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File:Freedman bureau harpers cartoon.jpg

A Bureau agent stands between armed groups of Southern whites and Freedmen in this 1868 picture from Harper's Weekly.

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, usually referred to as the Freedmen's Bureau, was a U.S. federal government agency that aided distressed refugees and freedmen (freed slaves) in 1865-1872, during the Reconstruction era of the United States.

The Freedman's Bureau Bill, which created the Freedman's Bureau, was initiated by President Abraham Lincoln and was intended to last for one year after the end of the Civil War. It was passed on March 3, 1865, by Congress to aid former slaves through legal food and housing, oversight, education, health care, and employment contracts with private landowners. It became a key agency during Reconstruction, assisting freedmen (freed ex-slaves) in the South. The Bureau was part of the United States Department of War. Headed by Union Army General Oliver O. Howard, the Bureau was operational from 1865 to 1872. It was disbanded under President Ulysses S. Grant.

At the end of the war, the Bureau's main role was providing emergency food, housing, and medical aid to refugees, though it also helped reunite families. Later, it focused its work on helping the freedmen adjust to their conditions of freedom. Its main job was setting up work opportunities and supervising labor contracts. It soon became, in effect, a military court that handled legal issues. By 1866, it was attacked by Southern whites for organizing blacks against their former masters. Although some of their subordinate agents were unscrupulous or incompetent, the majority of local Bureau agents were hindered in carrying out their duties by the opposition of former Confederates, the lack of a military presence to enforce their authority, and an excessive amount of paperwork[1].

President Andrew Johnson vetoed a bill for an increase of power of the Bureau, supported by Radical Republicans, on February 19, 1866.


Day-to-day duties[]

The Bureau helped solve everyday problems of the newly freed slaves, such as clothing, food, water, health care, communication with family members, and jobs. The Bureau distributed 15 million rations of food to African Americans[2]. The Bureau set up a system where planters could borrow rations in order to feed freedmen they employed. Though the Bureau set aside $350,000 for this service, only $35,000 (10%) was borrowed.[citation needed]

The Bureau attempted to strengthen existing medical care facilities and expand services into rural areas through newly established clinics. Medical assistance and supplies as well as food were in short supply, and civil authorities often were reluctant to cooperate with the Bureau in aiding the freedmen. Despite the good intentions, efforts, and limited success of the Bureau, medical treatment of the freedmen was severely deficient.[3]

Gender roles[]

File:Manson marriage certificate Bureau Refugees Freedmen and Abandoned Lands 1866.jpg

Marriage certificate issued by the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, Wilson County, Tennessee, 1866

Freedman's Bureau agents, at first, complained that freed women were refusing to contract their labor. They attempted to make freed women work by insisting that their husbands sign contracts obligating the whole family to work in the cotton industry, and by declaring that unemployed freed women should be treated as vagrants just as men were. The Bureau did allow some exceptions such as married women with employed husbands and some "worthy" women who had been widowed or abandoned and had large families of small children and thus could not work. "Unworthy" women, meaning the unruly and prostitutes, were the ones usually subjected to punishment for vagrancy.[4]

Under slavery, some marriages were informal, though there are many documented accounts of slave owners presiding over marriage ceremonies for their slaves. The forced migration of 1.2 million blacks in the internal slave trade to the Deep South had disrupted many families.[citation needed] Others were separated during wartime chaos. The Bureau agents helped many families in their attempts to reunite after the war. The Bureau had an informal regional communications system that allowed agents to send inquiries and provide answers. It sometimes provided transportation to reunite families. Freedmen and freed women turned to the Bureau for assistance in resolving issues of abandonment and divorce.


The most widely recognized among the achievements of the Freedman’s Bureau are its accomplishments in the field of education. Prior to the Civil War, no southern state had a system of universal, state-supported public education. Former slaves wanted such a system while the wealthier whites opposed the idea. Freedmen had a strong desire to learn to read and write and worked hard to establish schools in their communities prior to the advent of the Freedmen's Bureau.

