebellion of 1831, the General Assembly had forbidden African Americans from preaching, even in their own congregations, and required the supervision of white clergymen for black worship services. “Now, in the reconstruction of our church matters,” the delegation informed the president, “we wish to employ clergymen of our choice and faith, and to hold our own property. The obnoxious clergy we may gradually get rid of, but how to get possession of our church property, passeth our understanding.”

Union General David McMurtie Gregg

Another grievance the men presented to President Johnson involved the pass system that restricted African Americans’ freedom of movement in Richmond. At the end of the Civil War, the army provided rations for hungry people of both races in the vicinity of the capital city, but in May the army threatened to stop food relief for people who did not work, even though paying work was scarce, especially for recently freed men and women. The army cooperated with white civilians in attempting to require freed people to work or to go into the country and take jobs in agriculture. Claiming an interest in public safety, the army further attempted to prevent people from the countryside from entering the city. To enforce those policies, the army began to regulate the behavior of the freed people, much as before the war local authorities had attempted to control the behavior of both free and enslaved African Americans. General David M. Gregg had aggravated the situation by declaring that freed people were to be allowed to enjoy only the rights that free African Americans had enjoyed before the end of slavery. That was far short of the full rights of freedom and citizenship that African Americans believed they were entitled to after the abolition of slavery.

Group of Freedpeople in Richmond

Both civil and military authorities in Richmond enforced old rules that had required enslaved and free black people to have signed passes to “walk the streets by day or night,” in the language of the address, “in the regular pursuit of our business, or on our way to church.” The passes, the delegation complained to the president, “do not in all cases protect us from arrest, abuse, violence and imprisonment, against which, we have thus far had no protection or redress.” Among the vulnerable were some of the many freed people from the countryside who traveled to the city to search for family members who had been hired or sold away, “thus preventing the reunion of long-estranged and affectionate families.”

Joseph Mayo

The group also urged the president to protect African Americans from police brutality. The speedy restoration of civilian municipal government in Richmond reinstated many officials who were openly aggressive toward the black community. Among them, Mayor Joseph Mayo resumed holding sessions of his Mayor’s Court, which with its police powers had terrorized both free and enslaved people before and during the Civil War. “For a long series of years,” the delegation told Johnson, “he has been the Mayor of Richmond, and his administration has always been marked by cruelty and injustice to us; and the old rebel police, now again in power, have been our greatest enemies. It was Mayor Mayo who, in former days, ordered us to be scourged for trifling offences against slave laws and usages, and his present police, who are now hunting us through the streets, are the men who relentlessly applied the lash to our quivering flesh, and now they appear to take special pleasure in persecuting and oppressing us.” The delegates also presented to Halleck and to Johnson affidavits that documented unfair or brutal treatment of Richmond residents by civilians and soldiers in the city.


General Alfred H. Terry

Johnson made no formal reply to the delegation but told its members that Governor Pierpont had removed Mayor Mayo from office. He also told the delegates that the army generals in command in Virginia were to be replaced with other officers. The president and the army had already made plans for these changes, but the delegates likely believed that they had persuaded the president to replace the generals who had given offense to Richmond’s African Americans. The new commander in Virginia, Alfred H. Terry, proved to be much more sympathetic to the vulnerabilities of the state’s freed people. Cook and the other delegates left Washington believing that they had succeeded in accomplishing what the men in Richmond had empowered them to do: relieve some of the unfair treatment that had afflicted them in the days following the abolition of slavery.

The daily Richmond Times covered these events, printing several long articles about the meetings in Richmond that prepared the address to the president, as well as reporting on the delegation’s visit to the White House and their return to Richmond. Widely read newspapers in Washington and New York also printed or reprinted stories about the meeting, which gave national publicity to the conditions of the freed people of Richmond. The story about the delegation’s meeting with Johnson filled more than half the front page of the New-York Tribune on the next day. The paper reported that the pass system had been abolished in Richmond and that schools for the children of freed people had been opened.

June 10, 1865
More than 3,000 African Americans meet in Richmond's First African Baptist Church. They approve a set of grievances regarding black civil rights.
June 16, 1865
A delegation of five prominent African American men from Richmond meets with President Andrew Johnson at the White House. They present a set of grievances about their treatment and leave reassured.
  • Chesson, Michael B. Richmond after the War, 1865–1890. Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1981.
  • O’Brien, John Thomas Jr. From Bondage to Citizenship: The Richmond Black Community, 1865–1867. New York: Garland Publishing, 1990.
  • O’Brien, John Thomas Jr. “Reconstruction in Richmond: White Restoration and Black Protest, April–June 1865.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 89, no. 3 (July 1981): 259–281.
APA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. Conference with President Andrew Johnson (June 16, 1865). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/conference-with-president-andrew-johnson-june-16-1865.
MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. "Conference with President Andrew Johnson (June 16, 1865)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 24 May. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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