Fountain Brown, a Methodist preacher, confessed to selling eight of his slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation, creating a historic case in U.S. history.
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There is no record of Fountain Brown’s early life. Even though the location of his birth remains unknown, he was likely born in 1806 or 1807. He began his preaching career in Tennessee and was part of the Tennessee Conference of preachers. In 1830, church leaders in the Conference moved Brown to the Arkansas Group, shortly before the territory became a state. By this time, Brown was both a celebrated preacher and singer, whom the Conference expected to cultivate an Arkansas congregation before they sent more members to join him the following year.
He settled in Flat Bayou, a small village about twelve miles northeast of Pine Bluff. On September 18, 1832 he received his pastoral credentials and began a traveling ministry. As Brown traveled around the South, charming the new settlers and spreading the gospel, he quickly became a well-known and sought-after preacher. He became a circuit preacher and a presiding elder in the Arkansas Group.
According to the 1860 census, Brown owned a large farm which utilized sixteen field slaves and nine house slaves. The census also noted that Brown remarried after losing his first wife, but the names of both of his wives remain unknown. In 1861, the American Civil War began, but much of the South remained unchanged during the early stages of the war. Brown continued to preach and farm, while retaining the ownership of his slaves. In September 1863, things changed drastically when the Union captured Little Rock and sent its forces to secure Pine Bluff. Flat Bayou was taken under Union control and specifically included in the Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1, 1863. Brown reportedly told his slaves that they were free to go because they were no longer his property. Many of the slaves remained with Brown.
In November 1863, he sold some of his slaves to a man named Mr. McAfee. It is unclear how many slaves Brown sold, but it is believed that there were two adult slaves and their six children included in the illegal sale. On Christmas Eve of 1863, Brown confessed the sale to a Union soldier and was quickly arrested. There are many indications that he would have faced no legal repercussions without his confession.
On January 6, 1864, his three-day trial before a military commission began in Pine Bluff. Brown was charged with kidnapping free citizens inside Union army lines and sending them outside the army-occupied territory. He was also charged with selling citizens freed by the Emancipation Proclamation back into slavery. Military officers, Brown’s neighbors, and even some of his former slaves testified for the prosecution and the defense. In fact, the husbands of the women kidnapped were among the first black men in the South to testify against a white man as this was still against the law. The commission found Brown guilty on both counts and sentenced him to five years in a military prison. The commission then submitted its judgment to the Union army, which upheld the ruling, and forwarded the judgment to the president for further action. This was the first time in U.S. history that someone was found guilty and convicted of a violation of the Emancipation Proclamation. In February, Brown took an oath of loyalty to the Union as part of Lincoln’s amnesty program.
As Brown waited in jail as his case the military reviewed his case, many sympathetic Pine Bluff citizens organized a petition calling for his release. In April, he was released on bail, on the condition that he would not travel outside the region the Union army controlled. A second petition calling for Brown to be pardoned garnered the support of Colonel Powell Clayton, the commander of the region’s Union forces.
During this time, Brown’s case generated widespread interest. President Lincoln referred the case to Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt. Holt upheld the commission’s decision, and President Lincoln accepted his recommendation. Additional appeals with new interpretations of the facts were made. President Lincoln and General Holt discussed these appeals for the final time just a month and a half before Lincoln was assassinated. Ultimately, Brown was sent back to jail.
Following the failure of the conviction appeals, Brown’s supporters again sought a pardon by sending several petitions to President Andrew Johnson. This time they painted quite a compelling case. The petition included hundreds of signatures and new details, though based largely on innuendo, about the case based on research provided by Brown’s son-in-law, J.P. McGaughey. President Johnson was unmoved.
Luckily, Brown’s pardon petition coincided with the army’s campaign to release a number of their military prisoners. So, in mid-December of 1865, Brown and fourteen other military prisoners were released from the Jefferson City, Missouri, prison where they were being held. Brown’s freedom was short-lived as he became ill on the journey home and died before arriving in Pine Bluff to greet his wife. Brown’s burial site remains unknown.
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard