Thursday, December 1, 2011

Photo of Purman - about age 52

From "Boston of To-day", Compiled by Richard Herndon (Boston: Post Publishing Co., 1892), p. 363 {avail at googlebooks}

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Purman the Senator (and solicitor, and secy of state, and judge...)

Purman resigned from the Bureau in time for his appearance as Jackson County’s senator at the opening of the state legislature on June 8th. The Florida senate ratified the XIII and XIV amendments to the U.S. Constitution and elected senators to Washington before adjourning on June 19th to await formal readmission by the U.S. Congress. Purman initially voted for T. W. Osborn and Ossian Hart for senator, but the next day voted for A. Welch for the short term in place of Hart.


After the legislature reconvened in early July, Purman received appointments to standing committees on the Judiciary, Finance & Tax, Claims, Militia, State Affairs, and the crucial Privileges & Elections. Now a state senator, Purman finally had the opportunity to do something to promote the rights of his African American constituents by shaping the laws of the state. As a member of a committee appointed to review the state’s Criminal Laws, Purman denounced the state’s criminal laws as “cruel, barbarous, and such as are common only to a rude or slave society” and proposed new and complete criminal law statutes. He also voted in favor of an equal accommodations bill. The legislature adjourned for the year on August 6th.

During the legislative session, Purman received a number of surprising appointments. Governor Reed appointed him solicitor for the First Judicial District (the panhandle) but Purman refused this post and was replaced by Marianna attorney D. C. Dawkins. Despite never having worked as an attorney, Purman was appointed and confirmed county judge for Jackson County. One can imagine the groans back in Marianna rising from the throats of the town’s white population upon receipt of that news.

The origins of Purman’s long-running feud with Jonathan C. Gibbs may be traced also to the appointments of this session. At the beginning of the July session, Governor Reed initially appointed “John C. Gibbs” as Florida’s secretary of state. A couple of days later, Reed recalled the appointment after it was pointed out that Gibbs’ name was Jonathan, not John. It is unclear who made an issue of this discrepancy. Instead of correcting his error, Reed appointed Purman as Secretary of state and he was confirmed by the senate. At the end of the session in August, however, Purman resigned the secretary of state position, according to his resignation letter, in favor of an African American candidate, “believing that the just recognition of our worthy colored representatives can not be disregarded with political impunity.” [JAX FL Union, Dec. 5, 1868] Instead of reappointing Gibbs, however, Reed appointed George J. Alden, a white carpetbagger representing Pensacola. It could be speculated that Purman’s explanation for resignation may have been somewhat self-serving, but we have no other obvious explanation for his resignation.

The recall of Gibbs suggests the handiwork of Purman who had learned the art of removal of officials based on technicalities during the convention and who had reserved for himself that power in the legislature as a member (with Alden) of the senate committee on privileges and immunities. Certainly Gibbs was a surprising choice as he had sided with the radicals at the convention in opposition to the prevailing moderates. Gibbs was a minister and Dartmouth graduate and some commentators described him as the most impressive man in the Florida politics. Reed must have recognized that fairness dictated making at least one African American appointment to state office when blacks comprised at least 95% of Republican voters. Gibbs’ reputation may have made him the logical choice despite his politics. Whatever the Reed’s reason, Alden ended up with the office where he already found the assistant secretary of state he had nominated earlier in the term: John Quincy Dickinson, a Union army officer from Vermont who had stayed in the Florida panhandle after the war to try, and fail, in the lumber mill business. Reed soon found an opportunity to rectify snub of Gibbs: later in the year after Alden supported a move to impeach the governor, Reed fired his ingrate secretary of state and appointed Gibbs in his place.

In October, Reed reversed himself on another matter, taking action to end the multiple office holding he had promoted during his summer appointments. He declared vacant the seats of state legislators who held other offices. As Jackson County judge, Purman lost his senate seat. Purman make the obvious choice to resign the judgeship in order to retain his senate seat and prepared to run in a special election to be held in December.

