The Freedmen’s Bureau as it was commonly referred to, was established on the 3rd of March 1865 under the United States War Department as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. Its primary function was to take into account and provide practical assistance to the millions o former slaves in the south as they made their transition from bondage to ‘freedom’. The bureau was recognized by the influence of the Northerners, who had organized private organizations during the war and had also influenced the Congress after emancipation to relieve the distress of the freed people and assume the responsibility for their welfare as early as 1863.1 To simply put it, the bureau was to aid the freed people to gain land ownership, enfranchise them and help them to establish institutions that were beneficial to them.
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One of the first tasks of the Freedmen’s Bureau proved to say the least to be intimidating as it operated in regions ravaged by war and the acute competition of visions that were conflicting in the postwar southern society, one white and one black. As there seemed to be a supposed ready acceptance to the emancipation act in the south, this differed however as Southern whites feared that with this new order it would include full social and political equality for the blacks. In order to eliminate white supremacy over the blacks and protect their interests the bureau set up official offices in each southern state, even though there was a lack of adequate man power or financial resources for such an enormous undertaking. The bureau also had to work to persuade the southern states to recognize racial equality in their own judicial proceedings therefore the bureau had to monitor state and local legal affairs in the face of the Black Codes of 1865 and 1866 as the planters were being inflexible.2
Another task of the bureau that was the important and main steps that were needed to be taken was the acquisition of land for the freed people. As according to Meier and Rudwick (1966) the freed people had not placed much emphasis on their civil and political rights, as their eyes were more set on acquiring their own land to cultivate. As the freedmen’s desire Meier and Rudwick states further was for land and it mirrored the American faith in property and land ownership. The freed people before being emancipated were bound to the soil and its cultivation, hence to them freedom meant that in order for them to get ahead in the race they associated ‘freedom’ in itself the farming of their own land. Economically, to say the least freed people were put into a difficult and subsequently unique position as they were freed and found themselves in often times without work, therefore some southern planters did provide the freed people land with the consequence of working long contracts for extremely low wages.3
This influenced the Freedmen’s Bureau to answer the demands for labour by the planter class for the cultivation of land instituted a judicial system that would be fair to both parties by establishing their own authority with local agents, therefore a contract was constructed between the freed people and their employers in order to protect and allow the freed people to receive fair wages from the planters, also the setting up of temporary three-man courts in order to hear individual disputes between the white employers who were dealing for the first time with black employees.4 The content of the contract stipulated terms to which the planters had to arrange free transportation for the freed people from congested areas and provide the necessity of work in order for the freedmen to provide for their families, security and independence. These contract dealings led the bureau to aid Franklin (1967) states over 30, 000 persons to the abandoned lands in 1870, though some were returned to their previous owners under the Amnesty proclamations by Lincoln and Johnson.
Because of the atmosphere in which the Bureau worked in the South were one of hostility, and the maintenance of the agency proved to be rather expensive by the Northerners. Franklin noted duly that the Northerners argued that the Bureau’s existence was unable to be justified even in times of peace as the Southerners opposed fervently and openly of interference of the federal government with the relations between the worker and his employer. Some historians concluded that the establishing of the Bureau was a direct link to a political program for enfranchising the Blacks and, also establishing a strong Republican party in the South.
The Bureau also aided refugees and freedmen by furnishing supplies and medical services, established schools and churches. In Louisiana according to Taylor, for example, the Freedmen’s Bureau tried hard to reduce the pangs of hunger of the blacks and poor whites. He goes on to explain that the Louisiana official had no appropriation, thus it derived its income from various seized properties and also from a tax of two dollars from the planter and three dollars from the labourer. Foner (1975) also rubs two cents in to say that free blacks who were skilled found themselves restricted from the trade they learnt under enslavement and unlike that of the white craftsmen blacks were taxed to special taxation as and were shown hostility as they were prohibited from the most profitable occupations and enterprises. Between 1865 and 1869, Franklin and Taylor, both noted that the Bureau also played its role of relieving the suffering amongst the freed people, as twenty million rations were issued to which approximately a quarter of the rations went to the poor needy whites and three quarts of the rations went to the blacks. These rations consisted of one bushel of corn and eight pounds of pork per month for adults, half as much for children, there was also the occasional issues of vinegar, sugar, vegetables, and coffee. There were also restrictions for ration collection for about a week as able-bodied persons were only allowed to receive and no more.
Another challenge facing the blacks in the South was the abysmal lack of health care services. The Bureau attempted to strengthen existing medical care facilities as well as expand services into rural areas through newly established clinics. In 1867 there were 46 established hospitals by the Bureau and was staffed with physicians, surgeons, and nurses, under the medical department the Bureau spent over two million dollars to improve
However the greatest success of the Freedmen’s Bureau in assisting the freed people was in education. The bureau founded over 4000 schools, from elementary grades to college, charging no fees and at most times furnished free textbooks that came from the north through philanthropic and religious organizations. Nearly a quarter of a million freed people received varying amounts of education while white southerners opposed these activities by the bureau as they believed that blacks were unable to absorb book learning. Among the schools that had inward funding by the Bureau were Howard University, Hampton Institute, St. Augustine’s College, Atlanta University, Fisk University, Storer College, and Johnson C. Smith University.5 Between 1869 and 1870 there were a total of 9,503 teachers both whites from the north and black freed people, along with approximately 247,333 pupils in the education system. When the bureau stopped its supported in 1870, Franklin (1967) had evidence that “showed a marked increase in attendance, and advance in scholarship, and a record of punctuality and regularity which compared favourably with the schools of the north.” The black churches also aided the Freedmen’s Bureau in the education aspect of the freed people.
Despite its short existence, the bureau played a critical role in defining the meaning of freedom for some four million former slaves. Charged with exercising control of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen from the rebel states, its activities were countless. It provided issues of provisions, clothing and fuel to refugees, freedmen, and their wives and children; it assisted in reuniting black families; it supervised labour agreements between blacks and their former masters; it monitored state and local officials’ treatment of the former slaves; it established informal tribunals to settle disputes between whites and blacks and among African Americans themselves; it instituted clinics and hospitals for the former slaves; and it aided efforts to provide freed people education in the Civil War’s immediate aftermath.
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The most lasting failure of Reconstruction governments was not political but, it was social. They failed to alter the South’s social structure or its distribution of wealth and power. Government policies, rather than being too severe, were not thorough enough to win full and permanent equality for Afro-Americans. Regardless of all these dissolution of the Freedman’s Bureau, its legacy still lives on through historically black colleges and universities, from approximately 1866 until its termination in 1872, an estimated 25 institutions of higher learning for black youth were established, many of which remain in operation today.
John H. Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A history of Negro Africans. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1967), 306
A. Meier & E.M. Rudwick, From Plantation to Ghetto: An Interpretive History of American Negro.( New York: Hill and Wag Publishers, 1966), 139
Foner, Philip. History of Black Americans. (London and Westport: Greenwood Press, 1975), 513
John H. Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A history of Negro Africans. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1967), 308
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