Freedmen's Bureau

     Can you imagine being a slave during the 1800's?  Forced to work on plantations and obey every word that their "master" spoke, slaves had extremely difficult lives.  Due to the fact that slaves were sold and traded, like property, husbands and wives would get separated because one was going to one family while the other was going to the another family.  Slaves finally found hope when the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865, abolishing slavery everywhere throughout the nation.  When freed, former slaves found difficulty finding jobs to earn money, due to lack of education they had gotten from being enslaved.  Luckily, for them, the Freedmen's Bureau was established to help aid them and poor white southerners in their time of need.
     Houston Holloway recalled what he felt like when he was freed, "I felt like a bird out of a cage.  Amen.  Amen.  I could hardly ask to feel any better than I did that day."  But, little did he know what was ahead of him.  He probably faced many of the problems other freed slaves did: finding a job, a place to live, and land.  Finally, seeing all of the troubles freed slaves and white southerners were having, the Freedmen's Bureau was organized.  It was the first welfare agency organized to give food and medical care to these people living in the South.  Also known as the United States Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, it was headed by Major General Oliver O. Howard.  Howard had many ideas for this agency and it turned out to be one of the most powerful instruments of Reconstruction. 
     The Freedmen's Bureau consisted mainly of five different ways they helped aid the Blacks and Whites:
  • relief work for them in war stricken areas
  • regulation of black labor
  • justice brought in cases
  • ownership of property
  • education

Oliver O. Howard

     Freed slaves looked forward to learning after being freed.  Unlike the Whites, the former slaves weren't able to learn.  So, the Bureau, knowing that the Blacks "had the natural thirst for knowledge," as J. W. Alvord, an inspector for the Bureau, put it, helped establish nearly 3,000 school. To do this, the Bureau spent 5 million dollars and by 1865, more than 90,000 former slaves were enrolled as students in public schools.  Attendance rates at the new schools were between 79 and 82%, unlike the White schools that had an attendance rate of 43%.  So, the schools were overwhelmed by the Black's attendances.  As Booker T. Washington said, it was "a whole race trying to go to school at one time."  One person attending a Black school during this time was a 105 year old man, named Cupid, who "feared he was almost too old to learn," but nothing stopped Blacks from gaining an education that they had never been able to get before.  In total, the Bureau spent $400,000 to establish teacher training institutions for these schools.  The Bureau even helped found or aid all major Back colleges at the time.  Education for Blacks was one of the most successful accomplishments the Freedmen's Bureau did.

                    This was one of the schools helped by the Freedmen's Bureau.

     Land was another thing that former slaves had a craving for.  Blacks had trouble getting land because they had no money, in which to buy it.  These freedmen wanted the land, so they could farm it.  Congressman Thaddeus Steven suggested dividing the South's plantations and giving each freedmen "forty acres and a mule," but that didn't work out.  But, Thaddeus still argued "We have turned...loose 4 million slaves without a...cent in their pockets...This Congress is bound to provide for them until they can take care of themselves."  Congress still refused, so the Freedmen's Bureau stepped in.  Howard, the leader of the Bureau, created a trust fund of $52,000, in which to be used by the Bureau to purchase land and then resell to Blacks at a more reasonable price.   Also, Bureau agents advised the Blacks to invest their own money to lease farms to freedmen and suggested subdividing farms and building homes for freedmen, who were willing to work for wages.  The Bureau did all they could to help the Blacks' land situation.
     Reuniting with loved ones was a big issue for some freedmen.  So, the Freedmen's Bureau did the best they could to help Blacks with this situation.  Courts were established by the Bureau, helping situations such as finding loved ones, divorcing, criminal acts, and many other things.  Sometimes the Bureau would provide transportation to help with reuniting families.  When freedmen and women faced abandonment or divorce, they would go to the Bureau for help, but due to lack of organization, they had very little success.  They found the same unsuccessfulness in their courts when both Blacks and Whites complained of violent attacks, mistreatment, and other criminal acts. This was because the cases were usually never addressed by local authorities.  The Bureau had little power in the courts, but they tried their best. 
     Other little tasks that the Freedmen's Bureau took on had to do with churches and medical care.  The Bureau's role in making sure churches were built  was a cause from Whites not letting freedmen become a part of their churches.  The Bureau succeeded in providing over one million people medical care.  They built hospitals , in which to provide this medical care in.  The Bureau also gave a total of 15 million rations of food to Blacks, and a total of 21 million rations to both Black and Whites added together.  The Bureau, in order to do this, also set up a system where planters could borrow rations, from them, in order to feed freedmen they employed.
     As many organizations do, the Freedmen's Bureau faced many problems during their time.  The first problem was dealing with extending its life.  Andrew Johnson, the President at the time, viewed the legislation allowing the Freedmen's Bureau to arise, as an unwarranted and unconstitutional continuation of war powers in this "peace time," after the Civil War.  So, Andrew vetoed the bill on February 19, 1866, which would have extended its life.  But fortunately, the bill was passed over Johnson's veto on July 16, 1866, in a slightly different form.  The next problem it faced was administrators lowering its legal agencies, its contract supervision, its medical network, and its relief activity.  Then by 1869, Congress ended all of the Bureau's work except education, which continued in 1870, and help for Black veterans, which Congress ended by 1872.  So, the Blacks were on their own.

A political cartoon of Andrew vetoing the bill.


     Four million freedmen were aided by the Freedmen's Bureau.  Even though it faced problems such as  inadequate funding, it helped many distressed refugees, including former slaves and poor White Southerners.  Even after doing all of this, the Freedmen's Bureau never was able to achieve its full potential.  The Freedmen's Bureau was only in operation from June 1865, through December 1868, and totally stopped in 1872, but it helped so many people in their struggling time of need.
 Bibliography, "Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands"<> 5/7/05
The African American Registry, "The Freedman's Bureau helped newly freed slaves", <>5/5/05
Viola, Dr.Herman J ."Why We Remember" Illinois: Scott Foresman,1998,   p.185-187, 5/5/05
America's Story from America's Library, "Howard University Was Founded November 20,1866", <> 5/9/05
Freedman's Bureau Online, "Freedman's Bureau"<>5/9/05
Picture History, "President Andrew Johnson Vetoes the Freedman's Bureau Bill"<>5/9/05
Rhiannon Flinn

8th American History

2005 Project