In the fall, Purman, suffering ill health, traveled back to home in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, “his malady requiring a change of climate and medical assistance which could not so well be found [in Florida] as in our Northern cities.” Illness must be the explanation for Purman’s skipping the state Republican nominating convention in early November where Charles Hamilton narrowly retained the nomination for Congress. Purman told a Pennsylvania newspaper that on his trip North he had stopped in New York where “he partially succeeded in forming a company for the purchase of land in Florida for sub-division among the landless colored population.” There is no further information about this effort. Purman returned to Florida by early December to campaign with Hamilton and both men won re-election to their respective offices in the December 19th election.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Purman's days in the Bureau draw to a close

At the close of the constitutional convention, the delegates remained to hold a convention to nominate candidates for the May election for the offices of governor, lieutenant governor and congressman. Charles M. Hamilton ended up as the congressional nominee. This is surprising since Hamilton had not been a delegate to the convention, although he did hang around Tallahassee and Monticello providing some kind of assistance. Certainly, it may be assumed, that Purman’s influence was the leading factor in his friend’s nomination. Purman, as much as anybody, had left the convention in the position of a party leader, although apparently still submitting to the overall leadership of Osborn. Later events showed that Osborn was calculating on becoming a US senator. Perhaps by not being a part of the convention, but still a recognized and charismatic Republican, Hamilton was an appropriate candidate for unifying the moderate and radical wings of the party that had come to blows at the convention. Purman, by contrast, through his scheming at the convention, had already earned the life-long hatred of the radicals and, likely, only guarded appreciation from his allies.


Soon after his return, Purman and the other Jackson Co. delegates to the convention enjoyed the tributes in their honor from a county-wide Republican meeting organized to ratify symbolically the new constitution and the parties’ selection of candidates. Presumably at this point, Purman was selected as the Republican candidate for Jackson County’s state senate seat. This celebration, however, could not disguise that the Bureau’s efforts and achievements of the last two years were unraveling. Violent incidents between the races had shaken both communities. Furthermore, Purman was disgusted by the labor contracts he discovered to have been executed and declared them void. White farmers resented this perceived interference in private contractual rights, questioning once more the uncertain authority of the Bureau. Also unsettling, Purman quickly learned that Lt. Col. Flint’s distaste for the Jackson County Bureau officers had filtered down his subordinates. Lt. Bomford, commanding the 7th US Infantry contingent sent over to quell the violence, noticeably dragged his feet in response to any request from Purman. This obstinance provoked Purman go over Flint’s head to appeal to Col. Sprague to instruct the officer that he orders were to cooperate the with civilian authority represented by the Bureau.

As part of his Bureau duties, Purman was required to dispense government issued rations to freedmen families who were prone to suffer from hunger during the winter and early spring before the crops were ready for harvest. Flint claimed that Purman was going beyond the narrow eligibility restrictions in his distribution of rations in order to further his political ambitions. Purman also faced a problem in financing the transportation of rations by cart from the closest railroad depot fifty miles away at Quincy. The solution Purman devised of paying the carters with rations they could then sell drew the scrutiny of authorities and eventually brought Purman to the attention of a congressional investigatory committee.

In early May, Jackson County voters ratified the constitution and sent Hamilton to Congress and Purman to the state senate. Purman prepared to depart Marianna. He appointed Dr. John Finlayson to lead the Bureau in his absence. The unraveling that began at the beginning of the year now accelerated. Purman received his first threatened note from a group identified as the “Ku Klux Klan.” Also, while on a tour of the peninsula, he had a terrifying encounter with a Regulator party in the woods of Calhoun County. The determination of Purman’s party to ride through a roadblock apparently stunned the Regulators and they allowed Purman and his men to pass unmolested. In early, however, Purman left to attend the opening of the legislature in Tallahassee and his days as a Bureau agent effectively administering the daily affairs of Jackson County were at an end.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The 1868 FL Constitutional Convention

Purman was present among the thirty delegates (out of 46 elected) in attendance at the convention's opening on Jan. 20. He immediately threw himself in with the moderate Republican contingent led by Osborn to devise a plan to thwart the “radical” republicans who initially seized control of the convention. This moderate opposition included eventual governor Harrison Reed, O.B. Hart, Marcellus Stearns and future U.S. Senators Osborn and Conover. The moderates sought to delay the convention until more allies arrived, but radicals insisted on proceeding. Purman took a leading role in the schemes to prevent the radicals from obtaining a quorum, including challenging the credentials of delegates and finally leading 18 delegates (including all four Jackson Co. delegates) to form a separate convention in Monticello. The radical delegates worked in Tallahassee until Feb. 8 when they completed a constitution. The rump moderate convention, now 22 strong, returned to Tallahassee, convening in the state house close to midnight. (The Radicals accused Hamilton, not a delegate, of allegedly rousing two radical delegates from their beds and bringing them to the capitol to give the moderates a quorum, but the Moderates claimed this account was “false in every particular”). Purman presented resolutions protesting the actions of the radicals, and calling for the re-election of a new president and officers to form a new convention. Purman then led the Committee on Eligibility which declared the radical leaders as ineligible as delegates based on residency requirements. The moderates drafted and signed their own constitution and the competing document was sent to Congress and accepted in place of the radicals’ document.


