Clara Mabry and The Freedmen’s Bureau

I’ve previously written about “boss lady” Clara Mabry. In looking at the historical record to learn more about this formidable character, who I believe to be my ancestor, it’s very clear that she would not allow circumstance, come what may, to stop her.

The year is 1867, two years after the ending of the Civil War. Reconstruction. The place is Greensville County, Virginia. Clara Mabry, a free person of color during slavery times, encounters trouble when attempting to obtain a liquor license from local authorities. She seeks help from the long arm of the federal law, The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, better known as The Freedmen’s Bureau.

Records of the field offices for the state of Virginia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands

Richmond Virginia

Office Military Commission

Lawrenceville Virginia Dec. 9 1867


Referring to the second case allotted to the commission of Peter K Jones (herewith returned) stating that CLARA MABRY colored is being prosecuted by the civil authorities for selling liquor under a license from the Bureau, reports that he (Lt Kimball) he’s carefully investigated the matter + finds that the said CLARA MABRY has been presented + find fifty -50- dollars for selling (as the civil authorities claim) liquor contrary to the laws of the state. Finds after the investigation that she had a United States license granted by Simone Stone Int. Rev. Collector Petersburg Va and also a written permit from Capt Stewart Barnes then Supt 2nd Sub Dist Va. to keep a hotel or sell liquor which was given after the county court refused to grant her license, I have informed the civil authorities that I do not consider that they had any right under the circumstances to prosecute this woman whether she had sufficient authority or not, for she …under it in good faith. Consider the prosecution presented only by a spirit to oppress this poor woman to edify the military. The fine not as yet paid advise the said CLARA MABRY not to pay it at present but to inform his (Lt Kimball) at once if they attempt to collect it or disturbs her further in the matter. Regards the case in for military interference if necessity requires.

Records of the field offices for the state of Virginia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands


Herewith a report which…from this office to the 2nd …Mil Dist under note of Dec 9 1867 regarding the case of CLARA MABRY colored who was prosecuted + fined by the civil authorities for selling liquor without license, …attention to the endorsement of Gen Schofield thereon requiring further information as to the date under which CLARA MABRY applied for her license when she applied, also further evidence as to the matter of her …+ Bureau license etc. This evidence find enclosed herewith. Said CLARA MABRY applied to the County Court of Greensville Feby 5, 1866. The next day she went to Petersburg + obtained a written permit to keep a hotel from Capt Barnes. JW Potts Esq Clerk of Greensville Co Court is evidence of the fact that CLARA MABRY had such a letter as he says that he saw it. This additional report will …on you (SJohnson) as Mil. Com. All the necessary facts herewith forwarded enclosed.

Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872


Lawrenceville Va Dec 12. 1867

Office A.J. AComm

Reply returned to Brig. Genl O. Brown Asst. Comm. (2nd of Dist Va) inviting attention tot he enclosed report regarding the case of CLARA MABRY, colored, herein mentioned

Sgd, F.M. Kimball

LV + A.J. A.commr

Synopsis of Report—-States that CLARA MABRY (cold) has been presented by the civil authorities of Greensville Co. for selling liquor contrary to the laws of the state, between Feby 1st & Apl 17th 1866, and fined her $50.00. During the time she had a license as a retail liquor dealer granted her by Simon Stone Int. Rev. Col. she claims to have had a permit from Capt Barnes Supt of the Bureau for 2nd Dist Va to keep hotel and sell liquor which was granted her after the County Court had refused to grant license. This permit she cannot produce, as she says it was taken by Civil Authorities and carried into Court. It is acknowledged by some of the civil authorities that they have seen it. He claims that under the circumstances the civil authorities had no right to take the action they did, and he has informed them that they had no right to impose the fine. That the prosecution of the case has every appearance of being done to oppress the woman and defy the Military Authorities. The fine has not yet been paid and he has advised CLARA MABRY not to pay it at present and to inform him if the civil authorities called for it or troubled her in which case unless otherwise advised, he should regard military interference justly called for.

