Freedmen’s Bureau and the McCoy Custody Battle
After slavery ended, Jacob and Monemia McCoy appealed to the Freedmen’s Bureau to have their daughters returned to their custody.
Fighting for Family
In October 1865, Jacob and Monemia McCoy appealed to the Freedmen’s Bureau for help regaining custody of their twin daughters, Millie Christine. Mary A. Smith, the last enslaver of the McCoy family, exhibited the twins as side show attractions and refused to emancipate the twins after the end of slavery – separating them from their family for eight years. Smith coerced the McCoy’s into signing a contract stipulating the twins remain with her for five years, promising the twins' parents part of the profits from their performances.
Smith, along with local law enforcement, told the McCoys that emancipation “would not last.” The McCoys reported this to the Freedmen’s Bureau, initiating an investigation and trial that would last several months.
The Freedmen’s Bureau
In 1865, near the end of the Civil War, Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau assisted in the reconstruction of the South and aided newly freed African Americans in their transition to freedom. It operated in all 15 southern and border states, including Washington, DC. The Bureau reunited families, legalized marriages, provided health and legal services, and helped build schools.
In North Carolina, one of the Bureau’s most protracted fights was its effort to end apprenticeship contracts where Black children worked for white families after slavery. It took the enforcement of a new state law in 1867 to end this practice by officially making such contracts null and void.
The McCoys Draft Their Own Contract
Jacob and Monemia presented the Bureau with a contract they had drawn up with lawyers from New York City. Under the contract with Ladd & Cartwright, Jacob and Monemia stipulated that the twins should be treated humanely and could not be handled by others. Mary A. Smith frequently subjected Millie Christine to invasive examinations by doctors and scientists. The McCoys appointed a woman named Nancy Hurley to travel and care for the twins while they traveled. They also stipulated regular monthly payments.
. . . the said twin children shall be carefully and humanely treated and that they shall not be carelessly nor cruelly handled nor treated by strangers nor others.
McCoy contract with Ladd & Cartwright 1865
Going to Trial
The Bureau ordered Mary A. Smith to appear for trial with the twins in November 1865. When she appeared without the girls, Bureau agents suspected Smith planned to smuggle Millie Christine to Europe if the court ruled against her. Smith was promptly arrested.
Bureau agent Clinton Cilley ruled that Millie Christine should be returned to their parents however, the contract Jacob and Monemia signed with Mary A. Smith was legally binding. Before the contract could take effect, Cilley stipulated that by North Carolina law, Jacob McCoy had the right to appoint a guardian for his daughters and enforce fair payments. Noting the twins were 14 years old, Cilley believed them to “able to think for themselves” and should have a say in redrafting the terms of the contract.
The McCoy’s contract with Ladd & Cartwright was deemed unlawful and would not take effect.
I have revoked my order requiring the children to be returned to their parents, being confident that they will be so restored as soon as the question of their possession is settled.
Clinton Cilley, Freedmen’s Bureau, 1865
Reversing the Ruling
Days after his initial ruling, Cilley reversed his decision. He decided that the contract Jacob and Monemia McCoy were coerced into signing was valid under North Carolina law but added a provision that Mary A. Smith pay the McCoys five thousand dollars if she did not fulfill her contractual obligations. His reversal mentions as partial justification that Smith taught Millie Christine to read and write.
Millie Christine remained in Mary A. Smith’s custody and continued to perform. Jacob and Monemia McCoy appear in Freedmen’s Bureau records in 1866—they never stopped trying to regain custody of their daughters. The McCoy story highlights the limits of freedom in Reconstruction era-America—and highlights the shortcomings of the Freedmen's Bureau.