Primary Resource

Bayley Wyat's Speech (December 1866)

In a December 1866 speech Bayley Wyat, a freedman, protests the closing the contraband camps in Yorktown. The camps were established during the American Civil War (1861–1865) as places of refuge for men and women who escaped from slavery to Union territory. Wyat argues that African Americans have a rightful claim to the land based on their service to the Union Army and their contribution as enslaved laborers to building the American economy.

Transcription from Original

[Philadelphia, Pa., late December, 1866]

[Published by Friends' Association of Philadelphia and its vicinity for the Relief of Colored Freedmen. Office, No. 501 Cherry Street, Philadelphia.]

A FREEDMAN'S SPEECH.

In a letter from Yorktown, Va., dated 12th month 15, 1866, Jacob H. Vining, Superintendent of Friends' Freedmen's Schools, writes:

"I enclose for publication the substance of a speech made by Bayley Wyat, a colored man, living near here. It was delivered at a Mass Meeting of colored freedmen held in our large school-house. The meeting was called at the close of one held the preceding evening by the Freedmen's Bureau, on the subject of removing the camps. The former meeting was addressed by Gen. Armstrong, Lieut. Massey and myself, advising them to seek homes in the adjoining counties and elsewhere; the latter meeting was held to consider of and reply to our advice. I was present by special invitation, heard their deliberations, and felt that their arguments were unanswerable. I think I never heard more touching eloquence than that which characterized this simple speech. I was chained to the spot as I listened, and could not refrain from mingling tears with the crowd, who were often melted into tears by the pathetic allusions of the speaker to their past and present experiences. I saw in this speech so much naked, simple truth, and natural pathos and oratory, that I sent to the speaker, and got him to come to my place and repeat to me the substance of his speech, while I wrote it down. It comes far short of doing justice to him, but there are facts and forces in it which should command the respect and sympathy of all, and especially of legislators.

Bayley Wyat's Speech.

Taking notice of the address the gemmen gave us last night concerning leavin' the camps in which we are now settled, and thrown back to the adjinin' counties where we came from, it seems that it had been told the gemmen that if we would go back to the counties we came from, we should be taken care of as well as in the place where we are now located. But we have full satisfaction, if we turns back to them counties or the lands we came from, under the present situation of the rebels and the unsettled situation of the United States, we shall be forebber made hewers of wood and drawers of water.

But when we looks back and sees our former state, when education was kept from us; and though we was made like men by God as other men, we was kept in bondage,–we made bricks without straw under old Pharo; and you all 'members de home house and de wife house, how de wife house was often eight or ten miles from de home house, and we would go there Saturday night expectin' to see de wife we had left and she would be gone!–sent down South, nebber to come back, and de little cabin shut up and desolate;–den we would fold our arms and cry, "O Lord, how long!" and dat was all we could say. And we was not able to own even our names, as men among other men. For this cause we now looks on our present situation, and we believes it is by the overrulin' providence of God, and not of men, that we enjoys freedom,–that we are placed in this most pleasant situation.

And we first thanks God for this great blessin' we now has; second, we thanks our friends from de North for the great sacrifice which dey have made for our benefition; and we feels so well satisfied that we has God on our side,–that we has some friends that through God's assistance will intercede for us and assist us, yet wishes to be all the aid we can be to the United States as men.

And as to our dear friends, de Quakers to de North, we does consider dem our best earthly friends, for de great sacrifice dey has made and is making for us; we does tank dem most kindly; and as to de great North, for de sacrifices of treasures, of lives, and of blood, we now consider dem our affectionate friends, and we heartily tank dem.

We now, as a people, desires to be elevated, and we desires to do all we can to be educated, and we hope our friends will aid us all dey can.

As to our going back to the counties we came from and to the rebels again, we knows for the truth, by thousands of witnesses, the sight of the darkies who left the rebels in the time of war is now as a dose of pizen in their eyes, because we left the rebels and went to the Yankees.

We now feels unprotected against de rebels, and we feels unprotected wid dem; and though de rebels have and do scoff us for calling de North our friends we hope we shall nebber lose our confidence in dem,–I mean our friends in the North.

Oh, most respectable Friends ob de North please consider our interests; we feels sometimes as if our welfare in dis life depends on you.

Mr Vining, the Superintender of Schools, held a mass meeting on Friday night, and he departed to us some very good, perm'ent instructions, such as we believes are based on the very foundations of Truth; and immegiately we agrees with him to take his counsel, believing it is for our benefit, and we has every reason to believe he is a friend of ours.

I may state to all our friends, and to all our enemies, that we has a right to the land where we are located. For why? I tell you. Our wives, our children, our husbands, has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locates upon; for that reason we have a divine right to the land.

