Freedmen’s Bureau Essay

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During the short-lived Reconstruction period after the Civil War, the task of rebuilding the economic and social infrastructure of the South was assigned to the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. Its official responsibility was to assist former slaves, provide relief to war refugees, and dispose of confiscated Confederate property. Education, however, became an important and perhaps the most successful part of its agenda, as it built thousands of schools including several important historically Black colleges. This entry reviews the historical context of the Freedmen’s Bureau, its larger role, and its contributions to education.

After The Civil War

The destruction of crops, farmlands, and infrastructure throughout the South displaced thousands of workers of all races. The war had removed primary wage earners from many homes, increasing the ranks of the poor. Literally thousands of people both Black and White found themselves landless, jobless, and homeless. Whites and Blacks experienced nearly a complete breakdown of everyday life. In the face of mounting need, it became increasingly clear that local resources would not be sufficient to meet the needs of the South. The sources of relief for African Americans were almost nonexistent. Most private aid societies in the South either had little interest in providing assistance to Black persons or simply were unable to do so because resources were so scarce. As the size and intensity of the relief crisis grew, new private aid societies in the North demanded that the federal government create a formal support system for the former slaves. Among the aid societies were the American Missionary Association, the National Freedmen’s Relief Association, the American Freedmen’s Union, and the Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission, which sent clothes, money, school books, and teachers. These groups, however, soon concluded that their meager resources were no match for the enormity of the problem. Rather, a government office seemed necessary to ensure that freedom actually changed the lives of African Americans.

Creation Of The Bureau

On March 3, 1865, a bill to create the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was established and signed into law on the same day by President Abraham Lincoln. The most noteworthy characteristic of the Freedmen’s Bureau bill was negative: its funding. The Bureau was established as a temporary federal division of the War Department and slated to operate for only one year after the Civil War. The U.S. Congress appropriated no funds to support the Bureau’s work, and during its first year of operation, it depended upon donations from benevolent societies and rents collected from tenants working abandoned lands. Once President Andrew Johnson, a White supremacist, restored lands to former land owners, rents declined significantly. Despite these limitations, the Bureau undertook the monumental task of providing welfare services to freed persons and White refugees. It provided food, clothing, and fuel to the destitute, aged, ill, and insane among both White refugees and freedmen; established schools for freedmen; supplied medical services; implemented a workable system of free labor in the South through the supervision of contracts between the freedmen and their employers; managed confiscated or abandoned lands, leasing and selling some of them to freedmen; and attempted to secure for Blacks equal justice before the law.

The Bureau also helped locate jobs, supervised labor contracts to ensure fairness, established hospitals, and worked to protect the civil liberties of Blacks in hostile towns. Each local Bureau agent was expected not only to accomplish these tasks in the post–Civil War environment but also to win the confidence of Blacks and Whites alike in an atmosphere poisoned by centuries of mutual distrust and conflicting interests.

How successful the Bureau was in accomplishing its tasks—land, labor policy, education, and relief— hinged on the ability of individual agents to make their case before Blacks and Whites and to inculcate respect for law. The Bureau lacked the institutional and financial resources to fully effect relief, recovery, and reform, and local differences in culture and conditions meant constantly having to adapt broad Bureau philosophy and interests to very particular conditions. As a result, outcomes across the South were far from uniform. What was uniform was that the Bureau agents were overworked in the field, for there were never enough agents; caseloads were staggering; agents lived and operated alone; and diminishing military support bolstered White opposition.

Educational Role

Given general supervision over the education of freed slaves after its creation in 1865 by the reconstructionist Congress, the Bureau was not given authority to fund and run schools, but it assumed the leadership for this responsibility. The funds needed for its programs were obtained by selling confiscated Confederate lands. The Bureau initiated 4,239 schools, hired 9,307 teachers, and provided instruction for almost one quarter of a million children. The Bureau advocated normal schools to train Black teachers to educate former slaves in elementary schools as early as 1866.

The philosophy of the Bureau stressed the values of obedience to the law, respect for property rights, racial harmony, patience, and moderation. The Bureau also protected Black schools and their personnel from White violence and intimidation. It encouraged the establishment of teacher-training institutions to train Black teachers, and by 1869, a majority of teachers in the Bureau’s schools were Black.

The Bureau clearly achieved its greatest success in education. It established or supervised all kinds of schools: day, night, Sunday, and industrial as well as colleges. Many of the nation’s best known Black colleges and universities were founded with aid from the Bureau: Howard University, Hampton Institute, St. Augustine’s College, Atlanta University, Fisk University, and Biddle Memorial Institute (now Johnson C. Smith University). When the Bureau’s education work stopped in 1879, there were 247, 222 students in 4,239 schools.

These statistics in some ways overestimate the Bureau’s success in education. In fact, most schools were in or near towns while many Blacks lived in rural areas; most Black children did not attend school and those who did attended for only a few months; every school was segregated by race, for Whites refused to attend freedmen’s schools and the Bureau did not require racial desegregation; and the Bureau could not take credit for the many schools staffed by Blacks and Southern Whites.

Clearly, Black education in the post emancipation South was a joint venture combining the efforts and philosophy of the Bureau, benevolent associations, and Black themselves. Yet to discount the Bureau’s achievements is to miss the dynamic of the Bureau’s role in Reconstruction. Without the Bureau’s resources and resolve, the freed people’s education and social opportunity would have been even more sporadic and limited than it was. The Bureau laid a foundation and set a course of social action for others to follow.


  1. Kujovich, G. (1992). Equal opportunity in higher education and the Black public college: The era of separate but equal. In Race, law, and American history, 1700–1990: The African American experience. New York: Garland.
  2. Marcus, L. R., & Stickney, B. D. (1981). Race and education: The unending controversy. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.
  3. Nieman, D. G. (1994). The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black freedom. New York: Garland.
  4. Weinberg, M. (1983). The search for quality integrated education: Policy and research on minority students in school and college. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

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