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Freedmen's Bureau History
African-Americans and Reconstruction

Freedmen's Bureau of 18651872

Freedmen's Bureau and Reconstruction Era

The United States Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen's Bureau) provided assistance to tens-of-thousands of former slaves and impoverished whites in the Southern States and the District of Columbia.
 
The Freedmen's Bureau (often times referred to as the "Freedman's Bureau") was established by Congress on March 3, 1865, to provide practical aid to 4,000,000 newly freed black Americans in their transition from slavery to freedom. It was a component of the War Department, under the command of Major General Oliver O. Howard, and created during the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877).
 
The challenge of establishing a new social order, founded on freedom and racial equality, was enormous.
 
The Civil War had liberated nearly four million slaves and destroyed the region's cities, towns, and plantation-based economy. It left former slaves and many whites: homeless, facing starvation, and owning only the clothes they wore.

Poster attacking Freedmen's Bureau
Freedmen's Bureau Poster.jpg
Freedmen's Bureau. National Archives

(Right) The debate over reconstruction and the "Freedman's Bureau" was nationwide. This 1866 Pennsylvania election poster alleged that Freedman's Bureau money was being lavished on lazy freedmen at the expense of white workers.
 
The Bureau was established to undertake the relief effort and the unprecedented social reconstruction that would bring freed people to full citizenship. It issued food and clothing, operated hospitals and temporary camps, helped locate family members, promoted education, helped freedmen legalize marriages, provided employment, supervised labor contracts, provided legal representation, investigated racial confrontations, settled freedmen on abandoned or confiscated lands, and worked with African American soldiers and sailors and their heirs to secure back pay, bounty payments, and pensions.
 
The Freedmen's Bureau is viewed by many historians as the first federal welfare agency.
 
Despite being handicapped with inadequate funds and poorly trained personnel, the bureau built hospitals for, and gave direct medical assistance to, more than 1,000,000 freedmen. More than 21,000,000 rations were also distributed to impoverished blacks as well as whites.
 
Its greatest accomplishments were in education: more than 1,000 black schools were built and over $400,000 spent to establish teacher-training institutions. All major black colleges were either founded by, or received aid from, the bureau. Less success was achieved in civil rights, for the bureau's own courts were poorly organized and short-lived, and only the barest forms of due process of law for freedmen could be sustained in the civil courts. Its most notable failure concerned the land itself. Thwarted by President Andrew Johnson's restoration of abandoned lands to pardoned Southerners and by the adamant refusal of Congress to consider any form of land redistribution, the bureau was forced to oversee sharecropping arrangements that inevitably became oppressive. Congress, preoccupied with various national interests, political infighting, and the continued hostility of, and against, white Southerners, terminated the bureau in July 1872.

(Sources listed at bottom of page.)

Recommended Reading: Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. Description: In Forever Free, Eric Foner, the leading historian of America's Reconstruction Era, reexamines one of the most misunderstood periods of American history: the struggle to overthrow slavery and establish freedom for African Americans in the years before, during, and after the Civil War. Forever Free is extensively illustrated, with visual essays by scholar Joshua Brown discussing the images of the period alongside Foner's text. (From Publishers Weekly: Starred Review.) Probably no period in American history is as controversial, as distorted by myth and as "essentially unknown" as the era of emancipation and Reconstruction, award-winning historian Foner (The Story of American Freedom; Reconstruction; etc.) argues in this dense, rectifying but highly readable account. Continued below…

His analysis of "that turbulent era, its successes and failures, and its long-term consequences up until this very day" addresses the debates among historians, corrects the misrepresentations and separates myth from fact with persuasive data. Foner opens his work with an overview of slavery and the Civil War and concludes with a consideration of the Civil Rights movement and the continuing impact of Reconstruction upon the current political scene, a framework that adds to the clarity of his history of that era, its aftermath and its legacy. Joshua Brown's six interspersed "visual essays," with his fresh commentary on images from slavery through Reconstruction to Jim Crow, buttress Foner's text and contribute to its accessibility. In his mission to illuminate Reconstruction's critical repercussions for contemporary American culture, Foner balances his passion for racial equality and social justice with disciplined scholarship. His book is a valuable, fluid introduction to a complex period.

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Recommended Reading: Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Description: Winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, David Brion Davis has long been recognized as the leading authority on slavery in the Western World. Now, in Inhuman Bondage, Davis sums up a lifetime of insight in this definitive account of New World slavery. The heart of the book looks at slavery in the American South, describing black slaveholding planters, rise of the Cotton Kingdom, daily life of ordinary slaves, highly destructive slave trade, sexual exploitation of slaves, emergence of an African-American culture, abolition, abolitionists, antislavery movements, and much more. Continued below…

But though centered on the United States, the book offers a global perspective spanning four continents. It is the only study of American slavery that reaches back to ancient foundations and also traces the long evolution of anti-black racism in European thought. Equally important, it combines the subjects of slavery and abolitionism as very few books do, and it connects the actual life of slaves with the crucial place of slavery in American politics, stressing that slavery was integral to America's success as a nation--not a marginal enterprise. This is the definitive history by a writer deeply immersed in the subject. Inhuman Bondage offers a compelling portrait of the dark side of the American dream.