Den again, the United States, by deir officers, told us if we would leave the Rebs and come to de Yankees and help de Government, we should have de land where dey put us as long as we live; and dey told us dat we should be see'd after and cared for by de Government, and placed in a position to become men among men.

And de Government furder promised to protect us from de rebels as long as we lived, and we sacrificed all we had, and left de rebels and came to the Yankees.

Some of us had some money to buy our freedom, and some of us had a house, and some of us had cattle with which we hoped sometimes to buy ourselves; but we left all depending on de promises of de Yankees.

Dey told us dese lands was 'fiscated from the Rebs, who was fightin' de United States to keep us in slavery and to destroy the Government. De Yankee officers say to us: "Now, dear friends, colored men, come and go with us; we will gain de victory, and by de proclamation of our President you have your freedom, and you shall have the 'fiscated lands."

And now we feels disappointed dat dey has not kept deir promise. O educated men! men of principle, men of honor, as we once considered you was! Now we don't seem to know what to consider, for de great confidence we had seems to be shaken, for now we has orders to leave dese lands by the Superintender of the Bureau.

We was first ordered to pay rent, and we paid de rent; now we has orders to leave, or have our log cabins torn down over our heads. Dey say "de lands has been 'stored to de old owners, and dey must have it."

And now where shall we go? Shall we go into the streets, or into de woods, or into de ribber? We has nowhere to go! and we now wants to know what we can do?

I is not here to ask de Government to help me nor my family. I has never asked any help from de Government nor from friends, and I never has received any. I has got a living by honest, hard work since I came to the Yankees, and I has saved something besides. I owes no man any thing, but my people cannot all do this. Dey has been bought and sold like horses; dey has been kept in ignorance; dey has been sold for lands, for horses, for carriages, and for every thing their old masters had. I want some gemmen to tell me of one ting that our people hasn't been sold to buy for deir owners.

And den didn't we clear the land, and raise de crops of corn, ob cotton, ob tobacco, ob rice, ob sugar, ob ebery ting. And den didn't dem large cities in de North grow up on de cotton and de sugars and de rice dat we made? Yes! I appeal to de South and to de North if I hasn't spoken de words of truth?

I say dey has grown rich, and my people is poor. We lives in slab cabins, on ground for floor, and many of us has not food, and we goes ragged and most naked.

God heard our groans. He saw our afflictions, and he came down and delivered us; but anudder king is now risen,–Andy Johnson! I will not call him king or President; he is not our friend; he has forgotten the afflictions of Joseph, if he ever knowed them, and we are now turned back to the old taskmasters. Our cabins are threatened to be turned down over our heads if we do not go, and we must be drove about from place to place, and chased as hounds chase rabbits. And we must go; and I ask again, where shall we go, and who shall we trust?

I tell you who we is to trust. We is to trust God, and he will bring us all out ob de wilderness, somehow, and sometime, and somewhere. I cannot tell how nor when He'll do it, but I'm bound to believe He will do it. Gemmen, we must not depend on the warlike nations around us to help us; dey have all deceived us; dey has combined against us to keep us out of de promised land.

Now, we must be united; we must take care of ourselves, and protect ourselves, and must support ourselves. We must form societies to help each other who cannot help demselves, and we must show to the nations dat we can support ourselves, and dat we can protect ourselves wid the help of God; and dat He will do. He has done it, and I know He will help us one time more, if we looks to Him.

I know de times looks hard and berry dark to some of us, who is hungry and cold. Like all de chillen of Israel, our soul is dried away, and we 'members de flesh-pots and de leeks and de onions of Egypt, and we is ready to say, "Oh, dat our graves had been dere!" for we tinks dat our Moses has left us and we has lost our confidence in him. But I stands here to-night to tell you dat God has not forgotten us, and He is just, and He will bring us along bimeby.

We deserves hard times, we deserves hunger and cold, and we deserves enemies, because we is not all honest, and we doesn't do de best we can. We doesn't help ourselves; and I tell you dat God won't help those dat won't help themselves. You know when Joshua went to fight Ai, he was beat, and his men got killed, and was driven back, and poor Joshua didn't know what was de matter; but God did know dat something was wrong with Joshua's men. Some of dem did steal a coat, and some did steal money, and God knowed it, and he telled Joshua, and den Joshua find it so; and he punish and kill de tief and de liar, and den his enemies could not stand against him. Now we has liars, and we has thieves, and knows it; and we all suffer as a people, as dere is sin wid us. God ain't gwine to help de wicked and bless dem. No sir! God ain't gwine to do any sich thing. He is gwine to 'flict us some way, long as we is wicked; long as we don't speak de truth; long as we steal; long as we doesn't believe Him; long as we is lazy; long as we don't help ourselves, He won't help us.