Solon Robinson, reporting for the New York Tribune, described Purman as the moderates' “chief speaker” and a leader. The source of Purman’s confidence and brazenness in parliamentary tactics is a mystery. Nothing in his previous record, other than his experience as a public speaker and organizer for the Republican Party, suggested he was capable of the schemes involved in seizing control of the convention. It is also a surprise that immediately on his arrival at the convention, Purman assumed the role of leader on behalf of Osborn’s faction. The is no hint from the existing record of the development of such a close working relationship between the two men. The irony that Purman went to such extremes on behalf of the moderates was completely lost to his white, Jackson County constituents who continued to consider Purman, and Hamilton, the most vile of radicals.

Friday, March 5, 2010

1867: The beginning of a political career

By mid-1867, Purman was becoming increasingly involved in implementing the new Congressional Reconstruction political plan. He announced his return to Jackson County with a speech at the mass Fourth of July celebration and immediately set to work on voter registration. Serving as clerk, Purman traveled with the three-man Registration Board to variations locations in the county, encountering hostility from white citizens, particularly in Campbellton. Board members included Emanuel Fortune as the African American representative and Dr. Latimus Armistead.


By the summer of 1867, the Bureau agents focused their efforts on a proposed public school building program and Purman solicited funding from Florida’s superintendant of education. Opposition arose in Greenwood, however, when Purman and Hamilton organized a meeting to address establishment of a public school. In Marianna, however, some prominent whites, such as the Russ family, expressed their support for the school project.

As the voter registration period closed in October, Purman remarked that some blacks had expressed interest in running for public office, but Purman confided that that he felt they did not have the capacity to fill government positions. It is not clear whether Purman excluded his close ally, Emanuel Fortune, from this opinion. Purman’s skepticism toward African Americans holding prominent government positions would be an issue in his relations with Florida’s black community through the rest of his career.

By late 1867, Purman and Hamilton had acknowledged their impotence to guarantee fair treatment of the freedmen by their employers and the court system. During the year, they stood by helplessly as the rule of law eroded. Their few white allies endured harassment and the freedmen continued to suffer physical abuse and worsening economic deprivation with no hope of recourse from the biased courts. Purman was greatly concerned that such mistreatment was engendering hatred and bitterness in the black population toward whites and the government.

Complaints from the white community about Hamilton and Purman reached Governor Walker, who in turn forwarded the objections to Col. John T. Sprague, the U.S. army officer responsible for the Bureau agents in Florida. Sprague dispatched Lt. Col. Franklin F. Flint to investigate. Flint was predisposed toward the white community with whom he exclusively met in drafting his report. To Flint’s horror, he found that Jackson County blacks considered the Bureau agents to be their “special friends.” Flint examined the issues of fees and concluded that Purman’s collection of fees assessed prior to the Bureau’s prohibition of that practice was improper. Surmising that the white community was justified in ostracizing the two young men, Flint finished up by recommending their removal. Based on his conversations with Flint, Gov. Walker stated that Purman was the “chief man” in stirring up tension in Jackson County.

At some point in the fall, Purman became a candidate to represent Jackson County at the forthcoming state constitutional convention. In November, the state and county voted in favor of a convention and Purman, along with three other men, including Emanuel Fortune , were elected delegates from the Jackson-Calhoun county district. With the end of 1867, Purman was named to replace Hamilton, who was mustered out of the army, but Purman was focused on his attendance at the forthcoming convention.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Spring 1867: Purman in New Smyrna

Purman proceeded immediately to his new assignment in New Smyrna, arriving on March 13. Ralph Ely, a former Bureau agent, had organized a group of about 1200 African Americans to settle on supposed homesteads in the New Smyrna area. Purman’s investigation revealed the tragic results. Upon arriving in January 1867, the settlers found no shelter or provisions or livestock with which to begin homesteads on the worthless land. They very quickly descended into destitution and near starvation. Instead of establishing independent homesteads, most were soon contracting with local planters to work as laborers, defeating the purpose of the effort. At the time that Purman reported in mid-March, he found only 233 people scattered in the forest persisting in trying to eke an independent existence. To add insult to injury, the freedmen had essentially been embezzled out of their deposits on the homesteads. Purman blamed the organizers of this “blind and heartless” scheme.


While assessing the situation, Purman befriended Dr. J. Milton and Esther Hawks. Although inexperienced as a businessman, Hawks was attempting, idealistically, to establish a lumber company at Port Orange to employ freedmen. Purman continued to write to Esther Hawks for a few months after he left the area.