 

Recommended Reading: The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics. Publishers Weekly: The perennial tension between principle and pragmatism in politics frames this engaging account of two Civil War Era icons. Historian Oakes (Slavery and Freedom) charts the course by which Douglass and Lincoln, initially far apart on the antislavery spectrum, gravitated toward each other. Lincoln began as a moderate who advocated banning slavery in the territories while tolerating it in the South, rejected social equality for blacks and wanted to send freedmen overseas—and wound up abolishing slavery outright and increasingly supporting black voting rights. Conversely, the abolitionist firebrand Douglass moved from an impatient, self-marginalizing moral rectitude to a recognition of compromise, coalition building and incremental goals as necessary steps forward in a democracy. Continued below...

Douglass's views on race were essentially modern; the book is really a study through his eyes of the more complex figure of Lincoln. Oakes lucidly explores how political realities and military necessity influenced Lincoln's tortuous path to emancipation, and asks whether his often bigoted pronouncements represented real conviction or strategic concessions to white racism. As Douglass shifts from denouncing Lincoln's foot-dragging to revering his achievements, Oakes vividly conveys both the immense distance America traveled to arrive at a more enlightened place and the fraught politics that brought it there. AWARDED FIVE STARS by americancivilwarhistory.org

 

Recommended Reading: Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Review: This "masterful treatment of one of the most complex periods of American history" (New Republic) made history when it was originally published in 1988. It redefined how Reconstruction was viewed by historians and people everywhere in its chronicling of how Americans -- black and white -- responded to the unprecedented changes unleashed by the war and the end of slavery. This "smart book of enormous strengths" (Boston Globe) has since gone on to become the classic work on the wrenching post-Civil War period -- an era whose legacy reverberates still today in the United States. Continued below...

About the Author: Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University, is the author of numerous works on American history, including Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War; Tom Paine and Revolutionary America; and The Story of American Freedom. He has served as president of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association, and has been named Scholar of the Year by the New York Council for the Humanities.

 

Recommended Reading: Frederick Douglass : Autobiographies : Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave / My Bondage and My Freedom / Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Library of America) (Hardcover: 1100 pages). Review From Library Journal: Douglass (1818-95), a former slave, rose to become an abolitionist, writer, and orator. In this collection of his autobiographical writings, edited by Gates (humanities, Harvard Univ.), he gives an extensive overview of his life. The work includes Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845); My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). Continued below...

In Narrative, Douglass comments on his birth, his parentage, his two masters, and the brutality of slavery he witnessed. In Bondage, he reflects on his childhood, life on the plantation, and his runaway plot. Life and Times concludes the trilogy: it covers his early life as a slave, his escape from bondage, and his connection with the antislavery movement. This massive volume containing Douglass's seminal works is highly recommended for black history collections.

 

Recommended Reading: The SLAVE TRADE: THE STORY OF THE ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE: 1440 - 1870. School Library Journal: Thomas concentrates on the economics, social acceptance, and politics of the slave trade. The scope of the book is amazingly broad as the author covers virtually every aspect of the subject from the early days of the 16th century when great commercial houses were set up throughout Europe to the 1713 Peace Treaty of Utrecht, which gave the British the right to import slaves into the Spanish Indies. The account includes the anti-slavery patrols of the 19th century and the final decline and abolition in the early 20th century. Continued below...

Through the skillful weaving of numerous official reports, financial documents, and firsthand accounts, Thomas explains how slavery was socially acceptable and shows that people and governments everywhere were involved in it. This book is a comprehensive study from African kings and Arab slave traders to the Europeans and Americans who bought and transported them to the New World. Despite the volatility of the subject, the author remains emotionally detached in his writing, yet produces a highly readable, informative book. A superb addition and highly recommended.

 

Recommended Viewing: Slavery and the Making of America (240 minutes), Starring: Morgan Freeman; Director: William R. Grant. Description: Acclaimed actor Morgan Freeman narrates this compelling documentary, which features a score by Michael Whalen. Underscoring how slavery impacted the growth of this country's Southern and Northern states; the series examines issues still relevant today. Continued below...

The variety of cultures from which the slaves originated provided the budding states with a multitude of skills that had a dramatic effect on the diverse communities. From joining the British in the Revolutionary War, to fleeing to Canada, to joining rebel communities in the U.S. the slaves sought freedom in many ways, ultimately having a far-reaching effect on the new hemisphere they were forced to inhabit. AWARDED 5 STARS by americancivilwarhistory.org

Sources: National Archives, Library of Congress, and Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc; Berlin, Ira, ed. Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War (1995); Howard, O.O. (1907). Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard Major General United States Army (Volume Two). New York: The Baker & Taylor Company; Bentley George R. A History of the Freedmen's Bureau (1955); Carpenter, John A. Sword and Olive Branch: Oliver Otis Howard (1999); Cimbala, Paul A. and Trefousse, Hans L. (eds.) The Freedmen's Bureau: Reconstructing the American South After the Civil War. 2005; Colby, I.C. (1985). The Freedmen's Bureau: From Social Welfare to Segregation.

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