Freedmen's Bureau History
African-Americans and Reconstruction
Freedmen's Bureau Act
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands was established in March
3, 1865, after two years of bitter debate. The Freedmen Bureau, as it was commonly called, was to address all matters concerning
refugees and freedmen within the states that were under reconstruction. The Bureau was not appropriated a budget of its own,
but was instead commissioned as a subsidiary of the War Department and depended upon it for funds and staff.
The Freedmen's Bureau was directed by Commissioner General O. O. Howard, who
was appointed by President Andrew Johnson with the consent of the Senate. Commissioner Howard received a salary of $3,000
and an additional $50,000 in bonds. Assistant Commissioners were appointed to each of the ten states under reconstruction
in the same manner. The Assistant Commissioner received a salary of $2,500 and $20,000 in bonds. The salaries of
other positions were not stated in the bill, because the majority of the positions in the Bureau were filled by army officers.
In the beginning, the Freedmen's Bureau did not suffer from lack of funding.
The Bureau sold and rented lands in the South which had been confiscated during the war. However, President Johnson undermined
the Bureau's funding by returning all lands to the pre-Civil War owners in 1866. After this point, freed slaves lost access
to lands and the Bureau lost its primary source of funding.
The majority of historians believe that the Freedmen's Bureau made a very
small impact, if any, on the freedmen during reconstruction. A few of the reasons for the Bureau's failures as a provider
for social welfare include the following:
- lack of funds
- weak organization of the Bureau's internal structure
- opposition from conservatives
- and apathy of the Southern community
Despite the many criticisms, the Freedmen's Bureau did help African-Americans
gain access to the rights that they were denied during slavery:
- Social Services
The Freedmen's Bureau helped black communities
to establish schools and churches. Under slavery, blacks had been denied the right to education and religion.
- Violence and Justice
The Freemen's Bureau monitored the
civil authorities in cases that involved African-Americans. Initially, the Freedmen's Bureau conducted its own court of law
when it was illegal for a black to testify in court in the majority of Southern sates.
- Labor and Contracts
The labor system of the South had to
be completely restructured after the war. Many former slave owners attempted to persuade former slaves into entering contracts
under the same terms as under the slavery system. The Freedmen's Bureau acted on the behalf of blacks to negotiate fair contracts
for labor and property.
- Family Services
Freedom offered blacks the opportunity to
establish a firm family structure. The Freedmen's Bureau acted as a clearinghouse of information to aide blacks in finding
lost relatives and mediated domestic disputes.
The advocates of the Freedmen's Bureau had genuine intentions to aide the
African-American population prosper as freedmen, but the lack of funding and support from the federal government in conjunction
with opposition at the local level tempered the Bureau's success.
Source: University of Virginia
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…
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.
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...
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: 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
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…
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 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.
Reading: A Short History of Reconstruction. Review: In an attempt to document the important issues of reconstruction, Eric Foner compiled his book Reconstruction:
America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.
Foner addresses all the major issues leading up reconstruction, and then finishing his book shortly after the end of reconstruction
and the election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. In the preface of his book,
Foner discusses the historiography of Reconstruction. He notes that during the early part of the twentieth century many historians
considered Reconstruction as one of the darkest periods of American history. Foner notes that this viewpoint changed during
the 1960s as revisionists shed new "light" on reconstruction. The revisionists saw Andrew Johnson as a stubborn racist, and
viewed the Radical Republicans as "idealistic reformers genuinely committed to black rights." The author notes that recent
studies of reconstruction argue that the Radicals were actually quite conservative, and most Radicals held on to their racist
views and put up very little fight as the whites once again began to govern the south. Continued below...
describes the African-American experience during the Civil War and Reconstruction. He argues that African-Americans were not
simply figures that took little or no action in the events of the day, and notes the enlistment of thousands of African-Americans
in the Union army during the war. Foner also notes that many of the African-Americans that eventually became civil leaders
had at one time served in the Union Army. He states, "For men of talent and ambition, the army flung open a door to advancement
and respectability." He notes that as reconstruction progressed, African-Americans were the targets of violence and racism. Foner
believes that the transition of slaves into free laborers and equal citizens was the most drastic example of change following
the end of the war. He notes how African-Americans were eventually forced to return to the plantations, not as slaves but
as share croppers, and were thus introduced to a new form of slavery. He argues that this arrangement introduced a new class
structure to the South, and states "It was an economic transformation that would culminate, long after the end of Reconstruction,
in the consolidation of a rural proletariat composed of a new owning class of planters and merchants, itself subordinate to
Northern financiers and industrialists.” The author illustrates how both blacks and whites struggled to use the state
and local governments to develop their own interests and establish their respective place in the evolving social orders. Another
theme that he addresses in this excellent study is racism itself and the interconnection of race and class in the South.
he addresses is the expanded presence of federal authority, as well as a growing idea and commitment to the idea that equal
rights belonged to all citizens, regardless of race. Foner shows how both Northern and Southern blacks embraced the power
to vote, and, as Reconstruction ended, many blacks saw the loss of suffrage and the loss of freedom. Foner illustrates that
because the presence of blacks at the poll threatened the established traditions, corruption increased, which helped to undermine
the support for Reconstruction. The former leaders of the Confederacy were barred from political office, who were the regions
"natural leaders," a reversal of sympathies took place which portrayed the Southern whites as victims, and blacks unfit to
affected the North as well, but argues that it was obviously less revolutionary than it was in the South. Foner notes that
a new group of elites surfaced after the war, industrialists and railroad entrepreneurs emerged as powerful and influential
leaders alongside the former commercial elite. The Republicans in the North did attempt to improve the lives of Northern blacks.
However, there were far fewer blacks in the North, so it was more difficult for blacks to have their agendas and needs addressed
in the local legislatures. He states, "Most Northern blacks remained trapped in inferior housing and menial and unskilled
jobs." Foner adds that the few jobs blacks were able to acquire were constantly being challenged by the huge influx of European
is definitely worthy of his original volume. Reconstruction is a subject that can still be interpreted in several ways, including
the revisionist school of thought. Foner, however, seems to be as objective as possible on this subject, and has fairly addressed
all major issues that apply.