Oliver Otis Howard was the first Freedmen's Bureau Commissioner. Through his leadership the bureau was divided into four divisions: Government-Controlled Lands, Records, Financial Affairs, and Medical Affairs. Education was considered part of the Records division. Howard turned over confiscated property, government buildings, books, and furniture to superintendents to be used in the education of freedmen and provided transportation and room and board for teachers.

Congress created the Freedmen's Bureau but did not fund it for the first year. By 1866, missionary and aid societies worked in conjunction with the Freedmen's Bureau to provide education for former slaves. The American Missionary Association was particularly active, establishing eleven colleges in southern states for the education of freedmen. The primary focus of these groups was to raise funds to pay teachers and manage schools, while the secondary focus was the day-to-day operation of individual schools. After 1866, Congress appropriated some funds to use in the freedmen's schools. The main source of educational revenue for these schools came through a Congressional Act that gave the Freedmen's Bureau the power to seize Confederate property for educational use.

George Ruby, an African American, served as teacher and school administrator and as a traveling inspector for the bureau, observing local conditions, aiding in the establishment of black schools, and evaluating the performance of Bureau field officers. Blacks supported him, but planters and other whites opposed him.[5]

Overall, the Bureau spent $5 million to set up schools for blacks. By the end of 1865, more than 90,000 former slaves were enrolled as students in public schools. Attendance rates at the new schools for freedmen were between 79 and 82 percent. Brigadier General Samuel Chapman Armstrong created and led Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in 1868.

The Freedmen's Bureau published their own freedmen's textbook. They emphasized the bootstrap philosophy, meaning that everyone had the ability to work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do better in life. These readers had some traditional literacy lessons and others on the life and works of Abraham Lincoln, excerpts from the Bible focused on forgiveness, biographies of famous African Americans with emphasis on their piety, humbleness and industry; and essays on humility, the work ethic, temperance, loving your enemies, and avoiding bitterness.[6]

By 1870, there were more than 1,000 schools for freedmen in the South.[7] J. W. Alvord, an inspector for the Bureau, wrote that the freedmen "have the natural thirst for knowledge," aspire to "power and influence … coupled with learning," and are excited by "the special study of books." Among the former slaves, children and adults sought this new opportunity to learn. After the Bureau was abolished, some of its achievements collapsed under the weight of white violence against schools and teachers for blacks. After the 1870s, when white Democrats regained power of southern governments, they reduced funds available to fund public education. In the 1890s they passed Jim Crow laws establishing legal segregation of public places. Segregated schools and other services for blacks were consistently underfunded.[2]

By 1871, northerners' interest in reconstructing the South with military power had waned. Northerners were beginning to tire of the effort that Reconstruction required, were discouraged at the high rate of continuing violence around elections, and were ready for the South to take care of itself.[citation needed] All of the southern states had created new constitutions that established universal, publicly funded education. Groups based in the North began to redirect their money toward universities and colleges founded to educate African-American leaders.

The building and opening of schools of higher learning for African Americans coincided with the shift in focus for the Freedmen's Aid Societies from an elementary education for all African Americans to a high school and college education for African-American leaders. Both of these events worked in concert with concern on the part of white officials working with African Americans in the South. These officials were concerned about the lack of a moral or financial foundation seen in the African-American community and traced that lack of foundation back to slavery.

Generally, they believed that blacks needed help to enter a free labor market and reconstruct family life. Heads of local American Missionary Associations sponsored various educational and religious efforts for African Americans. Samuel Chapman Armstrong of the Hampton Institute and Booker T. Washington began the call for institutions of higher learning so black students could leave home and "live in an atmosphere conducive not only to scholarship but to culture and refinement".[8]

Most of these colleges, universities and normal schools combined what they believed were the best fundamentals of a college with that of the home. At the majority of these schools, students were expected to bathe a prescribed number of times per week, maintain an orderly living space, and present a particular appearance. At many of these institutions, Christian principles and practices were also part of the daily regime.

Educational legacy[]

Despite the untimely dissolution of the Freedman's Bureau, its legacy still lives on through historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Under the direction and sponsorship of the Bureau, together with the American Missionary Association in many cases, from approximately 1866 until its termination in 1872, an estimated 25 institutions of higher learning for black youth were established[9], many of which remain in operation today (for example, St. Augustine's College, Fisk University, Johnson C. Smith University, Clark Atlanta University, Dillard University, Shaw University, Virginia Union University, and Tougaloo College).