In early May, Sprague directed Purman to tour the Florida panhandle’s western counties to establish registration boards. The new Congressional Reconstruction plan called for the registration of all adult males as voters (excepting those disallowed) for purposes of holding an election to elect delegates to state constitutional conventions. Sprague instructed Purman that the each county was to have a board consisting of three members, two white and one black. Purman was then reassigned to Jackson County and reappeared in time for the Fourth of July barbecue.

Monday, January 25, 2010

1867: "with a heart devoted to the Freedmen’s cause"

In early 1867, Purman joined Hamilton in approving freedmen's labor contracts for the coming year. Purman reported that 116 contracts had been signed by employers and six hundred freedmen. Perfunctory attempts by planters to convince the freedmen to forgo the contracts failed. Ultimately, the contracts so enthusiastically promoted by the Bureau were of little effect. As Purman observed, the freedmen were frequently cheated out of the proceeds of their labor by conspiring planters and merchants.

As Congressional Republican plans for the future of Reconstruction began to form, the Bureau agents became involved more deeply with the freedmen community. In addition to his continuing lectures, Purman helped found the Freedmen's Benevolant Society. The ostensible purpose of this society was to provide relief for the indigent, but it also likely served as a front for the Lincoln Brotherhood, which was itself a front for the Republican Party.

As Reconstruction progressed and tensions between the races increased, Hamilton and Purman were now subject to threats more menacing than the social snubs they had previously suffered. In February, Hamilton and Purman traveled up to Campbellton to supervise contracting. Purman described the scene:

"In the morning a few of the best citizens were present, but towards noon all of this ilk quietly disappeared off the _apis, and a crowd of roughs had full sway.
Whiskey was guzzled down in abundance to get up steam to assault the "Yankees", and a mob of a dozen drunken, cowardly wretches, with revolvers buckled round them came into our room, criticizing and insulting us in the most provoking manner. Our only protection was in our revolvers laying on the table before us. They retired, came again, repeating this manoevore several times, when we were entreated by our colored friends to leave the town as quickly as possible, which in our unprotected condition we thought expedient to do, and did, in an open manner, with our revolvers in our hands, surrounded by a small band of noble freedmen."  While in Campbellton, Purman and Hamilton found horses that had been left behind or captured during the Asboth raid in 1864 and requested permission from the Bureau to keep the horses for their own use.

Purman contemplated the nature of white resentment: "The acts and feelings of citizens towards Agents of the Bureau, and Northern men, are of a character of great social bitterness. Among the poor and ignorant people this feeling is nourished in the form of personal hatred, while among the wealthier and intelligent classes, this bitterness is exhibited in our total ostracism from society. The better order of gentlemen are good "street friends" but they never compromise their social standing by extending to the forlorn Agent an invitation or introduction to their homes and families."

He then came to a startling conclusion about the root of such attitudes: "This social exclusion is principally due to unreasonable and unforgiving female influence, as the ladies seem to make it the solemn fashion of cherishing the Confederate dead, and hating the Federal living. Ladies have refused to appear at the same table as us."

The only restraint on white violence was their fear that "the Government would visit a terrible punishment upon the district, by the infliction of martial law, or that the freedmen would take a worse vengeance upon the whole community."

In February, the Bureau relieved the civilian agents in Hamilton's territory of their duties and ordered Purman to report to Bureau headquarters for reassignment. Hamilton conveyed his distress at this development to his Bureau supervisors. A few days after Purman's departure, seventy freedmen signed a petition addressed to Col. John T. Sprague, Foster's replacement as Bureau Assistant Commissioner and commander of military forces in Florida, beseeching him "to restore to us our good Freedmen Bureau Agent, W. J. Purman." Their tribute to Purman detailed his contributions to the community:

"He worked day & night for our good. Starting up our education. Starting up our societies. Making speeches. Settling our difficulties, and explaining our difficulties and settling them up for us, explaining to all through the country how to work, how to make money & how to live in peace and harmony. We feel that he has done all of us more good than any man we ever saw. The people all want him back. And therefore Colonel if you can possibly do it, we will pray and thank you for it, with our blessings on the whole Freedmens Bureau."

Among the signers of the petition were several men who became prominent as Reconstruction progressed, including Calvin Rogers (county constable); Benjamin Livingston (state legislator, county commissioner and Marianna postmaster and councilman); Jesse Robinson (state legislator and justice of the peace); Rev. Fuller White (county commissioner and councilman); and Isham White (county commissioner). The first name on the petition and its probable author was Rev. Emanuel Fortune.