Bureau R F

2nd Sub Dist Va

Petersburg Dec 18th 1867

Reply forwarded to Brig. Genl O. Brown Asst Commr

JR Stone

Dev Major { Sub Asst Commr

Bureau F A

How interesting! Clara made sure to fight fire with Freedmen’s Bureau aka the weight of the federal government. I wonder what was the outcome of her fight. Did she ever get her license? If the local authorities continued to refuse Clara, what happened? From what I have been able to find, there’s no further involvement of the Bureau in this matter. It’s very possible that the above document is the preamble to a victory for Clara Mabry’s cause.

Full disclosure: I did find record of the Bureau paying rent for an office ($5.oo ) to Clara Mabry, for August, 1866. According to the Westegg Inflation Calculator, $5.oo is the equivalent of $89.68 in 2020 U.S. dollars.

The Bureau paid rent to Clara in 1866
Freedmen’s Bureau 1866 Accounts Payable Receipt

So, the Bureau kept an office at Clara Mabry’s establishment (albeit for an unknown amount of time). With this knowledge, it could reasonably be said that the Bureau had an invested reason to make sure that Clara kept/obtained her liquor license.

In that the Freedmen’s Bureau helped Clara as they did, just what was this Bureau and who were the men mentioned in this document with Clara Mabry?

Let’s look:

According to National Archives website, “The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (Record Group 105), also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was established in the War Department by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865. The Bureau was responsible for the supervision and management of all matters relating to the refugees and freedmen and lands abandoned or seized during the Civil War, duties previously shared by military commanders and US Treasury Department officials.

General John M. Schofield: “The degree of military support for African Americans varied according to the politics of the general in charge, with freedpeople finding more of an ally in Major General George Stoneman than in his predecessor, Major General John M. Schofield. General Schofield supervised Virginia’s civilian government from March 13, 1867, until June 2, 1868.

General John McAllister Schofield (1831-1906)

Captain F.M. Kimball (1840-1924):

Excerpt: Short biography of Captain Frederick Marius Kimball, Virginia Bureau headquarters

Simon Stone, U.S. Tax Collector:

An Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of the U.S.
By United States. Department of the Treasury

Captain Stuart Barnes:

Freedmen’s Bureau: Letter from the Secretary of War, in Answer to a …
By United States. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands

J.R. Stone:

Major J.R. Stone and Bureau’s Courtesy

Orestes (O.) Brown, Asst. Cmmr:

Courtesy: American Antiquarian Society Online Exhibition

Orestes Brown, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, “To the Freedmen of Virginia,” Richmond, Virginia, July 1, 1865

Records of the Field Offices for the State of Virginia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1872, is courtesy of Smithsonian Institution’s Online Archives. There is an excellent history write-up that prefaces the images. One portion reads, “In late May 1867, Maj. Gen. Schofield, who served as both Commander of the 1st Military District and Assistant Commissioner for Virginia, issued orders appointing military commissioners to oversee the administration of justice in Bureau subdistricts throughout Virginia, giving them exclusive jurisdiction and power to decide whether a case would be tried by a civil court or a military commission.”

This speaks directly to Clara’s situation.

With respect to what Clara was fighting and enlisting help in fighting for, a liquor license, it would seem that once again she’s an oddity. The history of the temperance movement would seem to be one spearheaded (even if only “symbolically”) by women.

From History Engine website, we can see that the temperance movement in Virginia was full-steam ahead by the year 1867, the year of Clara’s liquor license travails.

A recent CNN article discusses a book authored by Mallory O’Meara, Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol.” It states, “Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohollooks at alcohol through a feminist lens, uncovering centuries-old stories of female entrepreneurs, rulers and rebels who were critical to its production, distribution and culture but have been given little credit for their contributions.”

What an important historical view on a boozy subject. The subjects sound much like Clara and while it’s more than likely that she’s not specifically mentioned in that particular book, it’s ok, because Clara wrote her own story. In 1867, she did it with a little help from the Freedmen’s Bureau. Cheers.

This is our situation.

The Genealogy Situation Room

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