Template:As of, there exist approximately 105 United Negro College Fund HBCUs that range in scope, size, organization and orientation. Under the Education Act of 1965, Congress officially defined an HBCU as "an institution whose principal missions were and are the education of Black Americans". HBCUs graduate over 50% of African-American professionals, 50% of African-American public school teachers, and 70% of African-American dentists. In addition, 50% of African Americans who graduate from HBCUs go on to pursue graduate or professional degrees. One in three degrees held by African Americans in the natural sciences, and half the degrees held by African Americans in mathematics were earned at HBCUs.[10]

Perhaps the best known of these institutions is Howard University, founded in Washington, D.C., in 1867, with the aid of the Freedmen’s Bureau. It was named for the commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, General Oliver Otis Howard.[11]

Church establishment[]

After the Civil War, control over existing churches was a contentious issue. The Methodist denomination had split into regional associations prior to the war. In some cities, Northern Methodists seized control of Southern Methodist buildings. Numerous northern denominations, including the independent black denominations of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) and African Methodist Episcopal Zion, sent missionaries to the South to help the freedmen. By this time the independent black denominations were increasingly well organized and prepared to evangelize to the freedmen. Within a decade, the AME and AME Zion churches had gained hundreds of thousands of new members and were rapidly organizing new congregations.[12]

Even before the war, blacks had established independent Baptist congregations in some cities and towns, such as Silver Bluff, Charleston, Petersburg, and Richmond. In many places, especially in more rural areas, they shared public services with whites. Often enslaved blacks met secretly to conduct their own services away from white supervision or oversight.[12] After the war, freedmen mostly withdrew from multi-racial congregations in order to be free to worship as they pleased away from white supervision.

Northern mission societies raised funds for land, buildings, teachers' salaries, and basic necessities such as books and furniture. For years they used networks throughout their churches to raise money for freedmen's education and worship.[13]

Continuing insurgency[]

File:Freedman's bureau.jpg

Poster attacking Freedmen's Bureau

Most of the assistant commissioners, realizing that blacks would not receive fair trials in the civil courts, tried to handle black cases in their own Bureau courts. Southern whites objected that this was unconstitutional. In Alabama, state and county judges were commissioned as Bureau agents. They were to try cases involving blacks with no distinctions on racial grounds. If a judge refused, martial law could be instituted in his district. All but three judges accepted their unwanted commissions, and the governor urged compliance.[14]

Perhaps the most difficult region was Louisiana's Caddo-Bossier district. It had not experienced wartime devastation or Union occupation. Understaffed and weakly supported by federal troops, well-meaning Bureau agents found their investigations blocked and authority undermined at every turn by recalcitrant plantation owners. Murders of freedmen were common, and suspects in these cases went unprosecuted. Bureau agents did manage to negotiate labor contracts, build schools and hospitals, and provide the freedmen a sense of their own humanity through the agents' willingness to help.[15]

In March 1872, at the request of President Ulysses S. Grant and the Secretary of the Interior, Columbus Delano, General Howard was asked to temporarily leave his duties as Commissioner of the Bureau to deal with Indian affairs in the west. Upon returning from his assignment in November 1872, General Howard discovered that the Bureau and all of its activities had been officially terminated by Congress, effective as of June (Howard, 1907). In his autobiography, General Howard expressed great frustration in regard to what had taken place without his knowledge, stating "the legislative action, however, was just what I desired, except that I would have preferred to close out my own Bureau and not have another do it for me in an unfriendly manner in my absence."[16] All documents and matters pertaining to the Freedmen's Bureau were transferred from the office of General Howard to the War Department of the United States Congress.



