A History of the Freedman's Bureau

Updated on May 25, 2019
ziyena profile image

An Arts, Literature and History Buff, Humanities Major, Published Indie Writer, Avid Photographer, and World Foodie & Travel Enthusiast

Before the end of the Civil War, in March of 1865, the U.S. Government started a temporary agency to assist the four million emancipated slaves in the South, helping them transition from a state of slavery to freedmen and women.

The Freedman’s Bureau followed five significant areas of concentration:

  1. Relief for both blacks and whites in war-torn and decimated areas
  2. Regulating black labor under the newly found conditions
  3. Enacting and administering justice for the black man
  4. Refurbishment and management of abandoned or confiscated properties
  5. Founding and building education for blacks

In alignment with its governing foundation, the agency, called the “Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands,” transported rail cars loaded with food and clothing to distribute to millions of freed slave and dislocated white refugees.

The operation also built several hospitals throughout the south, giving much needed medical aid. To its great success, over 1,0000 schools were built and staffed with educators who taught the freedmen. Since its conception, many of the present day African American colleges throughout the United States founded with the help of the agency.

Office of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Memphis, Tennessee. (1866) Harper’s weekly : a journal of civilization. circa 1857-1916)
Office of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Memphis, Tennessee. (1866) Harper’s weekly : a journal of civilization. circa 1857-1916) | Source

Meaningful Assistance

Aside from welfare-like assistance, the Freedman’s Bureau also helped freed slaves to find employment, leveraged labor contracts, helped African American soldiers and sailors and their family regain back pay, bounty payments, and pensions due them, offered public lands under the Homestead Act of 1862, and handled claims of maltreatment against its participants. For the freed slaves in the south, the bureau was the only trusted protection against hostile antagonists who viewed the agency as a blight to southern society. Everywhere there were arsonist attacks, burning down agency schools and hospitals. It is unfortunate, but this type of illegal terrorist activity led to the beginnings of the Ku Klux Klan.

The rights of the freedman, which are not yet secured to him, are the direct reverse of the wrongs committed against him. I never could conceive how a man could become a better laborer by being made to carry an over heavy and wearisome burden which in no way facilitates his work. I never could detect the shadow of a reason why the color of the skin should impair the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

— General Oliver O. Howard

Head of the Bureau

Major General Oliver Howard became the first head of the Freedman’s Bureau. Known as the “Christian” general because many believed that he tried to base his decisions on his religious beliefs. His attempt to protect the freed slaves from hostile retaliation bordered on a futile lack of power. Howard often fought with President Andrew Johnson, who opposed to the Freedman’s Bureau and tried very hard to return political power to Southern whites. Most notably, General Howard is also recognized for help founding Howard University, which was enacted by Congress in 1867. Often remembered for his act of bravery at the Battle of Fair Oaks in 1862, where he had his right arm shattered by a mini ball, and his arm amputated.

General Oliver O. Howard Between 1855 and1865
General Oliver O. Howard Between 1855 and1865 | Source

The Pawn of Corruption

Though the Freedman’s Bureau was a meaningful entity established to help emancipated slaves integrate into free society, the agency struggled with many back-lashes and floundered with corruption. With its lack of efficiency and mishandling of appropriated funds, the agency fell back on its heels due to the misguidance by Radical Republican officials whose sole purpose was to control the occupied southern states. Besides these contributing factors, it was General Howard himself who unwittingly mismanaged his own efforts to integrate the freed slaves. Although his intentions seemed pure in that he truly believed in humanitarian assistance, in fact, he had a few issues pitted against him, which left him lacking in his endeavor.

•His inability to accept views of racism attracted tenacious enemies

•A contentious relationship with President Andrew Jackson

•Alienation from the political mainstream

•Mismanagement of funding

•Idle management style Critics of Howard slapped him with cynicism, maintaining that the General had little experience in managing to book-keep and overall, spent too much time touring the battered south except inspecting bureau offices, and official policy rather than repairing broken systems.

Unfortunately, save for the educational assistance program, the Freedman’s Bureau was decommissioned July 1st, 1869, and then a few years later, entirely discontinued by Congress in 1872

Man (Most likely depicted as General Howard) representing the Freedman’s Bureau
Man (Most likely depicted as General Howard) representing the Freedman’s Bureau | Source

Enemy of the State

Aside from corruption within the Republican stronghold, there was an even more pressing problem at hand, opposition to the Freedmen’s Bureau, and it resided within the Democratic party.

The anti-Freedmen’s Bureau movement of the Democratic party used necessary means to get out their message, and that included the use of political posters, spouting racist rhetoric against the Radical Republicans who on the whole supported Lincoln’s effort in emancipating the black slave as portrayed in the illustration above, which visually exposes racism in its entirety. The illustrated poster mocks the figure of a black man, lying on the ground, while a white man is hard at work, plowing a field.

Of the many politicians who opposed the Freeman’s Bureau, Hiester Clymer was the most outspoken and used this very poster to spread his propaganda during his 1866 run for Governor of Pennsylvania while leaning on a white supremacist platform. Clymer was unsuccessful in his efforts to win the election. Most who oppose racism would support that his loss was rightfully so.

One in a series of racist posters used by the Democratic party, attacking Radical Republicans on the issue of black suffrage, issued during the Pennsylvania gubernatorial election of 1866.
One in a series of racist posters used by the Democratic party, attacking Radical Republicans on the issue of black suffrage, issued during the Pennsylvania gubernatorial election of 1866. | Source

A Writer’s Perspective on Racism in Our World Today

Many in today’s society feel that the Republican party is the root of all evil. Based on a capitalist system, the idea of money and power is quite intimidating, especially for those who have limited access to such ideals. White, black, red, or yellow, no matter the color of one’s skin, aside from a widely held view of taking advantage of the poor man, capitalist idealism does not discriminate against one race anymore so than another. There are those in modern society who speak afoul, preaching against the Republican party about inequality and injustice towards other cultures. Perhaps there are those within the Republican party who are indeed racist, but no more so than any other political party of today.

Given our history, as people, the record does not lie. We are not born with racist ideas. Racism is a belief within the heart and not an ideal to be presumed by the color of one’s skin. It is unfair to hold any political party hostage with racist assumptions based on a few who are ignorant in their approach. Every party is guilty of racism. As reported in this hub, not only was the Republican party corrupt in its intent, but it was the Democratic party who supported white supremacist morals, a resounding history that has been carried over among both parties even today.

Lastly, I would like to remind the reader that this hub was written to educate the public on the existence of the Freedmen’s Bureau and its effort to better the emancipated slave from the confines of poverty and obscurity. In no way do I write this article to diminish the acute suffering of mistreated people when writing on the subject of racism, but rather, help the reader rise above a bleak chapter in a nation’s history, which has soiled so many hearts and minds. In closing, I will leave a bit of reflection with great words from a man who was ahead of his time:

I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live by the light that I have. I must stand with anybody that stands right, and stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.

— Abraham Lincoln

Cited Sources & Works

© 2019 ziyena


Submit a Comment
  • vocalcoach profile image

    Audrey Hunt 

    6 months ago from Idyllwild Ca.

    Thank you for introducing me to the "Freedman's Bureau." This is new to me and I like knowing that it existed.


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