This Day in History

April 23, 1866: Freedmen Demand Equal Medical Treatment

Time Periods: 1865
Themes: African American, Reconstruction, Laws & Citizen Rights

William Beverly Nash, undated. Source: South Carolina Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia

On April 23, 1866, William Beverly Nash and several other freedmen in Columbia, South Carolina, wrote to the local Freedmen’s Bureau acting assistant commissioner.

They outlined major discrepancies in medical care for Black and white patients afflicted with smallpox and asked the federal government to intervene on behalf of their community. The statement read, in part

There was at one time nineteen men, Six woman & four children Sick in one room with Small Pox, there was also one white man, who had a room to himself while all of the 29 persons of Color, was in one room, with no person to nurse or cook for them, thay had to cook for themselves. No tea or other noureshments for them. with the Exception of Sour meal.  We appeal to you as the representative of the Goverment and beg you to foward this our petition on to Genl Howard1 and See if Something cannot be done for our Suffering people (read more at the University of Maryland’s Freedmen and Southern Society Project.)

According to Bureau records, the assistant commissioner forwarded this petition to several parties, including the Bureau’s surgeon-in-chief.

A follow-up letter between Bureau surgeons suggested that local agents had addressed these complaints by early May, but the extent of their work remains unclear.

Two years later, Nash was elected to the state Senate and played a pivotal role in developing a new, progressive constitution for South Carolina.

Learn more in the Zinn Education Project national report, “Erasing the Black Freedom Struggle: How State Standards Fail to Teach the Truth About Reconstruction,” and find teaching resources on Reconstruction below.