  • Bentley George R. A History of the Freedmen's Bureau (1955), old fashioned overview
  • Carpenter, John A.; Sword and Olive Branch: Oliver Otis Howard (1999) full biography of Bureau leader
  • Cimbala, Paul A. and Trefousse, Hans L. (eds.) The Freedmen's Bureau: Reconstructing the American South After the Civil War. 2005. essays by scholars
  • Colby, I.C. (1985). "The Freedmen's Bureau: From Social Welfare to Segregation," Phylon, 46, 219-230.
  • W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, The Freedmen's Bureau (1901).
  • Foner Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (1988).
  • Goldberg, Chad Alan. Citizens and Paupers: Relief, Rights, and Race, from the Freedmen's Bureau to Workfare (2007) compares Bureau with WPA of 1930s and welfare today excerpt and text search
  • Litwack, Leon F. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. 1979.
  • McFeely, William S. Yankee Stepfather: General O.O. Howard and the Freedmen. (1994) biography of Bureau's head. excerpt and text search


  • Abbott, Martin. "The Freedmen's Bureau and Negro Schooling in South Carolina," South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 57#2 (Apr., 1956), pp. 65-81 in JSTOR
  • Anderson, James D. The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (1988)
  • Butchart, Ronald E. Northern Schools, Southern Blacks, and Reconstruction: Freedmen's Education, 1862-1875 (1980)
  • Crouch, Barry A. "Black Education in Civil War and Reconstruction Louisiana: George T. Ruby, the Army, and the Freedmen's Bureau" Louisiana History 1997 38(3): 287-308. Issn: 0024-6816
  • Goldhaber, Michael. "A Mission Unfulfilled: Freedmen's Education in North Carolina, 1865-1870" Journal of Negro History 1992 77(4): 199-210. in JSTOR
  • Hornsby, Alton. "The Freedmen's Bureau Schools in Texas, 1865-1870," Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 76#4 (April, 1973), pp. 397-417 in JSTOR
  • Jackson, L. P. "The Educational Efforts of the Freedmen's Bureau and Freedmen's Aid Societies in South Carolina, 1862-1872," The Journal of Negro History (1923) vol 8#1, pp 1-40. in JSTOR
  • Jones, Jacqueline. Soldiers of Light and Love: Northern Teachers and Georgia Blacks, 1865-1873 (1980)
  • Morris, Robert C. Reading, 'Riting, and Reconstruction: The Education of Freedmen in the South, 1861-1870 (1981).
  • Myers, John B. "The Education of the Alabama Freedmen During Presidential Reconstruction, 1865-1867," Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 40#2 (Spring, 1971), pp. 163-171 in JSTOR
  • Parker, Marjorie H. "Some Educational Activities of the Freedmen's Bureau," Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 23#1 (Winter, 1954), pp. 9-21 in JSTOR
  • Richardson, Joe M. Christian Reconstruction: The American Missionary Association and Southern Blacks, 1861-1890 (1986)
  • Richardson, Joe M. "The Freedmen's Bureau and Negro Education in Florida," Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 31#4 (Autumn, 1962), pp. 460-467 in JSTOR
  • Span, Christopher M. "'I Must Learn Now or Not at All': Social and Cultural Capital in the Educational Initiatives of Formerly Enslaved African Americans in Mississippi, 1862-1869," The Journal of African American History, 2002 pp 196–222
  • Tyack, David, and Robert Lowe. "The Constitutional Moment: Reconstruction and Black Education in the South," American Journal of Education, Vol. 94#2 (Feb., 1986), pp. 236-256 in JSTOR
  • Williams, Heather Andrea; "'Clothing Themselves in Intelligence': The Freedpeople, Schooling, and Northern Teachers, 1861-1871" The Journal of African American History 2002. pp 372+.
  • Williams, Heather Andrea. Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (2006) online edition

Specialized studies[]

  • Bethel, Elizabeth . "The Freedmen's Bureau in Alabama," Journal of Southern History Vol. 14, No. 1, (Feb., 1948) pp. 49–92 in JSTOR
  • Bickers, John M. "The Power to Do What Manifestly Must Be Done: Congress, the Freedmen's Bureau, and Constitutional Imagination" Roger Williams University Law Review, Vol. 12, No. 70, 2006 online at SSRN
  • Cimbala, Paul A. "On the Front Line of Freedom: Freedmen's Bureau Officers and Agents in Reconstruction Georgia, 1865-1868". Georgia Historical Quarterly 1992 76(3): 577-611. Issn: 0016-8297.
  • Cimbala, Paul A. Under the Guardianship of the Nation: the Freedmen's Bureau and the Reconstruction of Georgia, 1865-1870 (1997).
  • Click, Patricia C. Time Full of Trial: The Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony, 1862-1867 (2001)
  • Crouch, Barry. The Freedmen's Bureau and Black Texans (1992)
  • Crouch; Barry A. "The 'Chords of Love': Legalizing Black Marital and Family Rights in Postwar Texas" The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 79, 1994
  • Durrill, Wayne K. "Political Legitimacy and Local Courts: 'Politicks at Such a Rage' in a Southern Community during Reconstruction" in Journal of Southern History, Vol. 70 #3, 2004 pp 577–617
  • Farmer-Kaiser, Mary. "’Are They Not in Some Sorts Vagrants?’ Gender and the Efforts of the Freedmen's Bureau to Combat Vagrancy in the Reconstruction South” Georgia Historical Quarterly 2004 88(1): 25-49. Issn: 0016-8297
  • Finley, Randy. From Slavery to Future: the Freedmen's Bureau in Arkansas, 1865-1869 (1996).
  • Lieberman, Robert C. "The Freedmen's Bureau and the Politics of Institutional Structure" Social Science History 1994 18(3): 405-437. Issn: 0145-5532
  • Lowe, Richard. "The Freedman's Bureau and Local Black Leadership" Journal of American History 1993 80(3): 989-998. in JSTOR
  • Morrow Ralph Ernst. Northern Methodism and reconstruction (1956)
  • May J. Thomas. "Continuity and Change in the Labor Program of the Union Army and the Freedmen's Bureau". Civil War History 17 (September 1971): 245-54.
  • Oubre, Claude F. Forty Acres and a Mule. (1978).
  • Pearson, Reggie L. "'There Are Many Sick, Feeble, and Suffering Freedmen': the Freedmen's Bureau's Health-care Activities During Reconstruction in North Carolina, 1865-1868" North Carolina Historical Review 2002 79(2): 141-181. Issn: 0029-2494 .
  • Richter, William L. Overreached on All Sides: The Freedmen's Bureau Administrators in Texas, 1865-1868 (1991).
  • Rodrigue, John C. "Labor Militancy and Black Grassroots Political Mobilization in the Louisiana Sugar Region, 1865-1868" in Journal of Southern History, Vol. 67 #1, 2001 pp 115–45
  • Schwalm, Leslie A. "'Sweet Dreams of Freedom': Freedwomen's Reconstruction of Life and Labor in Lowcountry South Carolina Journal of Women's History, Vol. 9 #1, 1997 pp 9–32
  • Smith, Solomon K. "The Freedmen's Bureau in Shreveport: the Struggle for Control of the Red River District" Louisiana History 2000 41(4): 435-465. Issn: 0024-6816
  • Williamson, Joel. After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina during Reconstruction, 1861-1877 (1965).
  • Freedmen's Bureau in Texas

Primary sources[]

See also[]

  • Race and health
  • Freedmen's Savings Bank
  • Forty acres and a mule


  1. Cimbala 1992
  2. 2.0 2.1 Goldhaber 1992
  3. Pearson 2002
  4. Farmer-Kaiser, 2004
  5. Crouch 1997
  6. West, Earle H. (1982). "Book review of Freedmen's Schools and Textbooks". Retrieved February 13, 2010. 
  7. McPherson, p. 450
  8. Morris, 1981, p. 160.
  9. Howard, 1907
  10. Data from United Negro College Fund.
  11. Harrison, Robert. ""Welfare and Employment Policies of the Freedmen's Bureau in the District of Columbia"". Journal of Southern History (1 Feb 2006). Retrieved 25 January 2009. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 "The Church in the Southern Black Community". Documenting the South. University of North Carolina, 2004. Retrieved 15 January 2009. 
  13. Morrow 1954
  14. Foner 1988
  15. Smith 2000
  16. Howard, 1907, 447.

External links[]

fr:Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands